Heather Smith is an artist and a cartographer. She lives in Antigonish, Nova Scotia: her hometown and the subject of most of her art. Her primary medium is woodcut printmaking, but she also makes oil paintings and hand drawn maps.
Heather studied fine art at Queen's University and cartography at the Centre of Geographic Sciences (COGS NSCC). In addition to being an artist, she works for the software company Esri, where she writes tutorials about mapping. She has lived in British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, the Annapolis Valley, and Southern California.
When you see a beautiful work of art, do you wish you owned it? I wish I'd made it. Making feels like a higher form of owning. If I own a work of art, I can look at it, and I might connect deeply with it, but if I'm the one who brings it into existence, that connection is guaranteed. I have this desire with many things that I see, not just works of art, for example, the way the morning sunlight falls on the things in my living room. I own the room and the things inside of it. I can look at the light on these things every sunny morning for the rest of my life. But that's not good enough. To recreate that scene and its feeling would be closer. I think this is why I make art.
I'm especially drawn to form: lines and shapes. Do I practice woodcut printmaking, with its clearcut blacks and whites, because I'm drawn to form, or am I drawn to form because I practice woodcut printmaking? Whatever the cause, I love to capture the tangle of tree branches, the angles of rooftops, and the gestures of strangers. The woodcut medium forces me to translate what I see into something simpler, something stylized. I have to choose which lines and shapes are essential to the scene and discard everything else. It is very much like desigining a map. (In cartography too, I am drawn to form: the spread of that delta, the curve of that road, the shape of that lake.)
Woodcut is the oldest and simplest form of printmaking, with long traditions in many cultures. The briefest description of the woodcut process is to carve a stamp out of wood, coat it in ink, and press it to paper in order to transfer the image. Woodcut is a kind of relief printmaking, since the image is carved in relief from the wood. Relief printmaking also includes linocut, wood engraving, letterpress, rubber stamps, and some collagraphy.
I carve my woodcuts on cherry veneer plywood and print them on Japanese paper with oil-based inks. Below is a simplified description of my typical process:
I paint the board a dark colour to provide better visual contrast when I carve.
I make a drawing, carefully designed with the strengths and limitations of the medium in mind. I transfer the drawing to the wood board with transfer paper.
I carve the wood with small chisels, gauges, and knives. I fix any errors that occur with wood filler putty.
I cut my paper into the correct size for my image. I also configure a registration system to ensure that the image will be positioned in the centre of the paper every time it is printed.
When I’m ready to print, I put some ink on a ceramic tile that I use as a palette. I roll it out with a brayer, which is like a rubber roller. Once the brayer is loaded up with the right amount of ink, I roll it onto the woodblock. The ink only sticks to the raised, uncarved parts of the wood.
Once there’s enough ink on the board, I lay a piece of paper on top. I rub the paper with a baren, which is a dimpled plastic disk that helps me to apply even pressure all over the print. I sometimes also rub with the back of a spoon. I pull the paper away from the board. The ink has transferred, leaving a printed mirror image on the paper. I set the print aside and wait for the ink to dry.
I can print multiple images from the same woodcut. Each impression is an original, handmade piece of art. I print limited editions and do not reuse the block to print more images afterwards. To learn more about my process, follow me on instagram at heathergabrielsmith.