An Engraved Invitation: Wood Engravers Network comes to Cleveland
For more than two years, Eric Gulliver has been talking up Cleveland as a site for the Wood Engravers Network’s annual national conference. The letterpress artist, wood engraver, and engineer met WEN founder, Jim Horton, in 2013, when the conference was held in Asheville, North Carolina. This summer the lobbying pays off. After last year’s gathering in Oxford, England, the Wood Engravers Network’s 2015 conference is coming to Cleveland—specifically to the Morgan Conservatory— May 30 through June 5. It’s not a massive, convention-center-style gathering that will make a notable mark in the local economy: just a couple dozen artists are expected, and they will spend a lot of their time in workshops. However, for that week, Cleveland will be the center of the wood engraving world.
“The national press we’ve been getting didn’t hurt,” Gulliver said. And of course the good press is also backed up by a great museum, busy art scene, at least two artist-run letterpress shops (Zygote Press and the Morgan), and a few commercial ones that haven’t called it quits. But those aren’t the only reasons Cleveland makes a great location for a gathering in the name of the antiquated relief printing technology. Wood engraving shares a history inseparable from the letterpress industry, and so does Cleveland.
Wood engravings are distinct from wood cut prints in that they are made by carving into the end-grain of the wood block. It’s still a relief printing technique, but carving into the end grain enables the artist to make tiny marks in any direction, without having to negotiate the insistent lines inherent on the broad “plank” side of a block. The technique was a prominent form of illustration for books, magazines, and newspapers, especially from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
As it happens, that coincided with Cleveland’s industrial boom. So all the pieces were in place, and letterpress was about to reach its commercial zenith in 1881, when Illinois banker Harrison T. Chandler met William H. Price, the son of a builder of printing presses. They formed the Chandler and Price Company and set up shop in Cleveland. Using designs and ideas gleaned from several expired patents, they began to manufacture what would become the industry’s workhorse machines: hand fed jobbing press—the ones with the big flywheel, and a platen that opens and closes like hands clapping.
Anyone who has ever seen a Chandler & Price press running has appreciated the way they churn and tick, the treadle pumping impressions in four-four time, or on the bigger machines, in six-eight. The motion is as fluid as a locomotive, pressing paper against type, and copper plates and wood engravings. Those machines were ubiquitous in the early twentieth century. The now-defunct Type & Press magazine estimated that in the 1930s, more than 90 percent of professional presses were made by Chandler and Price, therefore made in Cleveland.
The Wood Engravers Network was born in Jim Horton’s Ann Arbor living room. He says he can’t solely take credit for founding the organization, but that a dozen people came to a workshop at his home in 1994, and decided that they would continue gathering each year.
Horton came to the illustration technique via a family history with graphic art. His father was a sign painter. He says he was always fascinated with old books and illustration methods. In college, Horton dug into the subject by getting a fine art degree in printmaking. His interest led him to David Sander, whose father owned the Sander Engraving Company–one of the last surviving wood engraving companies in the US. It was on Dearborn Street in Chicago—a place then called Printers Row, a national mecca of the advertising and printing industry. That’s where Horton learned the art. The shop was active until “the late sixties or early seventies.” Horton says some of the last accounts included Playboy magazine (which commissioned wood engravings for liquor ads), Prudential Insurance, Hush Puppies shoes, and Corning Glass. He says the company closed not for lack of work, but the the lack of engravers.
While there’s no changing its commercial obsolescence, Horton says letterpress and wood engraving have seen a resurgence in recent years,especially among young people. “It has to do with an idealistic generation seeing the bombardment of the digital world. The simplicity and hands on quality of it are the appeal. Not that we don’t all use computers. We do. But wood engraving meets a need for something tangible. We’re a kind of underbelly of the illustration world, seeking a path, a more direct link to our personal expression and vision. It’s laborious, and difficult, and it takes practice.”
By forming the Wood Engravers Network, Horton says scattered individual artists who had been lonely in the field have been able to find each other and make connections. The dozen people meeting in his living room has become about 200 members. They include this years guest artist, Wesley Bates the Ontario illustrator whose wood engravings have appeared in multiple gallery shows around the world, and embellished books from Penguin, Random House, and Harper Collins, among others.
Bates will lead workshops and exhibit examples of his engravings during the conference at the Morgan. Works by other members of the Network will also be exhibited, including a portfolio made for the occasion: More than 20 artists will have contributed engraved images to this year’s conference’s signature project. Gulliver calls it “a rumination on the relationship of Guttenberg and wood engraving to the industrial revolution. A worthy subject for a conference in Cleveland.
Wood Engravers Network 2015 National Conference
May 30 – June 5
Wood Engravers Network Porfolio June 5 – July 18
Claudio Orso Giacone June 5 – July 18
Opening reception: 6 – 9 pm June 5
The Morgan Conservatory
1754 East 47th Street
For information about the Wood Engravers Network, go to woodengravers.net.