Wood Engravers Exhibit at Stockton University

By PAT JOHNSON | Jul 05, 2017
Artwork by: Gaylord Schanilac A wood engraving from Gaylord Schanilac and John Coy’s children’s book on the St. Anthony Falls in St. Paul Minnesota, due out in 2019.

Viewing the “Wood Engravers’ Network Triennial Exhibition” at the Stockton University Art Gallery can be a book lover’s trap, the springboard to many hours spent searching the internet for articles on fine art books, letterpress and other esoteric art forms that are rooted firmly in the past. The extreme detail possible in wood engraving joined with the usual simplicity of black ink on white or cream paper and the love of books and newspapers made this digging irresistible.

If you don’t know what wood engraving is, it is different from wood block printing and not at all like the camper’s pastime, wood burning. Here’s a simple explanation from WEN: “Wood engraving is a form of relief printmaking. Cutting away areas of the block produces areas that will not print. The flat raised relief areas are inked with a brayer (rubber roller) and pressure is applied to transfer ink to paper, creating a mirror image impression of the block. An engraved wood block shows the tactile and sculptural nature of the relief carving.

“Wood engravings utilize the end grain of wood, cut from logs, in slabs, the same thickness as metal type, which is 0.918 of an inch. Endgrain is best illustrated by imagining a cut tree trunk, where the tree’s growth rings are visible. Dense, hard woods with tightly packed grain, like boxwood, are ideal for wood engraving. While boxwood is the traditional end grain used in the process, Maple, Lemonwood, Pear, Holly, Castillo, Maracaibo, and Hornbeam (iron wood) work well, too.

“The engraving process involves the use of burins, composed of a steel blade set into a mushroom-shaped handle that sits in the palm of the hand. Varied tints and effects are achieved by using a variety of tools. The white spaces are cleared with a chisel-like tool called a scorper.

“The work is slow and exacting.”

Wood engravings have a long history from the Renaissance up to such 17th-century artists as Albrecht Dürer and French satirist Honoré Daumir.

In the early 1800s when newspapers and magazines added illustrations (and advertisements) to their letterpress sheets, these were done by anonymous wood engravers. Off-set lithography, developed in 1875, would eventually end the career of newspaper wood engravers but did not erase the love of wood engraving perfected by artists.

Barry Moser is the best known of the contemporary wood engravers. His book illustrations for Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland won awards and were excerpted in book reviews and widely appreciated; he is a legend among wood engravers.

During the exhibit’s opening, Gaylord Schanilec, artist, writer, letterpress printer, designer and illustrator, gave a lecture to the artists attending the 23rd WEN convention, which served as a kickoff of the exhibition. Schanilec is widely respected as a leader among contemporary wood engravers, and his appearance and mentoring at WEN’s conference were a plum.

There is a growing art book collecting public that searches out limited-edition fine art books by Schanilec and others, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Schanilec now lives in Minnesota, but he grew up in the Red River Valley in North Dakota, a place that was “totally flat,” covered in wheat fields and isolated.

“My first hint that there was something going on in the world was a record,” he said while showing a slide of The Beatles’ first album. While at university, he became aware of North Dakota’s most famous poet, Thomas McGrath, and a line from one of his poems: “From here it’s necessary to ship all bodies East,” impeded his own migration as far as Minnesota. He also became a poet and established his own small letterpress publishing company, Midnight Paper Sales Press, which published poetry, including his own.

A grant from the Mid Western Poetry Society sent him to the Gregynog Estate in Wales, home of the Gregynog Press. This was a northern bastion of the Arts and Crafts movement started earlier by William Morris in England.

Here Schanilec admired original engraved wood blocks by Rudolph Ruzicka, a Czechoslovakian artist who made the original wood engravings to accompany William James’ essay “New York Revisited,” first published in Harper’s Weekly Magazine and later published by the Grolier Club in 1915. Later, Schanilac was to illustrate an updated version by Kenneth Auchincloss, published by the club.

For his Midnight Sales Press, Schanilac illustrated Mayflies of the Driftless Region by Dr. Clarke Garry, a book ostensibly on fly tying, but more about book arts. “I had become fascinated by scientific illustration and so I bought a stereo zoom magnifier to study mayflies.” The book took two years to complete and had 14 color wood engravings by the artist. It won the 2005 Judges Choice Award in the Oxford Fine Press Bookfair.

His next project was to print the end grains and long grains of the 25 species of trees found on the 20 acres around his press for a book, Sylvae. It contained historical notes on the species and also small blocks of the woods. This was purely a collector’s item.

His next book, Lac Des Pleurs, Report from Lake Pepin, was to focus on a long stretch of the Mississippi River.

He purchased a boat and equipped it with a desk and library and drawing tools. “I had never been out on a boat before,” he admitted.

The book, published in 2015, took seven years to complete and includes eight multi-color wood engravings of pelicans, fish, fresh water mussels and a detailed map of the lake. An additional 31 zinc engravings illustrate texts by the first European explorer, Louis Hennepin, plus Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and others.

“After spending seven years on this project I decided I had said all I had to say about that place and rural life in general and it was time to move on. So I was standing on a precipice.”

Schanilec was contacted by the Minnesota Historical Society to illustrate a children’s book by John Coy about the Mississippi River’s St. Anthony Falls. He moved to a warehouse apartment in downtown Minneapolis at a bend in the Mississippi River. The book is the story, told in verse, of how the river carved the falls out of limestone and moved it 10 miles over 12,000 years. Schanilac used pieces of driftwood and slices of fossil limestone to make some of the impressions that serve as the river, clouds and earth in the background of the wood engravings. “Wood grain flows around a knot like water flows around a rock. I got to think outside the box for the children’s book,” he said.

The book is not finished yet, and Schanilac plans on setting the type. “For me I have to make books. I have to move the text into the book itself. We’re going to have a lot of typographical fun,” he said.  

The WEN Triennial exhibit is located in L-Wing on Stockton University’s Galloway campus. It features 64 engravings by 37 artists from the United States, Canada, Ireland and Belgium as well as prints by the late artist Stephan Martin, produced in collaboration with the late Ben Shahn.

The show is on exhibit through Aug. 8. Admission is free and open to the public.



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