Artist Bill Evaul’s white-line woodcuts pay tribute to Provincetown PrintersBy Lisa Leigh Connors
It was the summer of 1915. Six artists who met in Paris reunited in Provincetown and formed a group called the Provincetown Printers. They all shared a common interest: woodblock printmaking. They lived in apartments near one another and started a forum to study and experiment with woodcut techniques. A year later in 1916, the group launched their first exhibition to much fanfare and went on to produce many exhibitions across the country.
Today, Provincetown artist and art historian Bill Evaul pays tribute to the Provincetown Printers with a series of white-line portraits of these early wood-cut printmakers. “The Fine White Line: Faces Behind the Prints,” on display at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, features more than a dozen portraits to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a technique developed in America’s oldest active art colony. The show has been a work in progress since 1982, when Evaul made his first wood-cut portrait of artists Ethel Mars and Maude Squire. The exhibit also includes a video demonstration with Evaul, a step-by-step guide on how to make a block print, and a glass case of tools, from an X-Acto knife to carve the wood to a doorknob and a spoon used for the rubbing technique to transfer the image to paper (see sidebar on how to make a Provincetown print.)
The first first-generation wood-block artists worked from 1915-1925. With the exception of Blanche Lazzell, they all faded away after a short 10-year stint. “That was the run they had,” says Evaul. The inventor of the white-line process, Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, who spent time in Paris and Italy, learned the traditional Japanese technique, which involves using a separate woodblock for each color.
“One time during their think-tank sessions, Nordfeldt came up with this idea to get the image on one block,” says Evaul. “His innovation was pinning the paper directly to the block, so you can lay it down and pick it up in the exact place. That’s what sparked this whole movement. More people joined, and it blossomed.”
Evaul, who has lived in Provincetown since 1970, discovered wood-block printmaking many years ago while working on a magazine article for Print Review about the Provincetown Printers. He was also a working artist and printmaker in New York, working in lithography and traditional woodcut, and teaching at a graphics center. So he had a solid nuts-and-bolts grounding. But he had to reverse engineer the process and figure it out himself. What attracted him to the wood medium?
“It’s the most painterly of all print-making techniques because you get to use a full palette,” says Evaul. “It’s the only technique where you can use an unlimited palette. The only single element that is common to any print is the carving. With Agnes Weinrich, I printed it from the same block six times and every time it’s different. In the show, there are reproductions of four different prints.”
Evaul, who teaches classes in the summer at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, says the woodblock print revolutionized the art scene because it unleashed painters who wanted to make prints, but didn’t want to get involved in process and technique. “It’s not that difficult to carve one block and then you’re back to painting,” says Evaul. “You also have the advantage of making multiples—that’s the main advantage of printmaking. Evaul says it was also a place for women artists to excel. “Back in that period, oil painting was king and everything else was nothing. If the women made prints, they had no competition. They could stake out their territory.”
Evaul also brings new approaches and techniques to the traditional white-line wood block style: He has increased the scale, making wood-cuts as large as seven feet, has developed a technique of multiple layers of colors, and uses oil-based paints and inks, in addition to the traditional watercolor. He also uses canvas as well as Japanese paper—which allows the color to transfer better because it has no sizing in it. “You want the paper to drink it back up.”
Even though 100 years has passed, Evaul says wood-block prints are still relatively unknown. “Ten percent who come into my gallery are already aware of it and the rest are just finding out, including artists as well.”
The exhibit at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum will be on display through Nov. 30. Bill Evaul Studios & Gallery is located at 347 Commercial St., Provincetown, 508-237-3080, www.evaul.com. Evaul will also be featured in the HBO documentary “Packed in a Trunk,” which highlights the relationship between Edith Lake Wilkinson and Blanche Lazzell, airing this summer.