Relief printing, when designs are carved into woodblocks and ink is applied before being pressed onto a new surface, is the oldest form of printmaking, dating back nearly 2,000 years. Three current masters of the craft will display their work at Carroll Community College as part of the school's Women of Woodcut exhibit.
The exhibit, opening Thursday in the Scott Center Gallery, features work by Meaghan Busch, Jun Lee and gallery coordinator Jessi Hardesty, with each creator bringing their own distinct styles and interests to the final work. Hardesty said it was important in designing the show to emphasize the diversity in approach to the art form.
"When we do group shows, it's usually united by a single theme or an idea behind the show," Hardesty said. "This time, I wanted to do something different and unite it by process instead of subject matter."
Lee's work is the most intricate of the three, with detailed carefully drawn markings coming together to create a meticulous tableau often featuring animal and folkloric imagery and exploring ideas of competition and survival.
Where Lee takes the cutting process deliberately, Busch's cuts and lines are active and loose, creating a playful and more iconic look for her pieces relating to fairy tales and dreams.
Hardesty said her work bridges the gap between the techniques of the other two artists, with a passion for gestural carving, similar to the way she draws on paper. Her pieces often feature moody looks at Halloween or other spooky iconography, from Jack O'Lanterns to bats.
"Despite the differences on the surface, there is one unifying factor and that's the thematic material we're working with," Hardesty said. "These pieces have similar underlying qualities like being about imagery, being about something rooted in our childhood that we fixated on as adults."
The woodcut process begins as any other artistic endeavor, with a single image. That image is either carved directly into the woodblock or transferred from paper onto the wood, with the artist carving away the negative parts of the image.
"You kind of have to force your brain to work backwards," Hardesty said. "You have this nice drawing, but then you have to cut away everything but those marks."
Hardesty said artists generally use hard woods like cherry or soft like birch, with birch plywood being the most popular medium of choice. Non-wood relief carving methods include using objects like linoleum or rubber. They then cut away using any number of sharp instruments from knives to gouges to power tools and box cutters.
Another challenge of designing the image onto the woodblock, is creating a mirror image of what will eventually be displayed in the final piece, meaning all text must be reversed and the general layout has to work well flowing the opposite direction as originally carved.
"It's shocking how different something looks like when you're done," Hardesty said. "It's like if you're used to seeing yourself in a selfie camera, and then you see a picture someone else took and you go, 'Oh god, what's wrong with my face?"
The artist then carefully applies ink to the woodblock using a specialized rubber roller, careful not to get any in the cracks or negative spaces of the block. It ends by placing the paper on top and carefully applying pressure which triggers a transfer of the ink to the paper. Hardesty said her favorite part of the process is the final moment, peeling the paper away from the block to see the final form the work has taken.
"There's a nice mediation associated with having a process," Hardesty said. "You fall into a rhythm and you know each step and really revel in getting good at each part and playing around and getting better."
Hardesty said it was exciting to set up the exhibition, highlighting three women artists who work in what had traditionally been seen as a male-dominated field. She said printmaking is currently experiencing a boom in popularity among artists, which has triggered an increase in the inclusivity of the field.
"I'm always excited when I can bring artists from D.C. or Baltimore or Philly here," Hardesty said. "I know most people aren't going to drive to D.C. or Baltimore or Philly, but if I can show them the kind of work that people there are doing, maybe they'll be inclined to see their work in the future."