Schoolhouse Art Studio: Ken Wood

Next in our spotlight series is Ken Wood, a print artist and professor based in St. Louis, Missouri, whose pieces explore the relationship and impact between line and color on a grand scale. Ken created five relief prints exclusively for Schoolhouse, produced as part of a limited series made by running hand-cut plates with a highly textured surface through a large press. Learn more about Ken's artistic process and what inspires him. 

How would you describe your work and yourself as an artist?

"The gestures that make up these prints are based loosely on cursive letters - or, more accurately, the movements our hands make while writing these letters. I wanted to bring something forward that was everyday and overlooked - the daily gestural marks that we all make. The writing marks get enlarged and cropped, and then they are layered on top of each other, removing them from any original meaning and putting them into a new context. As in words, these 'letters' are still meant to combine together and complete each other, but color and pictorial space replace grammar and syntax as the framework through which they are understood."

"My goal, pictorially speaking, was to start with spare and simple elements and build them up into something visually rich - something with depth, complex color, geometric tension, and resolution (all the things that I like to see when I look at paintings or prints). One reason for starting with such a spare palette of marks and colors is that I want to be thorough in my exploration - by the time I have finished a suite of images, I like to feel that I have exhausted the possibilities. That's difficult to do if I have an unlimited palette to start from, but if I have only six gestures and a dozen colors, I feel that I can get to know every nuance about each shape, color overlay, and texture. In making the work, I learn the meaning of each of the elements that go into it."

What does your creative process look like from start to finish?

"For 'Written Words Fly,' the first in this series, I made about fifty gouache color studies at a small scale and chose four to develop. I projected and drew them onto trace paper at a much larger scale, and then transferred the images onto the plates (standard PVC boards). I then built brushes to the exact width of each gestural mark, and painted on each plate a textured mixture made up of carborundum (metal grit) and acrylic medium. This was a bit nerve-wracking, because I wanted the gestures to read as smooth, and one misstep could mean having to start over. At Pele Prints, a fine art printer in St Louis, MO (and my collaborator on the printing), we cut the plates, separating the gesture pieces from the background pieces, and then spent many days mixing colors until we came up with a palette that felt rich and diverse but also cohesive. Then, we rolled up the gestures with ink, re-united them with their backgrounds in the press (the process looks like putting together a jigsaw puzzle), and printed.

I think we did about eight Artists' Proofs before we decided what to go with, at which point we printed four editions of four prints each. Then, we started over, and came up with a second set of colors, and printed a second set of proofs and editions (Written Words Fly has two color schemes per image). Once the prints were dry, I signed them, and the very last step was to strike the plates (destroying them in order to secure the "limited" aspect of 'limited editions')." 

"For the PBX series, I skipped the gouache study phase and just created six plates that I thought would go together.  In this case, the invention happened wholly in the printing, as we (again with Pele Prints) just printed a ton of combinations of different plates in different colors before coming up with eight editions to print. I believe we did 26 artists proofs for this."

What do you hope to communicate, or have people experience, with your art and this series in particular?

"In framing and enlarging these simple, everyday shapes and gestures culled from everyday life, I am hoping that people will pause to give further consideration and find beauty in these once-tiny fragments of scribbles (at any rate, that's what I'm trying to get out of them for myself!). If nothing else, however, I hope they will appreciate the confluence of gestures and mixing of colors on the page, and they will find some calm in the balance I try to get in the compositions. For me, these compositions are a respite from the hectic pace of the rest of my life, and symbolize a clarity and resolution that I strive for on a day-to-day basis." 

Are there any rituals or routines you follow while creating?

"Stay in motion and, when possible, work standing up. Coffee helps." 

Where do you go when you’re craving inspiration?

"Inspiration has had different sources at different times of my life. When I was just out of graduate school and teaching in Rhode Island, I would go to our school's slide library and pore over its tens of thousands of slides (analog slides in drawers, not jpegs online); that never failed to help me figure out where to go with a class assignment or within my own work. Now that I have moved somewhere else, and slide libraries are a thing of the past, more and more I find inspiration in photographing little details of light and shadow.  This helps me continue to be able to see beauty in the banal. Other than that, watching my students make breakthroughs in their drawing, design or printmaking is always inspiring - and, of course, seeing the amazing process of my kids learning how to express themselves through drawing." 

Who are your artistic or design influences/heroes?

"There are many, and different influences come to the forefront at different times. I started my creative life as an architecture student, and that has had a lasting influence. Rice University, where I studied, had a program that was rooted in the tenets of early Modernism, and the architect I studied that influenced me the most was Louis Kahn.  His way of shaping space was eye-opening for me, and I loved the organic way he shifted from one design to another, ending in a solution that always felt grounded and resolute. I especially liked the way his buildings were built on a grid but never felt rigid, always favoring the exceptions over the rule. In my brief career in architecture before starting my MFA, I had the good fortune of working in Philadelphia for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and I learned a lot about building upon modernist ideas and aesthetic without letting the 'purity' of modernism cause me to exclude ornament, whimsy, and other forms of messy vitality." 

"My painting hero at that time was Cy Twombly (I got to see his work at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art), whom I admired for his use of space, color and writing-like marks - later, when I was completing my grad studies at Temple University in Rome, I got to meet him! (which I still can't quite believe). Recently, as I've gotten more into shapes and colors, I've been a big fan of Ellsworth Kelly and Josef Albers.   

What role does art and design play in your own home? Tell us about your decor style.

"Our dining room is where I try out new work I've made, and it's constantly on rotation, but other parts of the house have settled into a more or less stable yet eclectic collection of books, WPA photographs, art I've traded with friends and former students, and my wife's collection of woven baskets and prints from her travels (we adhere to the Venturi Scott Brown notion of messy vitality in our house). We also have lots of kids' artwork, both 2D and 3D, and two Piranesi prints in our front room to remind me of Rome."



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