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Ben Smith — Printmaker

From Motive, a publication of the Board of Education of the Methodist Church,
February 1967

Article By Jim McLean
Photo by John H. Ferdon

The introduction of woodcut printing into Europe was one of the significant events of the Renaissance. It made possible the use of what William Ivins, Jr., calls "exactly repeatable pictorial statements." Some single sheet prints were produced in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the woodcut print was used primarily for the decoration and illustration of books. It provided a practical means of spreading information and reproducing playing cards and devotional pictures.

The basic concept was simple. A drawing was made on a plank of wood. The negative areas were cut away, leaving a raised image approximating the drawing. This image was inked and transferred to paper by handrubbing or the use of a press. The woodcut was eventually dropped in favor of wood and metal engraving, methods that allowed the use of more elaborate detail.

The twentieth century has witnessed a revival of the woodcut print. Artists such as Nolde and Munch helped to free it from a merely didactic or reproductive role and gave it stature as a major medium of creative expression. In their hands the interaction between cutting knife and wooden surface produced works of simple directness and strong emotional impact.

Ben Smith is a young Atlanta artist who has chosen the venerable woodcut over a staggering variety of options currently available in the printmaking field. The woodcut imposes restrictions upon the artist because its realization requires an expenditure of great physical energy before any kind of image is possible. Ben works within these restrictions to develop a new sense of scale and emotional power.

Literary content is important to Ben, and his work is continually nurtured by references to classical mythology, literature, and the drama of the Old Testament. And yet, because Ben feels that "the image is created with the medium, not copied by it," his work rises above a predictable kind of illustration that advances "story-telling" at the expense of aesthetic wholeness. He accepts his responsibility as an "object-maker" and seeks to create prints that measure up to their own internal constructive or formal canons. "The Suppliant" is an excellent example of this double concern. On one level the subject matter is a sensitive response to an aspect of the human condition. On another level the large dark shape of the body and the white surrounding space are played beautifully against the incisive specification of the head, hands, and feet.

Churchmen who are serious about revitalizing the relationship between art and the curch need to be aware of this double concern. They need to see that literary content, when it is used, is only one of several tools with which the artist works. The sensitive artist is one who continually views his world and his materials with a fresh eye, one who seeks to create objects which have an integrity of their own, apart from all other considerations. Ben Smith struggles to unite both literary content and form invention in a meaningful way.