“That’s the time my laundry gets done, dishes get done, pencil drawer gets cleaned out.
But once I summon my courage, I do step off the cliff”
From her new studio in Maine, printmaker, painter, teacher, and naturalist Sherrie York shares her journey as an artist with an international reputation. Sherrie’s linocuts express her love for the outdoors, from the flora and fauna of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the waters of Maine. The beauty and mysteries she discovers in nature inspire York to take a detailed look, which she elegantly captures as lyrical and expressive works on paper.
You have a history as an educator, yet find yourself as an artist. How did you make the transition?
My degree is in education, but during my studies I did take some art methods courses with an eye to classroom teaching. I took one printmaking class in etching and silkscreen, but not relief printing!
After college I started working in environmental education and doing some illustration, mostly of birds, which connected me with conservation organizations. That’s really how I started the naturalist portion of my work. I had a colleague who saw that I enjoyed sketching birds and introduced me to wildlife art.
When I took that college printmaking class I really loved etching, but you absolutely need a press to do intaglio printing. I was out of school for 15 years when I had a kind of “dope slap” moment and realized that I could do relief prints without a press, so I started playing around with linoleum blocks. All of those things evolved concurrently. The more I got involved with science and scientists –biologists in particular—the more I was drawn to creating work involving nature.
It’s never too late to learn—but it’s easy to have the thought that “if only I had started this practice sooner, think of how much better I would have been!” It’s always a challenge to say, “Okay, that might be true, but this is where I am and the work that I do is absolutely valid. Each day I’m going to try to do what I do just a little bit better- to learn more about my process, technique, nature, plants, birds, rocks—everything I can!
Do you still teach?
I do! The Rocky Mountain Society of Botanical Artists in Denver is hosting me for a workshop March of 2018 to learn how to draw and paint birds, and I will be leading workshops at the Farnsworth Art Museum and for the National Audubon Society in Maine. I enjoy teaching because I like to help people learn to take the time to sit, and look, and be in a space. To sit down with a sketchbook and record what’s around you… It can be a transformative experience.
You have done quite a lot of work in Europe. What differences do you find between American and European approaches to the creative process?
There’s a difference between an American sensibility and European sensibility, especially in the approach to wildlife art. For a long time the American focus in wildlife art has been hyper-realistic, taking plein air work to the studio for perfection, although that’s definitely changing. In Europe it’s the other way around, with an emphasis on fieldwork, and being out in the world creating art.
What has been going on in my work, especially the bird and water series, has been influenced by both sides of the pond. Pushing myself to put a certain degree of realism in the scene, and at the same time searching for a more interpretive sensibility. Treating the graphic medium of linocut as a watercolor by layering transparent color pushes the boundaries of what’s traditionally thought of as block printing.
What drew you to the linocut process?
I started in watercolor, but painted like a printmaker. Now I’m pushing my prints to reflect the ways I think about watercolor: creating that sense of movement and fluidity. It’s not easy to make a soft edge in lino—so the challenge is to suggest the soft edges and fluid, moveable, graceful aspects of the landscape in this inherently graphic, hard edge medium. I didn’t set out to work that way—but that’s what’s happened. Go ahead—think like a painter when you’re making prints. Why not?
What time of day are you inspired?
When I’m really working consistently, I tend to carve at night or in the later afternoon so I can be ready to print first thing in the morning. When I finish a color pass, the prints usually have to stand and dry for a while, so I go back to carving. The first few colors can go down quickly, but because I’m working in oil-based inks, the drying time slows down as the ink layers build up. If I try to print when earlier colors are still too wet on the image I might have to deal with “wet rejection.” The new color either pulls the existing color off the prints or it won’t stick. But if I let prints dry for too long, I can also get “dry rejection” because the existing colors have sealed the fibers of the paper. It’s all about the timing, and that changes along the way.
How do you go about planning the blocks?
Planning!? Ha! I do start out with a solid drawing and composition and an idea of where I’m going color-wise. I look at my references—a combination of photos and sketches, and I’ll make a list. I might, for example, decide I need 3 values of blue, 2 browns, a yellow, a green, and a red. And I’ll number those colors in the order I think I need to print them. But usually by the time I’m on the 3rd color pass, the plan has been thrown out.
There comes a point in most prints when I hit the “ugly duckling” stage. The first three, four, maybe five color passes go along okay. I start with harmonious hues, values seem to be working well, and then — uh oh! The next step is going to throw all of that out of whack and the process can become really uncomfortable The print could either work really well, or it could be a total disaster, and I won’t know until several steps from that point if what I’ve just done was the wrong idea. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to get through those steps, and I’m often reluctant to enter that awkward stage.
I call it “pacing the cliff.” I know I have to make a leap into uncertainty but I pace along the edge because I’m scared to step over. That’s the time my laundry gets done, dishes get done, pencil drawer gets cleaned out. But once I summon my courage, I do step off the cliff– hoping for a good landing, of course!
York’s work has been in many national and international juried exhibitions, including Birds in Art at the Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin (2011-2017), Colorado Governor’s Invitational (2014-2017) at the Loveland Museum in Colorado, and the 2016 and 2017 Coors Western Exhibition & Sale in Denver. She is a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists and currently serves on the SAA board. Learn more about the life and work of Sherrie York, and see her work in person at Ann Korologos Gallery in Basalt.