Woodcuts in Winter: Lynita Shimizu's art
By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Tue., Jan. 8, 2013
Visitors to the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Pomfret were treated to a colorful array of birds on Jan. 6. Morning doves and chickadees enjoyed eating from the feeder just feet from a window, while birds of a different sort covered the activity room walls. Guinea hens rolled their eyes. A barred owl remained stock still. A grackle marched like a general towards a south-facing wall. The lively creations are woodblock prints, the work of Pomfret artist Lynita Shimizu. What sets them apart from other prints is the method Shimizu employs to make them, a method she's been using since the '70s, but one that stretches back centuries.
Moku (wood) hanga (print) is a Japanese woodblock printmaking technique that uses wood, carving and rubbing implements and water-based pigments and paste. It sounds simple, but the process is labor-intensive, according to Shimizu. “I'll work on a sketch for about a week, simplify it, decide what colors will go on what blocks and how to separate the colors. That's the first step,” she said. The carving is done on a special plywood made of bass wood. She might use one block of wood to create a black and white print, or she might use up to 10 blocks of wood, cutting each block a few times to create a print of up to 25 different colors.
Shimizu came to the craft through a somewhat circuitous route. The fine arts major graduated from Westminster College in Pennsylvania. After taking a course on Zen Buddhism and art in Japan, she fell in love with the country. She spent a year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where a teacher said her watercolors looked like they would be great as woodcuts. She eventually got a job teaching English in Japan.
One day she found a book about a woodcut master in Kyoto. “Somehow I made arrangements to visit him,” she said. That visit turned into an apprenticeship of three days a week for a year. She fell in love with the art form.
She met her husband in Japan. “He liked my humor in the prints and I guess the way I see things," she said. Instead of an engagement ring, he gave her a baren, a lightweight, hand-held disc used in the printmaking process. Well-made barens are expensive and rare. They can take a master craftsman up to a year to make. Of particular importance is the coil of braided bamboo inside the baren. This coil is what makes the printmaking process so unique.
The prints Shimizu's made in the intervening 37 years are what she calls a visual diary. “I print what I see or what's going on in my life at the time,” she said. It's fitting that she's exhibiting at the Audubon Society Center because so many of her prints are of birds, nature, bugs and trees. “I haven't done people for so long because I'm living out here in the middle of the woods,” she said, laughing.
Her prints range from 2-inch by 2-inch to 24-inch by 19-inch. “You're limited by the paper size,” she said. “And it's so expensive.” The handmade paper can cost about $20 for an 18-inch by 23-inch sheet. Shimizu purchases her paper from a Japanese couple in their 70s. It's getting to be challenging to find the paper even in Japan, she said.
Watercolorist David Stumpo calls Shimizu one of Connecticut's artistic treasures. “Her sense of design, her uncanny sense of negative and positive shape amazes me,” he said. “As a watercolorist that works in a great deal of detail, I appreciate her patience and exacting approach to her craft.”
So does Carly Martin of Silver Circle Gallery in Putnam. “She's carrying on this tradition,” Martin said. “She's keeping the integrity of the craft intact.”
Her show, “Woodcuts in Winter,” runs Jan. 6 through 31 at the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Pomfret Grassland Bird Conservation. For more information, visit www.ctaudubon.org/center-at-pomfret.