The accidental illuminator

| 28 Dec 2015 | 06:04

By Melissa Shaw-Smith

Flavia Bacarella runs the roller over the smooth sheen of black ink on the glass countertop. She listens for the subtle sound telling her the consistency is just right. Then she applies a thin layer to a herd of zebra carved into a block of maple wood. Carefully lining up a sheet of handmade mulberry paper over the block, she presses the ink evenly into the fibers. Moments later the zebras appear, trotting off into the African plain.

Portraits of wild African animals carved into wood blocks line the walls of Bacarella’s studio: a pair of warthogs busily going about their business, a giraffe peering from its lofty height, a secretary bird striding out of the frame, emphasizing the bird’s large presence in the landscape. She has a knack for capturing the spirit of each animal.

Bacarella is a professor of art and trained as a painter. She fell into making woodcut prints by accident. Her husband, Keith Stewart, runs their organic farm in Greenville, New York. She had illustrated several magazine articles he wrote about the farming life. When Keith compiled these into a book, the art editor asked to see Flavia’s portfolio and picked out a small print she had done of pumpkins. Woodcuts are a good choice for a book. The only problem was, it was the only one she’d ever done.

“I nearly died! I didn’t know how to do woodcuts!” Not to be deterred, Bacarella got up early one morning when her husband left for market and went out to sketch the tractor. “I came in and found a scrap of wood. My whole woodcut history derived from illustrating the book.”

Flavia was nervous showing her woodcuts to the editors, but they ended up using 42 of them. “Carving with a block is a visceral extension of drawing,” she says. “It’s a physical experience. The wood is very resistant. It fights you back. I find myself totally engaged.”

Bacarella uses a set of carving tools gifted to her by a fellow artist. These tools were already 50 years old when he received them as a young child. The handle of her favorite is worn to a sheen. Most of the subjects of her woodcuts come from the farm. But a recent trip to Kenya provided a perfect opportunity to try her hand at more exotic animals, which have become the subjects of her latest exhibition. “The block will tell you what to do sometimes. When you carve you have to eliminate. You have to go for the essence.”

A scene of an elephant family herding around a young one to protect it is a fine example of this. Bacarella now has so many portraits of animals stored in her studio, she hopes to collaborate with her husband Keith to make a children’s book—a natural choice for an illuminator.