A diverse and interesting array of wood-based artwork is on show at the Society of Wood Engraver's 76th annual exhibition, being held at the Burton Art Gallery in Bideford. Simon Lockyer talked to local artist and printmaker Merlyn Chesterman.
WOOD-BASED artwork by top talents from all over the world feature in the latest exhibition by the Society of Wood Engravers. One of these is Hartland artist Merlyn Chesterman, who is known for her atmospheric and large scale prints, some of which are stunning local landscapes.
Merlyn works in her home studio in Hartland and teaches classes and courses to the public. And, as could possibly be expected by the coastal rurality of the village, she is often inspired by her surroundings.
"I love the Hartland landscape," she said. "I think I could do woodcuts of the sea and where the sea meets the land for the rest of my life, and never tire of it and never have finished exploring it. It is never the same. I have only touched the surface in terms of understanding the movement of water and how to portray it. The water is a thousand colours. I have only just begun."
A keen teacher, Merlyn not only runs courses in Hartland but also teaches the fundamentals of woodblock printing in short courses at West Dean College in Chichester, where she once studied.
And to this day, Merlyn's education influences her work. Before studying printmaking at West Dean, she completed a degree in fine art at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. "I see myself as a painter-printmaker, a fine art printmaker," she explained. "I studied with some of the best artists in the country in the Sixties. Corsham was one of the very best colleges in the country at the time. Gillian Ayres, Howard Hodgkin, Adrian Heath, Michael Craig-Martin and other big artists were there with us weekly. I have learnt woodblock skills since Corsham, but it was my experience there that has made me into the kind of artist that I am."
Although she studied such forms of intricate art, it wasn't until she travelled to Asia in 1979 that Merlyn decided to try her hand at woodcutting.
"I was travelling in China on the Mongolian border when I decided I would love to learn how to do woodcuts," she explained. "They were used in place of glass in the windows of the houses there and were very colourful and beautiful. It took me until 2000 to find a place to learn; first a day at Poole Printmakers, and then a few short courses at West Dean where I now teach."
Merlyn is often told that her works hold an Asian influence, but this is not something that surprises her.
"I would hope and assume that living in Asia for so long – as a child and an adult – had a profound effect on me at many levels," she admitted. "Different shapes and colours, different weather and outlook on life. It would be odd if I did not grow up with other tastes and interests and influences.
"Travelling around Asia and America has probably developed my visual awareness.
"I can get very excited by patterns or unexpected combinations of colour, by the colour of the sky with tornadoes forming, or thinking how to share visually the sound of the wind in a typhoon. My work always stems from an emotion, something that has struck me."
As well as exhibiting locally, Merlyn's art can be seen as far away as the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and she has also had two North Devon-inspired works featured in the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Show in London.
"My piece A Prevailing Wind is at the Royal Academy this year, and last year it was a woodcut called Bent Tree that got in," she explained.
"Both are very local themes and I wonder if I got in because, living here, I have a knowledge about the elements we live in – the wind being an almost constant factor. If I lived in London, I would not be producing the same work."
And, having exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers around the country for the last 10 years, Merlyn is no stranger to the showcase at the Burton.
"I am a woodblock printmaker," she explained. "Engravers, like Hilary Paynter, use end grain and printmakers, like myself, use side grain – planks, you could describe them as."
For those unfamiliar with the art of woodblock printmaking, Merlyn spelled it out: "I cut a design into the surface of the wood; what I cut does not pick up ink, and what I don't cut – the high surface – does. Once the block is cut, it is inked with a roller, and then paper is placed on top of the block, and pressure applied – either with a burnisher, by hand, or by putting it through a press. This is known as 'relief printing'."
Merlyn Chesterman's work is included in The Society Of Wood Engravers 76th Annual Exhibition which is at the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Bideford, until Monday, September 15.