A passion for printing

How much wood does woodcut artist Ruth Kirchmeier cut? Plenty.



“I found my medium late in life,” says artist Ruth Kirchmeier. The octogenarian West Tisbury artist has, for the past three decades, been fully engaged in making and selling woodcut prints, beautiful full-color images created from hand-carved wood blocks. Her work has been shown in galleries all over the Island, and has earned her a following here and elsewhere. Currently a selection of the artist’s work is hanging at the MVTV studios in Oak Bluffs on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.

Although she began her career as an artist working in oil painting, Kirchmeier eventually discovered a passion for printing. She first experimented with the medium while attending Cooper Union, the renowned art school in Manhattan. Her instructor was Will Barnet, a National Medal of Arts recipient whose work has been shown in virtually every major public collection in the United States.

The medium was a natural for Kirchmeier. “My father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker trained in Germany,” she says. “I grew up with the smell of wood shavings. He was a lover of the arts. I grew up in a family that had a deep appreciation for art. I greatly admired my father. He had friends who were world-class artists.”

Among those friends was German expressionist Josef Scharl. “He made a huge impression on me personally,” says Kirchmeier. One can see the influence of that artist in Kirchmeier’s use of bold lines, striking colors, and the emotive quality of her work.

The print medium works very well for the artist’s style, which relies on texture, line, and isolated color. “When I moved to the Island 28 years ago, I thought of myself as a painter,” she recalls. “But I kept wanting to translate things into woodcuts. When I looked at my woodcuts, I said, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ When I looked at my oil painting, I thought, ‘I’m just serviceable.’ Why beat yourself up doing something less well than doing what I love?”

The sample of Kirchmeier’s work at MVTV includes scenes of the Vineyard, of Maine, and of New Hampshire, as well as one from a villa in Italy. There are also a couple of her floral prints, which use dramatic flower arrangements to punctuate cozy interior scenes.

The Maine scenes were first captured in sketches during Kirchmeier’s numerous fishing trips with her husband Nelson Bryan, a former outdoors writer for the New York Times. “I sat in front of the canoe and first drew the trees and the shoreline,” says the artist. “Then I started drawing just the water. The waves had geometry and kept changing all the time.” The small prints from the water series are excellent examples of the intricacy paired with a sort of wildness that defines Kirchmeier’s style.

Perhaps the most stunning piece in the exhibit is one titled “House by the Hospital.” A scene familiar to most Islanders, the print shows a winding rural road with the Lagoon in the background and a bright red house as the focal point. The vibrant print clearly shows the meticulous nature of Kirchmeier’s process, which involves building up the image through multiple printings with different colors.

The carving itself is very exacting and time-consuming, and the labor-intensive printing process can also take months.

“Some people would think of it as tedious, but I enjoy it,” says Kirchmeier. “I have to print all of the colors separately. I just keep printing again and again and again.” This process, as well as the artist’s dedication to experimenting with different color combinations, guarantees that each print is unique. “I couldn’t do two alike if my life depended on it,” she says.

Kirchmeier’s subjects reflect her diverse interests. She spends a great deal of time gardening at her rustic home in West Tisbury, and she often depicts cut flowers from her garden displayed in natural-looking arrangements in vases.

Sometimes, a very specific image grabs the artist’s attention. For example, during a trip to Italy, while her friend artist Marsha Winsryg was sketching outdoors, Kirchmeier found herself fascinated with a table draped with a tiger skin, complete with snarling head.

The artist has shown her work at various places around the Island, including the former galleries Hermine Merel Smith, Shaw Cramer, and the Carol Craven Galleries. These days she is represented by the Sargent Gallery. Age has hardly slowed her down at all. She works almost every day in her studio.

“I’m astonished,” says Kirchmeier, “that at age 82 I still make a few shekels.”

Ruth Kirchmeier’s woodcuts through April 30, at MVTV, Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 pm.