Another Escape | Carving Landscapes

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Carving Landscapes

Captivated by wilderness since early childhood, artist Kelli MacConnell embraces a unique relationship with nature that continually inspires her work. Exploring landscapes with careful observation, she translates her natural surroundings into richly detailed woodblock and linocut relief prints.

In Portland, Oregon, on the doorstep of the Pacific Northwest's breathtaking landscapes, Kelli combines her craft with her partner Jason Michaelson’s bespoke frame-making practice. His use of reclaimed wood complements her art to create incredible, unified pieces that help reconnect people to nature. Kelli chats with us about the inspirations and painstaking processes behind her practice, offering personal insight into her nature-inspired artistry.

Kelli, nature forms the subject of your creative work. Could you tell us about the root of your admiration and fascination with it?

Ever since I can remember I’ve always been captivated by the great outdoors, despite the fact that I grew up in a relatively big city not exactly known for its jaw-dropping wilderness. I think it stems from trips to the small town where my mother grew up, along the Great Lakes in Michigan. When I was young, we would spend every summer there playing in the forest, creeks and lakes. My memories of family vacations centre around visiting places of natural beauty. I believe this is where my curiosity for nature began.

As a young adult, I felt drawn to the forest to reconnect with the real world, to seek clarity, to be humbled, to feel alive. This sparked my fondness for thru-hiking. I love the idea of only carrying the bare essentials on my back, into the wild and away from civilisation. I soon realised that this is where I felt most at peace and could think most clearly. There’s so much to gain from learning to live with the bare minimum and at the will of Mother Nature.

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At 21, in the spring of 2003, I began hiking the Appalachian Trail and finished the 2,190-mile trip that October. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and further fuelled my love for the outdoors. I felt that the rawness of being in the wilderness helped me keep perspective on life, and where I or we, as humans, fit into the equation.

Not too long after my thru-hike, I decided I wanted to head west to explore more of the natural beauty of the US, which eventually resulted in me moving to Oregon on a whim. I was enchanted by the vast and majestic landscapes of the West Coast, and have since enjoyed hiking the remote wilderness areas of this region. My extensive thru-hikes slowed down six years ago after I had my daughter, Fiona. However, a new type of travel has evolved. Travel with an extremely observant child has its own beauty. Not as many miles are covered, but now I’m blessed with the ability to consider and absorb nature and the wilderness through a child’s eyes. As a family, my partner Jason, Fiona, and I, enjoy mushroom hunting in the lush Pacific Northwest forests, shorter day hikes to waterfalls, and camping on secluded beaches on the coast. These days I better appreciate such opportunities because the time and ability to get to my remote havens are harder to come by.

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What inspired the artistic marriage between your love for the natural world and your printmaking?

My mother and grandmother probably wouldn’t consider themselves artists, yet their creativity showed through their homes and gardens. They were always crafting, and my grandmother was always tending to her beautiful garden, which in turn encouraged me to be creative. My parents recognised my passions from a young age and did what they could to foster them as I grew up. They taught me to never shy away from my desire to do what I love.

Combining my two passions – the great outdoors and creative practice – came pretty organically. It’s not a conscious decision, more just what comes to me when I sit down to create. My focus for many years was landscape drawing and painting, and it actually wasn’t until my third year in college that I discovered printmaking. To me, printmaking felt like a mix of drawing, painting and sculpture, which was very exciting. I felt like I had opened a door onto a whole new world!

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"When I'm out in the field, there's a feeling I like to hold on to that helps me create the overall mood and determines the type of mark making I use."

Is there a broader mission to your work? You’ve previously mentioned that you strive to bridge the gap between a modern way of life and our innate affinity to nature.

My prints are created to evoke nostalgia, reverence and curiosity. I hope they remind people of places they have visited and inspire them to respect and protect their natural surroundings. Hopefully, they also encourage people to discover something new, creating a sort of snowball effect of inspiration, discovery, reconnection, affinity, passion, respect, and, ultimately, environmental stewardship. I think it is hard to want to protect something you don’t feel connected to. I actually just kicked off a Prints for Preservation fundraiser for wilderness conservation for which I will be creating a print annually and donating a percentage of the profits to preserving threatened wilderness areas.

Your process involves heading out into wild places and beautiful natural landscapes to observe, sketch, and draw inspiration from. Why is this important to your practice?

Not only do I enjoy getting outdoors and think it’s important to stay connected to my subject matter, but when I’m out in the field there's a feeling I like to hold onto that helps create the overall mood and determines the type of mark making I use when carving the woodblock. Time spent in the wilderness makes me feel more awake and conscious, which further motivates and inspires me. The subtleties of nature are missed unless you take the time to sit in it and turn on all your senses.

