Since childhood Ann Conner—Professor Emerita in the Department of Art and Art History at UNCW—has been drawn to the pen and paper. In fact, she remembers drawing spiral images with fountain pens on hotel stationary in Montreal when she was a mere 5. When looking at her current work hanging in New Elements Gallery, as part of the collection “Vibrant Lives,” the same curvacious shapes finely crisscross into a pattern of tightly wound lines across spacious wooden blocks in the Post Oak series. The swirling magnetic prints pop from the endless space of the wood. Conner marries her love for drawing and woodcuts by utilizing nonendangered canvas from a variety of trees: oak, burch, mahogany, and cherry.
“The largest blocks—oak 46 x 34 inches—are special order from a mill company in 4 x 8’ sheets, and then cut to size,” Conner details. “Jim Cooper, specialty woodworker in New York, prepares my smaller hardwood blocks in 12-inch square, 13-inch square, or similar. Jim knows how to plane the wood surface to maximize the appearance of wood grain.”
A native Wilmingtonian, Conner got her BFA in art from Winston Salem’s Salem College and went on to receive her MFA at UNC-Chapel Hill. To date, she has had more than three dozen art shows worldwide, and travels frequently to New York, San Francisco, DC, and Chicago. She exhibits her work and helps promote galleries and curators who have helped her along her own career path.
“Collaborating allows me to do projects physically impossible to do alone,” Conner tells. “I decided very early that if I lived in Wilmington it was critical to travel with my artwork.”
We spoke with Conner at length about her show, “Vibrant Lives,” which remains on display with Warren Dennis’ paintings through July 16, at New Elements Gallery.
encore (e): Tell me how you got into woodcuts as an art form. What most fascinates you about the medium?
Ann Conner (AC): I began creating woodcuts in grad school at UNC and learned the process from Marvin Saltzman, who taught me how to carve and print large woodblocks. I love the challenge of making anything that competes with or complements the wood grain. The hardness of the natural flat wood or mechanically clean surface of linoleum appeals to me.
e: Does the wood grain inspire your design or color choices?
AC: Yes—after I design the images to be carved I match each image to the wood grain that works with that image. Color choices are governed by wood grain as well. Certain colors just look better than others of specific wood-grain patterns. That’s why the proofing of images is integral to the process. Different color inks must be tried on each block to see which color works best.
e: Can you take me through the process, from start to finish, of one of your pieces in New Elements’ “Vibrant Lives” show?
AC: First, I do preliminary images in pencil outline on newsprint paper to decide on spacing and which images to draw. I use a variety of templates, such as cookie cutters, craft objects, architectural tools, French curve compass, etc. Next, I do a Rapidograph ink drawings in black on white drawing paper the same exact size as the intended woodcut. These I photograph, and in Photoshop reverse black and white portions of images and fill with samples of Pantone hues.
Then comes the actual carving: I use a Japanese power chisel that cuts in a straight line as opposed to the rotary cutter of a Dremel tool. It takes a very long time—carving is slow and tedious. Sometimes I work with a laser cutter in New York to laser engrave blocks. Beechwood woodcuts in the exhibit were done this way. I collaborate with Leslie Miller, Grenfell Press, New York, NY, who transfers the drawings to a disc for the engraver to use.
Once the blocks are carved, I travel to New York to color proof the smaller blocks with Miller, or to Austin to collaborate with Flatbed Press—printer and publisher of my large blocks. Of course, the blocks must be shipped to New York or Austin. Once proofing (trial-and-error testing of various colors on each blocks) then printers ink the blocks by hand and print on a printing press. It takes at least three people to ink and print one of the large blocks onto paper. After all editions are complete, I go back to the press to sign editions. Then the press ships me the completed editions.
e: In looking through your art on New Elements’ website, Timber 1 and 2 are very geometric yet seemingly abstract in their conglomeration of small shapes to make larger composition. Yet, others feel decorative (Rosewood 4 and 5), almost like doilies, and others (Post Oak 3 and 4) almost look like 3D printed medical X-rays. Can you tell me where your headspace was in approaching these designs so differently?
AC: Well, there is a progression in my work. Timber woodcuts, earlier, were drawn with architectural templates; Rosewood done from craft templates; Post Oak are drawn with a spirograph tool. I simply use whatever shapes, templates, compass–drawn lines, or spirograph-generated designs appeal to me at the time. Recent woodcuts employ bright or fluorescent colors that better match the chosen shapes.
e: How are you inspired as a woodcut artist and what other woodcut artists inspire you?
AC: 3D objects inspire me. Woodcut artists whose work I admire are also sculptors and work with by physical shapes—Joel Shapiro and Donald Judd, for instance. I am not inspired by painterly prints.
e: Are you exploring other mediums currently—or have you in the past? How has it strengthened your work?
AC: I work only in woodcut and drawing. The way I work, drawing and woodcut feed off of each other. Working in other mediums does not appeal to me. I have used other mediums in the past, but it did not strengthen my work.