OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Christopher Hartshorne

Billboard I, 2016. Multiple woodblock print. 48" x 24"

CHRISTOPHER HARTSHORNE uses and reuses his expansive library of hand-cut woodblocks to create large-scale, multi-block prints. His combination of architectural, angled lines and organic, wavy lines implies a collision of nature and culture. The effect is an overwhelming sense of turbulence and chaos and a preponderance of forceful explosions and expulsions, which can be read as representations of natural processes or metaphors for emotional experiences. Christopher received his BFA in Illustration from the Columbus College of Art & Design (1996) and his MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art (2009). His work is included in several public and private collections including the Woodmere Art Museum, Hudson County Community College and Brooklyn Art Library. Recent exhibitions include Pressure Points (2015) at Savery Gallery in Philadelphia and Graphic Coordinates (2014) at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Australia. Christopher currently lives in Bellingham, Washington and teaches at Western Washington University.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What is it about the process of woodblock printing that you love?

Christopher Hartshorne: I love the entire process, from carving a plank of wood to the gratification of pulling a finished print from the block. The labor involved is important to me. It gives me a sense of control over the imagery. I am in love with the process of balancing that control with experimentation. My carvings are pre-planned, so I know what the final block will look like. In printing, I let go of that control a little so that I can work more intuitively. In this way, I can react and decide how to print multiple blocks together. There's a thrill for me in not knowing how to proceed; that's when surprising risks can happen. Not all successful prints have to involve risk, but I think it's easy to want to construct an image by fully controlling it in printmaking. The process usually demands it if you are attempting to recreate a drawing perfectly, or need exact registration, for example. I feel more like a painter than a traditional printmaker when I am constructing a final print. The process of inking and burnishing is mechanical but the decision process of where and how to print blocks with one another becomes flexible and organic. I love that I don't know what a print is going to look like until the last layer is printed.

OPP: Is there anything you hate?

CH: I don't hate anything about the process. The time commitment of carving can be a burden if I have a strict deadline. Usually, I find it a privilege to be able to spend so much time with my prints, contemplating them and giving them what they need. It totally feels like my prints and I are dating.

Nebula (detail), 2011. Multi-block woodcut. 96" x 38"

OPP: Can you talk about the relationship between image, process and scale in your work?

CH: My images contain detailed lines. I prefer to create prints around six feet in length so that there is a contrast between the large size of the piece and its detail. In the large black and white work, it is my goal to overwhelm the viewer with the large scale but then engage the viewer further with small detailed lines. The lines offer a web for the viewer to get caught in. The space of the prints allows these lines to meander and accumulate. There are always many smaller prints inside the larger ones. If you were to cut up my six-foot banner woodcuts into one-foot squares, the detailed marks and lines would become more of a focus. The scale of lines would become larger in relation to the frame. Also, the prints' dramatic chaos would be lessened to a degree. I need that large scale to create a dynamic and sweeping movement.

Cages and Clouds, 2015. Woodcut. 24" x 24"

OPP: How do you think about the difference between angles and straight lines versus curvy and wavy lines in your work?

CH: I began using angled, architectural lines to contrast the organic ones. It seemed more interesting to combine dissimilar design elements in the prints. Straight and wavy lines visually move at different “speeds." Sharp, angled lines can zig-zag quickly across the print like a bolt, while curvy lines can undulate slowly like a quiet ripple. Forcing these two elements to live together in one space requires two "speeds" or "frequencies" to interact. This sounds like I am attempting to diagram some scientific reactions with the prints, like the way energy might behave in physics or microbiology. I am definitely not an expert in any science, but I am interested in what I don't understand on a cosmic or microscopic scale. I see the contrasting lines in the prints as an invitation to ponder science fiction—poetic interactions of a non-existent energy.

Monstromoleculia, 2013. Multiple block woodcut. 72" x 38"

OPP: Works like Nebula (2011), Monstromoleculia (2013) and Billboard (2016) are “multiple woodblock prints,” and it appears you reuse your library of blocks. Is this a common contemporary printmaking practice or particular to your work?

CH: Reusing my blocks in different ways has revived the printmaking process for me. My first woodblocks were finished before they were even carved and printed. I had a drawing and I replicated that drawing exactly into a print. Now, the reuse of blocks allows me to use the same visual language from my library in different ways. I see the woodblock now as a tool, like a pencil or brush. Printing can be executed in many ways.

I am not aware of many artists that are reusing blocks in this way on such a large scale, but I'm not alone in using the block in experimental ways. Historically, a block is employed to manufacture multiples. If you add the goal of experimentation to that process, the possibilities in printing are endless.

from left to right: Directional Spark Field, Cyclical Fusion, Gradual Metamorphosis, 2012. Three woodcuts. 72" x 38"

OPP: Does this reuse retroactively change the meaning of older work?

CH: I think the reuse of blocks could change the meaning of previous work. When a block is used with a different set of blocks in a new print the context changes. The block can become lost in layers or the character of lines seems to change. The printed image becomes affected by the context of the surrounding elements. Usually, I rely on the viewer to bring meaning into the work. It's my hope that viewers will make associations born from their own perspective. How a block "behaves" differently in another print is a small component that completes the whole. The movement and drama of the whole piece are what really changes.

OPP: Do you ever retire a block forever?

CH: Only if it becomes damaged. I do have blocks that I seem to have moved on from aesthetically. They don't seem to match more current blocks. But if I look at those blocks with a fresh eye I can always find a set of lines or patterns that inspire me. I have adopted a philosophy that I always say to myself while in my studio: "I can make anything work.” It's my self-help mantra for printing. The phrase symbolizes my need to question my own judgment in order to enable risk-taking. I can successfully reuse an old block I had dismissed. If I print something that looks wrong it can fizzle my inspiration quickly, but I can problem-solve to make it work again.

The Print Center Artist in Schools Program, University City High School and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, 2012-2013

OPP: You’ve been the Artist-in-Residence for three years running in The Delphi Art Futures Program at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tell us about the program and how your approach to teaching has changed over the years.

CH: The Art Futures Program works with ten artists each year and places them in Philadelphia schools to create engaging projects with high school students and their art teachers. The artist and teacher create a ten-week project that connects conceptually or visually to artwork in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection. The project is then displayed at the museum. The program offers student collaboration with a working artist and an opportunity to expand on an idea for ten weeks. It also offers teachers alternative perspectives on artistic subjects and art making techniques. For some teachers, it also offers welcomed support in a large, busy classroom.

I have been teaching in school-connected programs like the Art Futures Program for about ten years in Philadelphia and hopefully in my new residence in Washington state. The most important thing I've learned in being an effective leader is how to balance structure with experimentation. I give students specific goals but leave them enough room to develop their own ideas. When I first started teaching this was a challenge to figure out. I either gave students too much freedom (students doing whatever they felt like with materials) or too much structure  (guiding students to make things exactly the way I wanted). The key became directing students to an end result, but empowering them to make all the decisions along the way. Also, the importance of setting simple student goals is imperative. Teaching has definitely become easier and more rewarding after figuring this out. I can prove that the students are successfully learning because they have reached the goals themselves. I employ this balance of goals and self-discovery for all the classes I teach: middle schoolers, high school, college, and adult learners.

To see more of Christopher's work, please visit christopherhartshorne.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.