Like a photographer capturing a moment in time, artist Bryan Nash Gill uses old-school printmaking techniques to create unique visual records of the lives of northeastern American trees. The fingerprint-like effect, which Gill achieves by cutting, manipulating, inking, and printing slices of tree trunk, highlights a tree's growth and injuries over the course of its entire lifetime. The Connecticut native is also a lifelong hunter and angler. Gill uses his experience as an outdoorsman to inspire his artwork--time spent hunting game is also an opportunity for him to scout downed trees and other found materials--and uses his art as a way to keep him outside. His book, "Woodcut" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an Amazon.com bestseller in the Prints Art category, is a collection of his favorite prints from the past 10 years, and the stories behind them. Here, he shares a behind-the-scenes look at his studio, printmaking process, and unique perspective as a sportsman, with Field & Stream. As told to Ben Romans. Print: Ash, 56" x 56" - 2003.
“I grew up on a farm in Connecticut, and from a very young age, learning to work with my hands was just a way of life. A high-school art teacher encouraged me, so I pursued a studio art major at Tulane University in New Orleans. I started as a glass blower and worked with ceramics, and have always had a love for drawing. Eventually I got my masters in sculpture and drawing, and since then, I’ve supported myself with my obsession. It has been a meager life at times–living in places like barns with no running water. But I love doing it, and it keeps me outside. I duck hunted the bayous of Louisiana while attending Tulane, and enjoyed my time there, but given a choice, I like to shotgun for quail and grouse in the Northeast. Sadly, I lost my hunting dog a few years ago, and I haven’t gotten another one. So now, when I do most of my gaming it’s in Maine with my brother. When I’m deer hunting up there, 99 percent of the time I’m looking at the trees. I’m always stumbling on materials or concepts that I have to bring back to my studio from the woods.
Place is very important to me. Whether I’m in the Maine woods or fishing for brook trout right outside my door, my artwork reflects my connection to that place. I had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment when I was building my studio from beams of pine and hemlock cut on my property in New Hartford. The end grains of the lumber just fascinated me. In fact, some of the first prints I made were of cross-sections of large lumber like 6x6s and 8x8s. I never had any classes or training in printmaking, but I figured it out through some experimentation and fell in love with the process of intaglio printing. Later, I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I work with real trees?’ Untitled: 1/4 mile of wire and 32 fir trees, 1994
The basic principle of this type of printmaking is that the sunken area of an etched image holds ink while canvas or paper is pressed on top of it. Of course, I’m working on a much larger scale: I take cross-sections of log that are 3 or 4 feet in diameter and cut off a layer about 6-inches thick to polish up in the studio. I have three chainsaws, including a 95cc Stihl chainsaw with a four foot bar, which I rarely need to use. It’ll rip your arm off. Gill’s studio in northeastern Connecticut
Dissecting the tree into layers and choosing the most interesting one is part of telling the story. If you move up six inches on a log, it’s a totally different print. I sand and hand-plane the surface to make it as smooth as possible, then I highlight the rings by charring the wood slightly with a handheld torch. This burns the springwood–the initial growth of each annual tree ring–and helps define the peaks and valleys between the rings, giving everything a pronounced separation. Some woods print better than others. You can see the growth rings in maple, river birch, and the other hardwoods, but sometimes it’s the shape of the wood, and not the rings, that make the print intriguing. Black Locust series A,B,C – black locust wood, 25 1/4″ x 20″ – 2003
When I’m finished prepping the wood, I seal it so that ink doesn’t seep into the grain when I make the print. I apply a common oil-based etching ink directly to the sealed wood using a brayer, like a rubber rolling pin, and then carefully lay the paper on top. Lining up the paper, or the registration process, is very important. I have a straightedge made of plywood and metal that secures the woodcut and helps me line up the edge of the paper in the same spot every time. It’s a lot like newspaper printing–if you want to create the same image over and over again, or layer ink colors one on top of the other, the registration can’t be even the slightest bit off, or you’ll get a ghosting effect.
I methodically imprint the ink into the paper, applying pressure to the back of the page, ring by ring, using flat, broad tools like spoons, palm-sized blocks of wood, and sometimes my fingernails. Small prints can happen quickly but I can spend a full day just printing one of the bigger cuts. The finished product is revealed when I peel the paper back.
Cedar burl, northern white cedar, 33 3/4″ x 24 3/4″ – 2001_
I can create variations from the same cut of wood by using a slightly different color ink, or by angling the paper differently–but every print outcome is going to be different anyway because it is all done by hand. I don’t just want to make stamps of the tree, I want to push myself. I find the oddities in wood, like burls, which print great because there’s a growth pattern on the inside that’s very different from concentric rings. I’ve printed on a bed sheet. I let thin cuts of wood get warped by heat and dryness. I use turpentine and color washes to add more dimension to a finished print. I’ve scavenged discarded Christmas trees and a downed electrical pole. I’m always on the lookout for a particular species of tree that I may have never printed before. Anytime I look at something, I just ask myself, ‘How would that print?’ Oak Slabs, oak wood, 24′ 10″ x 10″ x 30′ 8″ – Installation at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CN
There are things that I find and discover when I’m out in the woods, and I carry that excitement with me back into the studio, where I try to make something discarded come back to life. It’s all a process of discovery and I learn something new every time. It’s a lot like what propels me to keep hunting or fishing–I wouldn’t keep going out if there was nothing left to learn anymore. Leader cloth series I, ash wood, 43″ x 35″ – 2011
Hunters and anglers are explorers; we’d much rather be hiking through the mountains and stream rather than simply perched up somewhere looking at it. That’s the approach I try to take with these prints–they take people into a tree rather than just looking at it. I think the things I create show my spiritual connection to the environment in a tangible form. People know what trees look like, but they’ve never seen them from this perspective. And maybe that will help people to look at other things differently too.”
Rolling Burl, cherry burl, 50 1/8″ x 21 1/8″ – 2011_ Keep clicking through this gallery for more images of Gill’s artwork
Honey Locust, 26 1/2″ x 26 1/8″ – 2011.
Crescent, northern white pine, 37″ x 25 1/4″ – 2011
Maple large, sugar maple, 52 7/8″ x 62 3/4″ – 2011
Hemlock 82, hemlock wood, 54″ x 41″ – 2008
Maple, red maple, 38″ x 26″ – 2009
Cherry Chain, cherry wood, dimensions variable, h: 18″ x d” 30″ x w:30″ – 2005
Joint, hemlock, 20 1/8″x 26 3/8 – 2003
Willow, willow wood, 49 5/8″ x 38 3/4″ – 2011
_Like a photographer capturing a moment in time, artist Bryan Nash Gill uses old-school printmaking techniques to create unique visual records of the lives of northeastern American trees. The fingerprint-like effect, which Gill achieves by cutting, manipulating, inking, and printing slices of tree trunk, highlights a tree’s growth and injuries over the course of its entire lifetime.
The Connecticut native is also a lifelong hunter and angler. Gill uses his experience as an outdoorsman to inspire his artwork–time spent hunting game is also an opportunity for him to scout downed trees and other found materials–and uses his art as a way to keep him outside. His book, “Woodcut” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an Amazon.com bestseller in the Prints Art category, is a collection of his favorite prints from the past 10 years, and the stories behind them. Here, he shares a behind-the-scenes look at his studio, printmaking process, and unique perspective as a sportsman, with_ Field & Stream_: as told to Ben Romans._