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Could you walk us through the rest of your creative process?

I begin by mapping out a blueprint of the print. After I have a sketch or composition I’m happy with, I reverse the image onto a linoleum or wood block. Sometimes this sketch is a precise representation of how I want the final print to look, other times it’s much looser and will change as I get into the flow of carving. Having the more open-ended, spontaneous sketch can result in some pretty fun surprises, while having my plan nailed down can help keep me carving more efficiently. No matter which method I choose, I get very excited about the next step: carving! I love working with my hands, and I love that this type of printmaking has a very tactile process; it’s a sculptural way to make 2-D artwork. It’s therapeutic and meditative – although it does take patience to carve out all the little details. But it’s extremely satisfying to watch the image come to life in a three-dimensional form on the block.

I use small knives and gouges to create the negative space (the areas I want to stay white when the image is printed). I tend to focus on the negative space rather than the images themselves, which is a fun way to look at shapes and objects. One of the most challenging parts of the process is figuring out ways to define space, create depth, and convey things like softness, shadow, and fluidity with the use of hard lines and mark-making. I strive to keep the balance of light and dark, finding ways for texture and line to work together harmoniously, whilst breaking up the printed areas with places for the eye to rest.

One of my favourite moments is rolling the ink onto the block for the very first time; it is always fascinating to see it highlight the details I’ve spent so many hours carving. Then, I carefully place the paper on the block and roll it through the etching press. This next part gets me every time; I think it deserves a drum roll! I wait weeks and sometimes months for the moment when I pull the paper back to reveal the print for the first time. It is so satisfying yet so terrifying. There are so many emotions packed into that one little moment, so many questions running through my head. It’s very exciting and one of the reasons I love printmaking so much. You see, I plan and plan and plan to have the print turn out according to my vision, but there is always a surprise factor. I love that aspect of this medium!

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How do you work with Jason to finish the prints?

First of all, I am so very thankful to Jason and for what he does, not only because he has always supported me to pursue my career as an artist but also because he was the one who pushed me to get my work out into the world instead of letting it pile up in the basement. With a two-year-old in tow and living pay cheque to pay cheque, it seemed impossible to have a show of my bespoke-sized work (standard sizes, who needs ‘em?!) and the custom frames I'd need. That was until Jason decided he would tackle the task. Having done woodwork since he was 13, he went right to it, creating frames he felt would honour my prints. The overwhelming positive feedback and subsequent orders from our first show together gave us the motivation we needed to continue to partner our crafts. We haven’t stopped since.

Just how unique Jason's frames are really adds to the finished prints. Having been a fine woodworker for many years, his devotion to quality and detail is what really sets these frames apart from most. A lot of the frames you see today are constructed from sticks of mass-produced, prefinished moulding of questionable pedigree. Jason makes all his frames using the ‘closed-corner’ method, sanding and finishing after assembly to yield a corner finish superior to other methods. Mortise and tenon, a thousands-of-years-old joinery technique, ensures the corners stay tight for future generations to enjoy.

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Each frame is constructed with the print in mind so that the grain and natural colour of the lumber complement the image. Jason strongly believes in sustainable building practices, primarily using locally salvaged or reclaimed lumber from the Pacific Northwest. Most of this lumber has been removed from turn of the century homes and barns slated for demolition. He goes to great lengths to avoid using new wood. I can’t tell you how many times he’s insisted we pull the van over to investigate a job site dumpster or burn pile. He has quite the eye for quality timbers. This guerrilla procurement style often nets us a grade and quality of material hard to acquire by other means; I am constantly amazed at the beauty revealed after hours of metal detection, nail pulling, planing, smoothing, and finishing. Having raw, beautiful wood surrounding each print serves to visually root the overall theme of my work without detracting from it; they’re yet another reflection of the beauty found in the natural world.

"Having raw, beautiful wood surrounding each print serves to visually root the overall theme of my work without detracting from it; they're yet another reflection of the beauty found in the natural world."

Has the outdoor culture and/or creative culture of the Pacific Northwest influenced your practice?

The accessibility to such extravagant wilderness surrounding Portland has definitely influenced my work. Since the Pacific Northwest tends to draw many others who have these same values and passions, my ideas and creations are supported and embraced by the outdoor culture here. Having this support and positive feedback does contribute to my drive to create. It’s refreshing to live in such a creative hub. Portland has a wonderful and very supportive printmaking community, and tapping into this community has really helped me move forward as an artist. •

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This story is from Volume Nine

The Wilderness Volume

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