Helen Gotlib

A visit to the artist’s studio and her “Secret Beaches”

One of the things I love most when writing about contemporary artists in my hometown of Ann Arbor is the opportunity to visit their studios, where the intensely personal work of making art happens. Often seeing an artist in that private context deepens my understanding of their work. My recent visit to the studio of up-and-coming printmaker Helen Gotlib helped me to see her work more clearly as a deeply felt expression of her relationship with the natural world.

A native of Ann Arbor and a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied printmaking and scientific illustration as an undergraduate, Gotlib brings focused attention and technically accomplished execution to the natural environment that surrounds her studio in the woods outside of Dexter. She and her partner, fellow artist Dylan Strzynski, have lived in a charming, handmade post-and-beam cottage there for the past 5 years, and they share a roomy work space nearby.

Surrounded by woods and wildlife

Gotlib loves her fairy tale setting, surrounded by woods and wildlife. When I visited, she was hard at work, creating a new suite of pieces to show in her upcoming solo exhibit, Secret Beaches, at WSG Gallery. The influence of her environment is apparent in her recently completed, oversize prints, which inventively combine woodblock, intaglio and hand painting techniques. For her piece Water Garden VII, she has taken slices from the trunk of a recently felled, nearby cherry tree, and used them as ad hoc plates, passing them through a press to create oval striated shapes that suggest the deep blue depths of a fish pond like the one outside her studio door.

Gotlib also likes to incorporate impressions of wood grain from industrially produced plywood to suggest natural elements in the landscape. “I like to go to the hardware [store] and look through all the plywood and find what kind of wood will [describe] what I want to show, like water, or sky or grass,” she explains. Her prints usually consist of minimally carved wood block reliefs that lay down fields of color. Dark, densely linear intaglio printing overlays the background color, and often the artist hand paints details in gold leaf. She seldom makes large numbers of prints, preferring to keep editions to less than 20. The large prints that she plans to show in Secret Beaches are even fewer in number. She says of them, “I’ve done three different color combinations and of each color combination I’ve done four, so they’re fairly limited for sure.”

Printmaking influences

She traces her eclectic process to several influences that have shaped her approach to printmaking. She studied printmaking as an undergraduate with Takeshi Takahara, who has developed an environmentally friendly and non-toxic form of intaglio printing that employs plates made by applying a thin layer of spackle to a panel and carving into it. “I had been working in copper [plates] until about 4 years ago. I ran into Takeshi Takahara before he had a show, and he was telling me about the process. Then I went to his studio to buy a couple of pieces, and he showed me his plates, and I thought ‘that’s a great idea!’ I was moving my studio out of my basement and I didn’t want to work so much with toxic materials.” She continues, “Also, there’s something so instant about it and the thing about spackle is, you can use it to create different textures within the plate–they look accidental, but they’re not. There’s a beauty to it that I really like.” She also credits her time studying wood block printing in Japan with developing her appreciation for color and for introducing her to new materials, such as the handmade Japanese Gampi paper that she often uses in her work.

Helen Gotlib’s handsome prints serve as an invitation to see nature in our corner of the world with fresh eyes. Her work is shown in galleries and art fairs nationwide, but Secret Beaches will be her first solo show at WSG Gallery.

Helen Gotlib’s prints will be on view from April 30 through June 8, with an opening on May 3rd from 7-9.
WSG Gallery, 306 S. Main St.,
Free and open to the public.
734-761-2287 | For more information, visit wsg-art.com.

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