Art Notes: Lyme Printmaker Applies Asian Technique to Local Scenery

Thursday, November 19, 2015
Epiphanies don’t come along every day of the week, so when it happens an artist pays attention.

In 1993 Matt Brown went to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College to see a show of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, the 19th century Japanese artist. The Hood has in its collection two complete sets of Hiroshige’s famous print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō , which depicted the road that ran from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto, then the imperial capital.

Hiroshige was one of a number of Japanese printmakers whose stylistic innovations and handling of perspective excited such artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin and James McNeill Whistler, and led to the late 19th century European and American craze called Japonisme . Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, was a genre of woodblock prints illustrating scenes from Japanese history, culture, landscape and myth.

When Brown saw them, he said, “a light bulb went off.”

Brown, who grew up and still lives in Lyme, was then working as a builder and taking art classes with Clifford West through the AVA Gallery. He’d also studied art as an undergraduate at Harvard College, graduating in 1980. But seeing the Japanese prints stopped him in his tracks. “I wondered if I could figure out how to do it,” he said.

More than 20 years later, Brown has indeed figured out how to make Japanese-style woodblock prints, or hanga , but in the American vernacular.

His prints of the northern New England landscape share some of the gauzy light, and receding, deep perspective of Japanese prints, but his subjects are the mountains and lakes of the region, as well as the sea shore of the East Coast, New York City, family scenes and some views of New York City.

A show of Brown’s watercolors, which sometimes serve as the starting point for his prints, is currently at Long River Galleries and Gifts in Lyme, which also displays some of his prints. The watercolors have a freshness that he likes, Brown said, and they are also a “way of chasing out the image” he’ll develop later in his prints.

Brown works in his studio, which is in a barn next to his house. Stacks of woodblocks and jars of paint are lined up along the walls. Making a woodblock print is a long process: each woodblock represents one color. Layering the colors of a print requires that each print go through a number of proofs before it reaches the final state.

“It’s fascinating to get different blocks to work together,” Brown said. Among the elements he finds fascinating are the juxtaposition of colors, and the shapes carved into and out of the wood. And there is a pleasing contradiction in taking a three-dimensional project, the woodblock, and making from it a two-dimensional work of art.

The analogy Brown uses is that of the theater. Loosely, he’s the director of a play, the blocks are the actors, and the proofs are the rehearsals. Another analogy is that of an orchestra, with Brown as conductor, although he does have assistance from people who help him run the series of proofs.

On the morning of a reporter’s visit, Brown is looking at the proofs for a run of a print called Evening on Lake Winn ip esaukee , which shows sunset reflected in the lake. He analyzes the variations in the hues of the water from one proof to the next. Too light, maybe too dark, just right.

T hat Japanese prints adhere to certain stylistic conventions ends up being one of the strengths of the genre. Brown remembered an art professor who told him, “Limits are form.”

“It’s the limitation, the cumbersomeness of it that makes the art,” Brown said.

It’s the combination of watercolor and wood that give Japanese prints their light and depth, and their intimacy, Brown said. And partially because of the woodcut form, Japanese printmakers knew what to leave out; what’s omitted determines the look and feel as much as what’s depicted.

The woodblock also, to a degree, determines the size. You’re not going to get a huge print working in woodblocks, he said. And that “scalability” makes it possible for him to actually make a living from his art.

“I’ve realized this is my language,” Brown said. The show of Matt Brown’s watercolors continues at Long River Gifts and Galleries through Jan. 12. His prints can also be seen at his website,

Call to Artists

T he Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock is issuing a call for local artists to exhibit their work in both solo and group shows in 2016, in the library’s mezzanine gallery. Artists can inquire about applications at the circulation desk or look at the library’s website ,

Openings and Receptions

Instead of making the beneficiary of your hard-earned dollars this holiday season, why not look closer to home for unique, handm ade works of art or craft? Artis - Tree in Pomfret opens its annual show “Small Works ... Less is More,” a gallery of holiday gifts, with an opening reception Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show continues through Dec. 20.

A show of work by Adelaide Tyrol, whose illustrations have been seen in Northern Woodlands magazine and other publication, including the Valley News , is on view in “The Outside Story” at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich through Nov. 29.

O ngoing

Arabella , Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

A VA Gallery and Art Center , Lebanon. K ira’s Garden, the outdoor sculpture garden, is open through Nov. 22. “Collages of Color: Recent Work from Art Lab Classes at AVA,” runs through Nov. 28.

Big Town Gallery , Rochester , Vt . “Hot Houses-Warm Curves,” an exhibition of painting, drawing and photography, runs through Dec. 12.

Cider Hill Art Gallery , Windsor. New paintings by Gary Milek are on view through Sunday, when the gallery closes for the season. Outdoor sculptures by Heb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith and the Myth Makers, as well as vessels by Stephen Proctor, also are on view.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. The Betty Grant Gallery exhibits “People and Places,” a show of photographs by Anne Baird and Nora Palmer Gould, until Dec. 31.

H all Art Foundation , Reading, Vt. Works by Keith Sonnier and Peter Saul, as well as outdoor sculptures by Richard Deacon, Marc Quinn and Olafur Eliasson, are on view through Nov. 29.

Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. Three shows about collecting run through Dec. 6: they are “Canaletto’s Vedute Prints: An Exhibition in Honor of Adolph Weil, Jr.;” “The Stahl Collection,” and “Collecting and Sharing: Trevor Fairbrother, John T. Kirk, and the Hood Museum of Art.”

Hopkins Center , Dartmouth College. Artists in residence Gibson/Martelli show their work in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery through Sunday. The Strauss Gallery features the work of Sarah Amos, Paul Bowen, Edward Del Rosario, Ariel Freiberg, Hein Koh, Julie Puttgen and Jessica Tam in the exhibition “VisitingFaculty.1,” which also continues through Sunday.

Howe Library , Hanover. “Dreams and Monsters: Portraits and Words from the 19th Century,” a show of portraits of 19th century luminaries by David Westby, runs through Dec. 2.

Kilton Public Library , West Lebanon. The watercolors of sisters Patti Rutledge Warren and Rosalie Rutledge desGroseilliers are on view in “We Paint Together,” which runs through Jan. 31 .

Library Arts Center , Newport. The LAC’s holiday Gallery of Gifts is open through Dec. 23.

Main Street Museum of Art , White River Junction. “Queering the Lines,” a show of work by Rebecca Levi, continues through December.

Norwich Public Library . “Fluid Landscapes,” a show of work by painter Georgina Forbes, runs through D ecember.

Royalton Memorial Library , South Royalton. The ceramics of Monique van de Ven are on view through Dec. 5.

Scavenger Gallery , White River Junction. “Speculative Biology?,” a show of illustrations and illustrated books by Luke Eastman and Adam Blue, runs through Dec. 3.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site , Cornish. The exhibition buildings are now closed for the season. The visitors’ center is open, and outdoor sculptures are still on view.

Tunbridge Library . “The Bowl, A Celebration,” an exhibition of bowls made by students from the Tunbridge Central School runs until Dec. 31.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio , White River Junction. The work of Lois Beatty and Elizabeth Mayor is on view through Nov. 30.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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