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Q&A with Award Winner M. Alexander Gray

M. Alexander Gray, Inn at James CityThe titular Inn at James City is a subject the artist had been thinking about for years before executing it in the print above, a relief engraving that was accepted into “Small Works” and recognized with the third-place award. The juror, Gretchen Schermerhorn, praised the artist’s use of a subtractive technique to create a range of dark and light values.

We talked to the artist, M. Alexander Gray (Facebook page/Etsy shop) about his printmaking process and influences.

Why are you a printmaker? Why engraving in particular?
M. Alexander Gray: I can trace my interest in printmaking to a college instructor who said my pen drawings reminded him of Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts. Over the years since then I have come to appreciate printmaking as an extension of — and improvement upon — drawing. Actually, this piece isn’t a true engraving. It is a relief engraving, which is the same as a wood engraving but executed on a synthetic surface (Resingrave) instead of end-grain hardwood. After doing a lot of reading about woodcuts in early college, I discovered wood engraving, which is a similar technique but capable of a greater level of detail than a woodcut. Wood engravings also tend to be quite small, which is of course the theme of this show.

Can you briefly explain what the process is to make a print like this?
For me, drawing is fundamental to the printmaking process, so I always begin with that. With some of my other relief prints, the carving process is basically engraving/carving away every part of the block’s surface that isn’t part of the drawing. On this piece, however, I tried to “translate” the pen and ink drawing into the language of wood engraving — that is, expressing value by engraving lines and dots in varying patterns. Wood engravers of the nineteenth century were amazingly good at this, and I am humbly imitating their technique.

Inn at James City in progress
Inn at James City in progress: the drawing, top, and engraving the Resingrave plate.

What’s your creative process, from an idea to a finished piece?
I see something that inspires me, usually a place, building, or landmark, and I go and take photos of it. Sometimes the places I choose are drawn from my past, other times I discover neat sites from research on the Internet. Then I’ll make a drawing, directly on the surface that I will be working on, be it copper or wood. The engraving can be done by hand with a tool called a burin, but in this case I used tiny rotary drill bits to work the surface. Once the engraving process has reached a certain point, I will take a proof of the block and use that as I guide to further engrave the piece until I am content to call it finished. Then I will print an edition of the piece.

Are there any differences between wood engraving and a woodcut other than scale?
Besides scale, wood engravings allow more detail and freedom of design because they are executed on the end-grain of wood, which means you can engrave freely in any direction. Woodcuts are done on side-grain blocks, and if you cut across the wood grain, the surface will splinter. For woodcuts, one uses tools like knives and gouges whereas with wood engravings, you use burins and gravers of various types as you would if you were engraving copper.

What and where is the Inn at James City? What was your goal with this piece?
The Inn at James City is a deserted building that I have noticed on my frequent drives between Alexandria and Charlottesville. It is a very noticeable structure beside Route 29 because of its impressive size and its obviously historic construction (from the nineteenth century if not earlier). I had often thought that it would make a good subject for a print. About a month after I visited it to take pictures they threw up an ugly chain link fence around the property, so my timing was opportune.

My goal was to further explore the technique of wood engraving as well as create a piece I had contemplated for several years but never actually executed.

What was your first experience with art as a child?
I don’t recall my very first experience with art but I loved to draw as a kid. As a child I was very attracted to illustrated books and photos in magazines. I had an art teacher in first grade who really made an impression on me as she shared paintings by Munch and Rousseau with our class.

Are there any artists in particular who have influenced you?
Many … Thomas Bewick, Albrecht Durer and all of his northern Renaissance contemporaries, Andrea Mantegna (his engravings) and Piranesi, just to name a few. In terms of more recent artists, there was a 20th century American printmaker named Asa Cheffetz who did lovely landscapes of the mountains of New England.

What are you working on now?
Right now I am just starting a series of prints based on the aqueducts of the C&O Canal. One piece is nearly completed, and I have made a couple trips to western Maryland to take references photos.

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