I’m a woodcut printmaker. Even though my art is an image on paper, I’m strongly influenced by working with wood in the process. I’m not the only woodcut artist who also had (or has) a woodworking practice (twenty years of cabinetmaking in my case). I began carving wood to decorate cabinets and furniture, and drifted into printmaking when I got fascinated with medieval art and sculpture while working—in a fascinating interlude—as an archaeologist in England. My printmaking had to simmer on the proverbial back burner during years of earning a living in other ways, finally to become my full-time job, more or less, about ten years ago when I moved to Maine.
Printmaking for me is a kind of alchemy: it transmutes a visual idea through crucibles of drawing, carving, inking, and printing into a finished image that holds some surprises for its maker, and hopefully some delight for its viewer. The very indirectness of making prints invites the unexpected, in contradiction, you might think, to its technical demands, and playing with that contradiction is part of my creative process. Many of my images embody, for me, a sense of transformation, of something beyond the literal world.
I’ve always loved carving on wood, beginning with my years as a woodworker, and I still enjoy the feel of good tools working wood. The constraints imposed by carving an image in wood and then printing it impose limits on the infinite universe of creative possibilities and help focus my visual energy. It took a while to learn how to sharpen the tools properly, though I mastered most of it as a woodworker years ago; but once I did, the process of carving is much like the process of drawing, just done in wood instead of on paper. Still, there is something very special for me in working with wood and I prefer it to linoleum or other possible relief media.
People often comment on how printmakers have to “draw” backwards, but I find this a minimal distraction. What can sometimes be much more challenging for me is that in drawing on paper the marks are dark; in carving a block the “marks” (the carved areas) are white, and in detailed carving it can be confusing to keep track of which are which.
I usually print with European oil-based inks and an etching press, although I also work sometimes in the Japanese water-based hanga technique and print by hand. In making color (and occasionally black and white) prints, I sometimes use a multi-block process where each color is carved and printed on a different block, and other times I use reduction printing where I carve the block or blocks away as successive layers of color are printed.
Circles and Dark Space
I like painting on plywood, because it has a smooth, hard surface and it can be cut into any shape, and shapes affect what I paint. I especially love circles—earthy, archetypal, cellular. They inspire me to intuitively express the energy of plants, seeds, flowing water, directions, and the space between all things. Lately, I’ve been starting new paintings with black gesso, a nod to dark space, the beginning of things. Even if the blackness ends up mostly covered over, I like to begin with it.
Being Open to Cellular Messages
Circular paintings are a mystery to me; I often don’t have a fully formed idea of the subject and how it is going to emerge. It’s like going to the eye doctor when they are checking which prescription strength is the clearest (“Is it this . . . or this? And how about this . . . or this?”). But usually, the theme has to do with a healing aspect of nature: rain/nourishment, seeds/new life, hands/connection to the Earth, essential life force/subtle perception, etc. These paintings require a lot of focus and attention, so I get better results when I paint early in the morning. It’s an adventure to see how they will unfold, and what their earthy/cellular message will be. To me, these paintings feel hopeful and joyful. They are an offering of sorts.
As far as paint goes, I enjoy liquid acrylics. They apply quickly, but require patience because to get to the deeper colors, many layers are required. I also like to play with the differences between matte and shiny surfaces—flat black versus shiny bright colors; shimmering gold and copper colors; glazes and glitter. The matte versus shiny contrast adds another dimension, and is a subtle way to highlight something without being too obvious. And finally, I prefer to sign the backs of paintings, rather than the front. I like the image to be uninterrupted, which reminds me of listening to LPs from beginning to end, without any ads.
The medium I choose to work in is watercolor, but it would be more accurate to say that this medium chose me to work with it.
In the fall of 2019, in a box of free stuff left on a stoop in Fort Greene, I noticed a lightly used pad of watercolor paper. I’d never painted before, nor ever had a desire to try, and it had been years really since I’d done any drawing. But I took the pad. It had something to tell me, it seemed. And for whatever reason, I decided to listen.
On my walks around Brooklyn in the months leading up to that day, I’d started taking pictures of the creatures and animals and humans I was perceiving in the stains, splatters and cracks on the sidewalks and the sides of buildings (Please see below for the example of La Marchande d’oeufs). They were everywhere, just like they always had been; it’s just that the idea of paying attention to them had never occurred to me before. Like the pad of watercolor paper, these things had something to tell me. Again, for whatever reason, I decided to start listening.
There is a certain magic in what I do, for two reasons. First, the material objects I create are not the products of any preconceived ideas on my part, but rather what results from my willingness to listen to the things the stains and the cracks have to say. Second, watercolor is a medium that has a life of its own. Though I have learned with time and practice how to control it, I do not impose upon it too many restrictions. Like the stains and the cracks, the medium itself has something to say depending on how it decides to interact with the water. To both the inspiration and the medium, I lend the hands they need to bring surprising little moments of existence into life. In turn, they not only bring me joy and peace, but they also help me communicate this joy and peace to others.
Image at top: David Morgan carving a block.