When it comes to decorating, we all like to bring the outdoors in.
By Allen Clark
When it comes to decorating, we all like to bring the outdoors in. We do it when we add a potted plant or palm to a room, or place vases of cut flowers or greens throughout the house. We accomplish this every time we hang a picture of an outdoors vista.
A Connecticut artist, the late Bryan Nash Gill, created a series of very large prints of cross-sections of trees andother pieces of wood that bring into homes (and offices) a highly personal connection to nature. I first discovered Gill through his stunning book, “Woodcut,” published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2012.
Gill’s large prints are unique in several ways. To start with, his woodcuts involve what he described as relief printing, a process where impressions are formed of the exposed wood grain by applying the ink directly to the object without the use of stone, metal or photographic plates or carving into a wood block.
This technique shares some of the characteristics of nature printing, especially when the natural object is inked directly (as with the fish prints you often see in art galleries.) But Gill’s work involves much more preparation and artistic judgment.
His selection of trees, both in terms of genus and condition, was at the heart of his work. Gill’s prints capture not only the textual beauty of various trees, they document each tree’s history, its years, its struggles – in short, its unique life story – in addition to different graphic appeals. Verlyn Klinkenborg, the former New York Times op-ed writer, described these cross sections as “the death mask of a plant, the sustained rigor mortis of maple, spruce, and locust.” They remind us that every biological form “possesses a unique footprint.”
Gill called the sites near his farm/studio in New Hartford “boneyards” where he collected pieces of wood that had been slated to be taken down, “salvaging wood that wouldn’t actually be burned or turned into lumber.” Growing up on a farm brought him “to an understanding of being stewards of the land and respecting what’s here that sustains us.”
His preparation of the selected wood surfaces was uniquely his. He cut blocks with a chain saw, sanded them down, re-sanded until the surfaces were absolutely even, burned them with a torch to accentuate the arboreal lines and, when he was satisfied with the appearance, sealed them with shellac.
In an article in the Litchfield County Times in April 2012 Gill said, “I take materials from the landscape, out of their original context, and restructure them, taking them apart and putting them back together, a process that helps me understand my relationship, between my studio and the outside world. When people view my work, I bring them into this dialogue, asking them to learn their landscape. My goal is to engage people in the process of looking and examining our bonds with the living world.”
Gill made single prints of each cross-cut, one at a time, actually laying a sheet of very fine, handmade paper on top of the specially-prepared and then-inked stump or end piece, rubbing with his thumb or fingers or a spoon over the entire surface, slowly creating a meticulous print of the exposed growth rings and patterns.
Each proof, technically a monoprint, has slight variations from succeeding proofs. In some cases, Gill varied the inks, in degree or color. He also experimented with cloth instead of paper, as with Leader, the oblong section of an 80-year-old ash tree shown here.
“This is what sustains me,” he said. “I try and capture the essence of the wood and bring that out in my relief prints. Wood gives me a good feeling, and I look into the layering and growth lines to find something beautiful, unique and meaningful…. My process is very organic…. Things come to me only if I am working as a printer…. I find little prizes and gifts in there.”
Gill’s prints pass this personal, perhaps metaphysical relationship with the grain on to the viewer. As you stare at the many circles, you find yourself entering into a sort of mental maze, asking some of the same questions Gill must have asked – how old was this tree, what caused the aberrations in circular patterns, what insect damage occurred, what are the coloration variations.
Of course, one can look at these prints and simply be attracted by their abstraction and geometric playfulness. To others, they are simply graphically pleasing. But what makes Gill’s work special is the personal “records of my connection,” as he expressed it.
One might ask, wasn’t he just copying? The answer, emphatically, would have to be “no.” In every step Gill exercised his creative talent and artistic eye – in the tree or board he chose, the particular crosscut he singled out, the painstaking way in which he prepared each surface, the ink used, and how he extracted the patterns, circle by circle.
A large selection of Gill’s work, including some of his wooden sculptures and oil paintings, are available for sale at the Heather Gaudio Fine Art gallery in New Canaan (http://heathergaudiofineart.com/artists/bryan-nash-gill/).