Wild animals come to life in local artist Andrea Rich’s Japanese woodcuts
It all began with a blurry picture. When Andrea Rich was taking art classes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 1970s, one of her professors projected an unfocused slide of a Japanese woodcut print onto a screen. The only objects she could make out were fuzzy shapes and patterns. As her professor slowly brought the lens into focus and explained how the composition was intended to lead the viewer’s eyes around the design, the image sharpened into a picture of a geisha peering through a veil.
“That hooked me,” says Rich, who admits that she was unmoved by the pop-art culture that surrounded her in art school.
“There was actually a composition there,” she says of that first woodcut. “[The artists] had planned it. It wasn’t something that was haphazardly done. … I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject matter, but the process was the first thing I could really sink into.”
The art of woodcut printing—or Ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world”—became popular in 17th-century Japan as the first art form that could be mass-produced, and thus affordable to the common people. Entire families of Japanese woodblock artists would often work together to carve images of geishas and courtesans, actors and performers, wildlife and landscapes, onto a series of wooden blocks that they would then roll with ink, and print onto paper in layers. A single design could take as many as 100 blocks to produce.
While the process takes time and planning, it’s relatively simple in terms of equipment. So, as a young art school graduate with no tools and limited funds, woodblock printing was not only an art form that Rich was attracted to in terms of composition—it was also a medium that she could afford.
“All you really need is a block of wood, a knife and a wooden spoon,” Rich says, explaining how she traced reverse images of her first designs onto wooden blocks, carving away the negative space, then printing the images by hand.
More than 30 years later, her process is not that different—though she now can make use of a printing press, and often incorporates reduction printing into the process, where she uses the same block for different layers, re-carving a new surface each time. She also found a way to incorporate her passion for wildlife.
Rich’s work—which will be on display during the 2012 Open Studios Art Tour, Oct. 13-14 and Oct. 20-21 in Santa Cruz—depicts a plethora of wild critters, from local species such as long-billed curlews and black-crowned night herons, to far-flung animals ranging from the domestic moose and red-eared slider to the more exotic sunbird, lemur and tiger.
“I only do work from animals I’ve actually seen in the wild,” she says. “I go out and photograph and sketch, then go back to the studio to plan my prints.”
As a result, Rich has spent countless hours in the field in the Monterey Bay area, as well as volunteered at the local Native Animal Rescue. She has also traveled around the country and abroad searching for images.
As far as what captures her eye, the artist says, “It isn’t any one thing. You’re out in the field and something grabs your attention. It could be a pattern or a color, or the actual bird or bear’s expression or pose. I do a lot of birds, but a bird on a branch is not enough—there has to be a composition.”
She explains that because the strength of woodcut printing lies in its ability to depict patterns, she’s always on the lookout for striking patterns and compositions. And since the composition is created from the animal within its environment, one of the hallmarks of her more recent work is portraying the animal in its native habitat—something that lends a holistic aspect to the artwork, as well as reflects a conservation ethic.
“I’m looking more at the landscapes [animals] inhabit,” Rich says. “Where you find them, how they fit into the environment—because that’s part of the overall pattern. You go to see a tiger in a zoo and he’s an impressive animal, but it’s not the same as a tiger in a jungle, walking through the grass.”
Andrea Rich’s artwork will be on display at 706 Western Drive, Santa Cruz, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 13-14 and Oct. 20-21, as part of the Open Studios Art Tour. For more info about Open Studios and to purchase the official guide/calendar, visit openstudiosarttour.org. For a sneak peek at her work, visit andrearich.com.
Photos: Don Rich