Artist Mary Brodbeck Uses Documentary to Explore Japanese Woodblock Printmaking
On Tuesday, March 31st, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts will screen Becoming Made, a documentary by Kalamazoo artist Mary Brodbeck on the history, passion and unique process behind Japanese woodblock printmaking. And the story behind the documentary is nearly as fascinating as the film itself.
The art of Japanese woodblock printmaking is largely unknown in the United States, and for good reason. It’s relatively new here. And it’s really hard. Making just one piece requires hours upon hours of work.
First, you need to sketch an image you want to make. Trace that image on to wood. Then, for every color that you want to add to the piece, you have to carve out a unique woodblock, add paint to it and press it on to the piece. It all adds up to potentially dozens of different woodblock carvings, all for just one painting. It’s a long process, but it’s what Mary Brodbeck loves about it.
"Taking parts and pieces and like creating all the components that eventually get all put together is very design-oriented," she says. "I like complicated things, I like parts and pieces, and I like putting them together to make them cohesive."
For nearly two decades, Brodbeck has dedicated herself to the craft. It started on a trip to Japan in college in 1998, where she learned the art. Since then, she’s carved and created scenes of the Great Lakes. But in 2011, Brodbeck looked around her and realized she wasn’t having as much fun as other artists.
"And I had been listening to people talk about going to their studios and having fun," she says. "And for me, going to my studio and woodblock printmaking hadn't been so fun. It was like work. Like I was going to work!
"I took it very seriously, and I would work eight or ten or twelve hours a day. And I didn't really think of it as fun."
She began to wonder: why am I still doing this, years and years after I began? What keeps me going? Why art? Why printmaking? And why woodblocks? These were big questions. The answer – or at least the way to find the answer – came to Brodbeck when she tried out a digital camera for the first time.
"And suddenly I was overwhelmed with this feeling of fun," Brodbeck explains. "And I thought, Oh! This is what people have been talking about! So then I thought I've gotta make a documentary about woodblock printmaking! This is what I have to do!"
So she did. The documentary, titled Becoming Made, is both a history lesson and a how-to on Japanese wood block printmaking, giving viewers a glimpse into Brodbeck’s world. But Brodbeck still needed to answer her own nagging question -- why do her art?
So Brodbeck headed to the first woodblock printmaking festival, held in Japan in 2011. There she asked other artists what kept them going. Their answers were all over the place.
One artist explained: “My favorite part, of course is carving. It’s so, so, so comfortable. And the greater the challenge, the happier I am to solve that“
From another: “It is so tactile, and people long for that touch after having spent way too long working on the computer.“
Brodbeck has returned to printmaking now. She says the documentary gave her a new appreciation for the art form. Instead of something like film, which requires a lot of time to really appreciate, she likes that her art is just there, on the wall, available at all times.
"So I really enjoy printmaking now, for knowing the difference and knowing its accessibility, I think," she says.
You can see Becoming Made Tuesday, March 31st at noon at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. The movie will also be shown on April 10th at 6 p.m. at the Wellspring Theater.