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Artistic Etchings

Cuts across the grain

ANN CONNER and SHANNON BOURNE envision works of art in blocks of wood. Skilled at designing, carving, and selecting color, these local artists create prints using an ancient art form that originated in Asia.

Color Blocking

“The color and woodgrain are what drives me,” says Conner (above). “Many woodcut artists work in black and white, but I always work in color. It takes some special pigments.”

An eye for color is evident in her vibrant works available in local galleries, across the country, and internationally. In solo and group exhibits, collaborative efforts, and print and commissioned pieces, Conner has amassed an impressive body of work. Collections include those at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; Bank of Tokyo Trust Company; Fogg Museum of the Harvard Art Museums; and the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Born and raised in Wilmington, Conner earned a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where professor Marvin Saltzman saw potential in her.

“He saw I had a sensibility toward the grain of wood and how it takes the color,” Conner says.

She is now a professor emeritus at University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she taught painting for a number of years and is past chair of the art and art history department there. Her private studio in Wilmington beckoned for two years before she transitioned out of university life in 2013. She enjoys having the space to do what she loves and the physicality of it. While some artists have turned to laser cutting, she prefers hands-on techniques.

“The work is physical and hard work in that sense,” Conner says. “I like the physical work, and when you see the color coming off the printer, it’s like magic.”

With intricate planning, she knows exactly how the design will look before the first cut. Conner begins with a sketch on newsprint using tools such as a template, compass, Spirograph, cookie cutters, or other implements. Adapting tools as her work evolved, she rigged up an extension for the compass so she could make a larger design.

“My father was an engineer, so I grew up around those tools,” she says.

Then she sketches in pencil onto the wood. Shapes come to life using a high-speed chisel that cuts 1,000 vibrations per minute.

Since 1993, Conner has been collaborating with others to achieve the size and color she imagines for her pieces. Flatbed Press in Austin, Texas, prints her large works, which can measure 40-by-50 inches and require three people to handle. The printer uses a special press that prevents the ink from settling in and disappearing, so it produces the look and presence Conner desires.

When the work is ready for printing, Conner travels to Austin for about a week to experiment with colors. Printing can take up to a year; then she is back in Austin to proof and sign the pieces.

For smaller pieces (13-by-13 inches), Conner works with The Grenfell Press in New York. 

Perfecting Conner’s art form has been an education in itself. She learned a hard lesson about wood that warps. Now, she orders specific types of wood from Superior Millwork, a specialty store in Wilmington.

Prints of All Sizes

Bourne (above), a lecturer in UNCW’s art and art history department, focuses on printmaking of all types. A North Carolina native, Bourne came to Wilmington to earn a degree in marine biology at UNCW and settled here. After starting a family, Bourne, who earned an MFA at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, started a new degree in art and even took her children along to a summer of study in Italy.

While she has been recognized for her work as a graphic designer, prop maker, and art director for film and television, Bourne also organized the UNCW Print Fest Steamroller Print Extravaganza that is held biennially in the spring on campus.

Originally the Big Print festival in Carolina Beach started by artist JENNIFER PAGE in 2009, the event gives artists a chance to try large-scale work, Bourne says.

“Giant relief work gives you the opportunity to see other artists and collaborate … We end up being alone a lot,” she says of print artists.

As Page’s focus turned to other things, she gave her blessing to move the festival to UNCW, and Bourne says the university’s support has been tremendous.

The all-day, free event last held in front of the school’s Cultural Arts Building in 2017 offered printing demos and a dramatic showing.

Using a two-ton construction paving roller, a group of ten artists printed out oversized woodcuts at 4 feet by 6 feet. The event offered a chance for the community to observe firsthand how artists carve the design into wood, then ink and print it. A number of artists and colleges from around North Carolina were represented.

(Big Print festival photos courtesy of UNCW)

The theme of the woodcuts is based on the work of the nonprofit the event proceeds will benefit – last year it was Cape Fear Guardian ad Litem. Of the three prints each artist made, the nonprofit selected one print to use however they choose. And Print Fest is looking for local causes to highlight in the future.

“I’m always amazed with the variety of images artists can come up with related to the nonprofit,” Bourne says.

But, relief work does not have to be large or even carved in wood, Bourne explains. It’s an accessible art form.

“It’s the one type of printmaking you can do anywhere,” she says. “All you need is carving tool, linoleum or wood, ink, and paper.”


To view more of photographer Lindsey A. Miller's work, visit lindseyamillerphotography.com.


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