Antic woodcuts paired with landscapes

Robert S. Siffert
A woodcut by Robert S. Siffert titled "Osprey Landing." Photos courtesy of Craven Gallery

By Brooks Robards - August 30, 2007

New Yorker Robert S. Siffert is exhibiting his lively woodcuts for the first time on the Island at the Craven Gallery in Vineyard Haven. The retired orthopedic surgeon and his wife, Mimi, have been summering on the Vineyard for more than 65 years. His work is paired with the impressionist landscapes of Rhode Island painter Gregory Kammerer.

Gallery owner Carol Craven saw Dr. Siffert's woodcuts at the prestigious Century Club in New York and asked him to bring the exhibit to her gallery. Proceeds from the show will go to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital at Dr. Siffert's request.

After exploring the use of linoleum blocks, the artist began using hard end-grain South American boxwood with sharp cutting tools to create woodcuts that were detailed and small.

"Probably because I was a resident in orthopedic surgery at the time, the similarity of the texture of wood and bone was intriguing," he has written in his "Notes of a Self-Taught Amateur Artist." By searching through discard barrels in lumberyards, he was able to study the different qualities, hardness and grains in a variety of woods. His investigations have inspired more than 50 years of woodblock prints.

Gregory Kammerer
A Gregory Kammerer landscape on display at the Craven Gallery.

Rather than relying on oil-based inks and heavy papers, Dr. Siffert employs water-soluble inks and thinner papers. This method allows him to control the intensity, quality, and pattern of his prints.

The 25 prints on exhibit - ranging from a colorful mélange of bowties titled "Papillon" to "No School Today," portraying a boy in a red baseball hat balancing on a wooden fence - reflect an antic sensibility. A number of the prints depict characteristic Vineyard scenes.

In "Feeding Time on South Road," the artist captures a variety of birds on a typical Island porch in summer. "Osprey Landing" collapses three of the birds of prey into one image. Each has a bright red eye, and collectively they are landing on a nest platform against a backdrop of blue sky and green with orange landscape. "Mytoi - Martha's Vineyard" uses that Japanese-inspired Island preserve's bridge as its focal point in a balanced composition of cedars, willows, azalea bushes, and water.

Some of Dr. Siffert's most successful prints incorporate the grain of the wood used into the background of the chosen image. One untitled print displays a minimalist red table, flattened in perspective, with four black lines as legs. An irregularly shaped blue vase balances lightly on the table, holding a suggestion of green foliage. The wood grain pattern of the background pulls this still life together with elegant simplicity.

Dr. Siffert has also included a series of bold animal portraits, including two zebras in "Watering Hole - Kenya" and two exotic cats in "Kenya--Two Leopards." In "Full Moon," a black cat on a plank faces the viewer with green eyes and a white moon in the background.

Mr. Kammerer, who spent summers in Wellfleet as a child before settling on the Rhode Island coast, says he never had intentions of becoming a painter, but "it seemed like a fate I could not escape." After studying literature at Vermont's Middlebury College, he taught high school English for several years. Once he discovered painting, though, he says, "I felt for the first time, a sense of profound engagement in my work."

After working from photographs initially, Mr. Kammerer decided to rely on his memory and imagination. The change led to a more intuitive approach, in which aspects of a landscape begin to reveal themselves as layers of paint are added or scraped away. "Working in this way can be both scary and exhilarating," he says, "But recent paintings have light and movement that were absent in my more tightly controlled works in acrylic and egg tempera."

Mr. Kammerer likes to experiment with a variety of work surfaces, including objects he has found in salvage yards. "Beneath the Trees," an oil painting set into an arched window, depicts a marshy field framed by trees in a lyrical green palette.

Many of this artist's works evoke the delicacy of etching. "Backwaters," with its yellowish sky over marshland, includes reeds scratched into the surface of the paint. "Trees Along the Shore" incorporates etching-like reflections and a group of fragile, almost luminous leaves on the right side of a balanced composition.

In "When the Landscape Skips," the artist creates a series of clouds edged with dashes or broken lines. "Remembered Landscape" imposes graphic style numbers on a stretch of gray-green field.

While most of Mr. Kammerer's landscapes fall under the impressionist rubric, "Toward North Beach" seems more realist, with the heavy presence of its large rock behind three smaller, half-buried ones at the edge of the water. The subtle style of these landscapes disguises to a degree the range of innovation the artist has used.

The work of Dr. Siffert and Mr. Kammerer will be on view at the Craven Gallery though Saturday, September 8.

The Carol Craven Gallery is located on 29 Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 2 pm. Tel. 508-693-3535.