Raised in suburban Boston (Needham), Gillyin Gatto attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, after which she taught in public schools for a while. Interested in the back-to-the-land movement, she decided “to live an artist/farmer/gatherer lifestyle.” As she once wrote, “I need to be where no car goes by.” Gatto bought a cut-over twenty-acre woodlot in the Kennebec Woods of Machias in 1973, where, for the first twenty years, she lived without electricity, running water, or phone. “I happily created my art, my family, and my life.” She supplemented her homesteading endeavors by selling her woodcut prints at art shows, galleries, and country fairs. She also worked as a self-employed odd-job carpenter.
The relief printmaking medium of woodcut has lent itself well to Gatto’s lifestyle, with its “no-nonsense, all-you-need-is gouges, rollers, ink and paper format.” She is as likely to find a wood gouge (or a cat) on her kitchen table as a fork. In the early years her studio was that table. She maintains a home gallery and open studio with workshops/classes in the warm season.
Gatto answered questions via email in October.
CL: How did you become a printmaker?
GG: I have been making relief prints since I was in fourth grade when I carved “Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer” in linoleum. I carved my first woodcut in a high school art class. I did not begin to concentrate on relief printmaking until after getting an art degree, teaching art, and moving to Maine. I wanted the best medium for reaching multiple people at once. My fascination with carving has only increased. In an interesting quirk of fate, my brother-in-law left a set of German carving tools in my cabin in 1974 after deciding Maine was not for him. I picked them up and never put them down.
CL: What is your favorite tool and why?
GG: A U-gouge is the tool I prefer, only changing sizes. With a knife and a U-gouge, everything is possible. I like the shape of the white line that a very small U-gouge makes. Linoleum blocks are used interchangeably with wood but have a softer carving surface and no discernable grain. The grain in a plank can play an important creative role in the design and helps create textures.
I believe that woodcuts are the “people’s medium” and, as such, should be available at reasonable prices in galleries, shops, shows, and on the Internet, allowing regular people to become art collectors and discover the world of graphic print.
CL: Where do you get your supplies?
GG: Most of my ink and paper comes from Graphic Chemical + Ink Company in Illinois and McClain’s Printmaking Supplies in Oregon. I also get Shina Plywood and linoleum from McClain’s. I prefer the thinner papers because I am a hand printer. I do not use a press. I like to get rolls of paper so I can print blocks of any size. Almost all of the wood I carve is found or repurposed. For example, Heron-Hawk was carved on a maple table leaf.
CL: What are your favorite creatures and why?
GG: Maine’s flora and fauna continue to inspire. The raven—I had a nest I could see from my kitchen sink for many years until it was knocked down one winter. But the ravens are always near; they were in the trees just outside my back door yesterday, eating crab apples voraciously.
The eagle is always near. I am only a quarter-mile walk from Little Kennebec Bay. Since selectively logging my thirty-acre wood lot five years ago, eagles and ospreys are constantly soaring and scanning its edges, as well as carrying fresh fish home to the nests.
The bear is nearby, but they conceal themselves well. I have come face to face with a bear on a number of occasions; we both just turn and go the other way. I see blueberry-laden scat all the time. My favorites are herons, seals, whales, and puffins at the beach, the marsh, and the ocean. I have sought out and photographed them all. Bobcats like the road I built onto my land because it is the easiest way to the bay. They have run up and down it for years. My favorite animals are probably the ones I see the most and are just little guys, like chickadees and wrens, robins, and blue jays. Woodpeckers from downy to pileated are out here to see and hear on every morning walk.
CL: Do you have cats and dogs in your studio?
GG: Cats, especially, are very often in the studio. I like to have one sleeping nearby when I am working. (See photo of “Mainiac,” a favorite black-and-white coon cat in the pics of me printing on the “how I work” page of my website.) I believe cats “dream” for me and help me realize my vision. Cats can meld their consciousness together with those that they are close to. Dogs are more “downtime” companions, providing needed outlets for outdoor exercise and comic relief. Both cats and dogs are oft-recurring subjects in my work.
CL: What time do you work?
GG: There are so many different types of work associated with printmaking: the conceptualizing and laying out, the actual carving, and the actual printing. For printing, I work from 1 pm. onward, since that is when the light is best in my home studio, on the third floor of my house. For each of the others, the time is not a factor, though 1–5 pm is generally my studio time. I am not one to stick to a strict routine. Being a homesteader, I often work around the weather. If it rains = studio, if it shines = outdoor work.
CL: What is the art scene down east like?
GG: The down east “art scene” is very informal and ever-evolving. Small galleries and the University of Maine at Machias are the focal points, while Eastport has probably the largest convergence of artists, galleries, and arts organizations. Jonesport, Milbridge, Winter Harbor, and Lubec also support galleries. We are “outsider” artists, and most of us like it that way. Home “studio/galleries” abound.
CL: Where do you draw inspiration?
GG: I look inside myself and out my window for inspiration around subject matter. When I want to look at many woodcuts to check out carving techniques, I look to my international woodcut group, the Baren Printmakers, baronforum.org, where, by going to the “exchange gallery,” I can view hundreds of works, including my own, on various themes. When I was learning how to carve, or I should say teaching myself how to carve, I looked at the German Expressionists, Käthe Kollwitz, Carroll Thayer Berry, and Mary Azarian, among others.
CL: For whom are you creating your art?
GG: I carve because I love it. I create art for myself and endeavor to affect the world positively, environmentally, and spiritually. I am creating prints for whomever they speak to, for whoever feels a connection when they see it.
CL: Can art play a role in protecting/saving the planet?
GG: Most definitely, art can play a role in the quest to make our world better in every way. I think because visual art reaches people on an intuitive level, it can do wonders without the viewer even knowing how it is affecting them, subtly provoking a change in attitude.
CL: What are you working on now? What are your goals?
GG: I am mostly creating monumental woodcut collages. For these, I deconstruct, then reconstruct, my own woodcuts into fantastical new designs on a monumental scale. The most recent shows of these collages, and the prints they came from, have been at Hammond Hall in Winter Harbor and Mulholland Gallery, Lubec. I am also working on smaller “white line” woodcuts. My present goal is to organize 50 years of my woodcuts into a book or books.
Gillyin Gatto is exclusively represented by the Woodwind Gallery in Machias. Her prints may also be viewed on her website and discussed via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her woodcuts are in the collections and archives of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; University of Kentucky Museum of Art; Pacific Northwest College of Art; John Marin Collection, University of Maine at Machias; and the Davistown Museum.
Image at top: Gillyin Gatto, The Bookbinder, woodcut print. “The Bookbinder is a portrait of my former partner, the late Pamela Cole, who was, among other things, a bookbinder.”