Galleries : Woodcut artist Ruth Kirchmeier's lifelong passion
When woodcut artist Ruth Kirchmeier talks about her life, the words "fortunate," "obsessed," and "persistent" proliferate. At 73, she says she is living the life she loves: a life shared with partner Nelson Bryant, surrounded by friends and family, continually inspired by Martha's Vineyard's natural beauty; and spent in lifelong passionate engagement with the arts.
One of four children born to German immigrants, Ms. Kirchmeier describes a childhood awash in intellectual curiosity and art. Her parents were strong personalities. Her mother, a "libertine," was enmeshed in the German socialist community in the 1940s and '50s, surrounded by "women who had careers, smoked cigarettes, and took lovers."
In the midst of all that, her father honed his craft as a cabinetmaker, and Ruth Kirchmeier grew up with the scent of carved wood permeating an atmosphere of lively discourse.
"My father was an art lover," she says, describing a man whose unbounded appreciation for creativity instilled a deep love for the arts in his offspring. "Our house in rural New Jersey was filled with artists and writers every weekend, and my father took us into New York to see exhibitions frequently."
The artists and writers who visited the Kirchmeiers' rustic home were German immigrants as well, many of whom toiled in what she characterizes as "dreary jobs" while pursuing art on the side. Others, like Josef Scharl, were noted members of the German Expressionist movement, educated in Europe and showing their work in galleries and museums both abroad and in the States. "He was an obsessed artist," she says. "He talked about his work - about the colors of the sky and the sun, vivid descriptions. He planned it all out and then executed it."
Ms. Kirchmeier enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study art, transferring after two years to The Cooper Union School of Art, in New York City. "We did nothing but make and talk about art," she says. "I missed it terribly after graduation." She married and had two sons, settling in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she created a studio in her home and joined an etching group.
Ms. Kirchmeier and her husband visited friends on Martha's Vineyard and eventually bought a house that had once been a goat barn - a property that reminds her of her beloved childhood home. After her divorce she settled on Martha's Vineyard permanently and began to build a community of friends and fellow artists. Today she meets regularly with a group of nine other women who have created a supportive atmosphere in which to critique one another's work.
As a woodcut artist, Ms. Kirchmeier's work honors the earliest printmaking technique, a medium which first appeared in China in the ninth century. By the 16th century, woodcuts achieved the status of a significant art form in Europe, with Albrecht Durer and other Northern European artists popularizing the medium. Although as a young artist she worked in oils, Ms. Kirchmeier says that she found her métier as a printmaker. "I was an adequate oil painter," she says, "but I am a really fine printmaker."
Although Ms. Kirchmeier does not consider herself a "natural artist," she attributes her success to persistence: "I persisted. People who persist can overtake those with natural talents. Through persistence, no one does better than I do. I won't let a work of art go until it pleases me."
She finds her subject matter through her everyday world, saying she is "fortunate to be able to create work from the fabric of my life." Flowers in a vase, the rippling of water, the richly textured bark of trees, fishermen amidst dunes and sea - they all become drawings traced onto transparent paper, laid onto a wooden block for carving and inked with a roller. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the block and is rubbed or pressed to print the image in reverse, with separate blocks used to add more colors.
The beauty of Ms. Kirchmeier's work is in not only the image but in the richness of the colors she chooses. She creates a series of 20 prints from each woodcut, varying the colors and even the textures as she goes. "I never know what a piece will look like," she admits. "They're too complex. They take on a life of their own."
Ms. Kirchmeier captures many of her images by wandering through Martha's Vineyard. She is on the bow seat of Mr. Bryant's canoe on one of his regular forays into the wilderness. (A former columnist for The New York Times, Mr. Bryant wrote of fishing and the natural world.) She can be found wading at Great Rock Bight Preserve in Chilmark, pad and pencils held above the water as she makes her way to just the right spot to capture her singular view.
Ruth Kirchmeier's woodcuts are on display at Hermine Merel Smith Fine Art at 548 Edgartown Road in West Tisbury. 508-693-7719.
Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.