Octogenarian’s Woodcuts Contain Bits and Pieces from Other Projects

  • Nike and Pants, a folded woodcut, 12x12 inches, is one of Lili Mayor’s works on display at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction.

  • Envelope, a folded and cut woodcut, is one of the works in Elizabeth Mayor’s show now up at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Elizabeth “Lili” Mayor, the printmaker who co-founded AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, no longer feels the need to start her woodcuts from scratch. At 81, she’s begun to recycle scraps of former projects, cutting and folding and stitching them into new configurations. These collage-like pieces are currently on display at the Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction, in an exhibit aptly titled “Woodcuts Re-expressed.”

In a recent interview at the printmaking studio, the Hanover-based artist considered the long and winding road that led to her latest collection.

“I’m very old, you know,” she said in an exaggeratedly hushed tone, as if conveying a secret. Then, normally, “You end up with so much stuff. And so I have all these boxes at home, just full of work that was lousy, or that I don’t care about.”

Though “Woodcuts Re-Expressed” contains bits and pieces from various projects, some dating back 30 or 40 years, the common thread between them is Mayor’s unique sensibility, said Sheri Hancock-Tomek, a board member at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio who has known Mayor for some 15 years.

“(The pieces) have this great continuity to them,” Hancock-Tomek said. “It’s funny, because they’re all just so her.”

Part of that continuity might be Mayor’s preferred color scheme: She tends to stick to black and white, at times layered into shades of translucent grays, perhaps accented with the occasional pop of red. This is a habit she picked up from the well-known printmaker Leonard Baskin, whom she studied under at Smith College.

“He was very hands-off,” Mayor said of Baskin’s mentorship style. “He would just come in and say whether he liked something or not and then leave. There wasn’t much interaction. But he also encouraged no color — just black and white, the old-fashioned way. And even now, when I try to put in a little bit of something else, it just doesn’t look right to me. It seems like a foreign element.”

That less-is-more attitude toward colors has even found its way into her wardrobe, she said. At the time, Mayor was wearing a chestnut-toned cardigan: “This is really out there for me,” she joked.

Mayor’s process of woodcutting is, like her color palette of choice, elegantly simple. It’s done by carving out the unwanted portions of wood — Mayor often uses power tools for this step, but also does it by hand, with a gouge — then rolling ink over the raised portions of wood that remain. That ink gets imprinted onto paper, either by hand or by running it through a press.

“Ta-da!” Mayor said.

Over the years, she has refined her approach to this process. She often uses kitakata paper, which is made of fibers from the Japanese gampi plant and has a soft, delicate finish; for this, she uses a technique called chine colle, in which she bonds the kitikata paper onto a heavier surface.

Mayor embraces uncertainty as part of her printmaking process. She does not start her pieces with a plan or vision: In fact, she said in a recent email that she often works with her eyes closed, just to see what happens, and sometimes ends up using the reverse of the printed image. This spirit of playful experimentation shines through in the final product.

“I quite enjoy myself when I do it,” said Mayor, “although I don’t really like pasting. Ilove to sew it, because then I can take it out again. Even the holes that no longer have thread in them I like. I don’t try to cover them.”

She’s such a soft-spoken woman that, at first,it’s hard to imagine her brandishing an electric drill or gouge. But she clearly has great fun with it; her work exudes a lively, lighthearted quality that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of her pieces, Nike and Pants, transposes the Nike “swoosh” into a pattern that renders the well-known logo almost unrecognizable; in Keith’s Dogs, she accomplishes a similar feat with an image borrowed from the work of the artist and activist Keith Haring, whose radical subway art propelled him to fame in the 1980s.

Mayor’s use of modern culture puts a playful, contemporary spin on the woodcutting process, which originated some 2,000 years ago, in China during the Han dynasty. The art form later became popular in Europe during the 1400s, and, as opposed to Mayor’s own simple and abstract style, these Renaissance-age woodcuts often portrayed highly detailed Biblical or mythological scenes.

Mayor noted with amazement how time-consuming it must have been to produce these early prints.

“Well, they didn’t have anything else to do!” she laughed. “That’s what I keep telling myself. They had no TV. They only had about four books. Poor things.”

After she graduated from Smith in 1957, she started a city planning job in Boston; she’d taken a cartography course in college, and liked the idea of working with maps. Before long, she was married and a mother of four, “which kept me busy for a while,” she said.

Eventually, she decided to supplement her job with night courses at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. She earned her master’s degree from SMFA in 1990, specializing in sculpture; she enjoyed working in three dimensions, which is evident in the textured layers and folds in “Woodcuts Re-Expressed.”

She also had fun with more unconventional mediums.

“Rubber, at the time, was my main material,” she said. She’d treated it as a fabric, and made garments out of it — a giant kimono, for example. “I ruined my sewing machine. Just ruined it.”

By the time she’d earned her degree from SMFA, though, she was already an established artistic presence in the Upper Valley. She’d moved to Etna with her husband, who was an orthopedic doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in 1971; shortly thereafter, Mayor met Emmabelle Egbert, another mother with a passion for art. Between the two of them, the seeds of what would become AVA Gallery and Art Center were sown in 1973.

Though Mayor’s work has been featured in a large number of solo and group exhibitions at regional galleries and museums, she is uncomfortable when people try to over-interpret her work; for her, it’s always just been about having fun with it.

“I don’t really think about what (the pieces) mean,” she said with a shrug. “I just like to do them.”

Mayor’s show, “Woodcuts Re-Expressed,” is on view at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction through July. The studio will hold a mid-exhibition reception for Mayor on Friday evening, from 6 to 8.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.