In print with Ruth Kirchmeier

Ruth Kirchmeier
The artist works on a woodblock. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Hermine Hull - July 5, 2007

Ruth Kirchmeier is an artist - a painter, a draughtsman, a gardener - but it is as a printmaker that she is in her métier.

As an observer and friend of over 20 years, and as her dealer for several of those years, I am struck by the "all of a piece" quality of Ruth's life. Her woodcuts are her most recognized artistic achievement, and justly so. They are complex and descriptive, the lines and marks, the overlays and underlays of colors.

But it is the woodcuts that are the subject of this piece. A retrospective exhibition of Ruth's woodcuts, from her earliest art school prints made under the tutelage of Will Barnet and Karl Schrag at Cooper Union, to her latest woodcut, "Hellgate Gorge" completed in time for this show, will open at my gallery, Hermine Merel Smith Fine Art in West Tisbury, this Sunday, July 8. We have done this together to mark Ruth's 70th birthday and the 50-year long development of her artistic career.

Ruth remembers being awestruck by the collection of artists and intellectuals gathered around the dinner table in her childhood home - German expatriates who fled the Nazis and were welcomed in rural New Jersey by her parents. Ruth said, "My father always had friends who were artists. I always wanted to be like them. They seemed Olympian to me." When artist Joseph Scharl came "to the country to visit, he would describe what he was working on in language so evocative I could see the yellow rays of sun." She was later to feel "paralyzed by his advice to her: there is only one line - the right line." Fortunately, an art school professor made his students stand at a distance from their easels and draw with a two-foot-long stick, which "loosened me right up."

"Elizabeth," made in 1995, is a portrait of the artist's niece. Many of her pieces are currently on display at the Hermine Merel Smith gallery in West Tisbury.

There were years of early marriage and motherhood, traveling with her family, finally settling in Brooklyn, where "a room of her own" and joining the Smith Street Etching Group refocused Ruth on her work as an artist. "When I joined the etching group, I just flew and never stopped."

Woodcuts were portable, so could be done anywhere, and the smell and feel of carving wood "reminded me of my father, who was a cabinetmaker, the pungent smell of his workshop. My father inspired me." She also realized that in making woodcuts she had found her medium. "I knew I could make this medium do what I wanted. I loved the German Expressionists - Nolde and Kirchner - and Japanese prints. I never imagined doing anything like Japanese prints, but realize now that I am."

Many fellow artists have compared Ruth's prints, especially those depicting moving water and river's edges, to Japanese prints. The ink drawings she makes from the front of the canoe she sits in while her partner, Nelson Bryant, fishes form the basis for this series of prints. "This will translate nicely into a woodcut," Ruth thought. The small drawings are blown up into woodcuts, and here the process begins.

Process, or the making of a work of art, is what it's all about for most artists. Ruth had commented, "I never know how it will turn out, and don't remember how I did it. That makes it very thrilling or it can be very disappointing, too." I was interested in that statement because for an oil painter, that is often what happens; the painting takes over and passages, edges, brushstrokes, just come. But in a process that needs such care and planning, it surprised me to hear Ruth describe that same artistic serendipity.

Here is her description: "I always make a drawing. The drawing is the plan. It has to be carved, so there has to be a plan. This is the laborious part of the process, my least favorite part. The drawing must be traced onto tracing paper, carefully laid face-down onto the wooden block. Each line must be gone over again with colored pencils, which I find are the right consistency to transfer the drawing without damaging the block. This becomes the master block or key plate. Once that is carved, I have the plan. Sometimes that plan is very linear, the drawing prominent. In other prints, 'Menemsha Hills' for example, there are large open blocks of color with very little drawing. The master block is clamped into a jig to hold it in place. Paper, secured from above, is lowered onto the block and printed. This wet printed surface is immediately transferred to three uncarved blocks, giving exact replicas of the image from the master block. Once dry, they are all carved to become the variously colored printing matrixes."

Because of the way she prints and with the use of small brayers, Ruth is able to adjust her colors, several to each face as long as they are not contiguous. "There is a lot of housekeeping involved at this point," she says, "wiping with rags to keep the edges of color clean." The colors are built up, one over another, like glazes in a painting. Ruth can intensify a color by glazing, or soften the line by printing color over it, or soften a whole area by printing a more opaque color over all. That is where her particular artistry is most evident. Her sense of color is magical.

One of the qualities that distinguishes Ruth's prints from others is her concept of "an edition." Each print is unique. Although they are signed and numbered, each print has its own color patterns, some as subtle as printing lavender over the water where deep blue was before, or as different as to make flowers a different color or night become bright day. "I do everything idiosyncratically," she says.

Come see her work, and judge for yourself.

Ruth Kirchmeier artist's reception Sunday, July 8, 4 to 7 pm, at Hermine Merel Smith Fine Art, 548 Edgartown Road, West Tisbury. 508-693-7719. Parking behind the fire station.