2016-01-21 / Around Town

An Artist's Life, One Carving at a Time

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Ilse Buchert Nesbitt in her workshop at Third & Elm Press, preparing to work at the 1830 Acorn hand press from which, using hand-set type and/or one of a host of her woodcuts, she prints her work, one page at a time. 
(Photos by Jack Kelly) Ilse Buchert Nesbitt in her workshop at Third & Elm Press, preparing to work at the 1830 Acorn hand press from which, using hand-set type and/or one of a host of her woodcuts, she prints her work, one page at a time. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The artistic elements that make up the greater sum of a talented printmaker are nicely revealed in “50 Years of the Third & Elm Press,” the current show in the Van Alen Gallery at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. The show (up through Feb. 21) presents a look, across five decades, of the collaborative output of Ilse Buchert Nesbitt and her late husband, Alexander, who opened their printing shop (named for its location on the Point) in 1965. The works are predominantly by Ilse Nesbitt, and include scenes of Colonial Newport (Trinity Church is a favorite subject), of Marble House (festively lit at Christmas), of the waterfront, prints of flowers and botanicals, and limited-edition volumes of hand typeset, illustrated poems, folk stories, and tributes to gardens, weathervanes, and wildlife.

What stands out is the intimacy of Nesbitt’s rendering of the world around her. And the sense of how a printmaker has a hand, literally, in every step of the creative process. In the fullest – and archaic – use of the word, it is the work of the complete artist. There is even a tutorial on the slow-going process of making one’s own paper.

The Nesbitts met in the early 1960s in Providence, when both were teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. Alexander, a prominent calligrapher and historian of typography, began his career in New York City before migrating to Providence. Ilse, born in Frankfurt, Germany, lived as a child with her family in Japan from 1936-1947. A graduate of the fine art academies of Hamburg and Berlin (having initially planned on a career as an archeologist), she moved to the U.S. in 1960.

Nesbitt selects type. Nesbitt selects type. In 1965 the two paid around $1,500 for the c. 1750 building at 29 Elm St., which throughout its existence had served as both a home and storefront for a variety of local tradesmen, from cobbler to barber to a carpenter and boatbuilder. The Nesbitts needed a place to park their 1897 Golding Platen press which was, according to the Third & Elm website, “a prime example of the Industrial Revolution and the height of printing technology in its time.” They also needed a place to live, figuring the two would be one and the same. Ilse said they shopped around and “saw nothing else that really appealed.”

Besides, she added, “the house had a little garden in the back, which I loved.”

When asked about what she loves most about her work, she said, “All of it. I want to draw all of it; cut all of it; print all of it.” From the website we learn that it all begins with the wood. When “cutting the blocks,” the wood type used is largely determined by the subject matter: “Larger works are done on pine planks,” we are told; “more delicate work on cherry or poplar; and text or small flowers” are cut into maple. Either image or text (and sometimes both) are drawn directly onto the surface. Text is first transcribed onto tracing paper, reversed and then pasted down. And then, using a small rounded X-acto type of knife, the wood around the delicate letters and words are painstakingly scraped away.

Nesbitt said that as a student she concluded she was more technically - and temperamentally - suited for the woodcut. “I was very poor at calligraphy,” she said. “I couldn’t do it.” There was something about the slant of the pen that her brain couldn’t get around. “Vertical woodcuts were fine, but I couldn’t get the slant.” She was, however, able to get her brain around the procedure of a woodcut. For a working mother raising two boys (Sandy and Rupert, both with careers as successful artists), the process of carving out the image from the block was as practical as it was seductive. “The woodcut is like sculpture,” she added. “You can do it with kids under foot.”

Nesbitt also remembers what it was like to be under foot. Her creative roots are a cocktail of cultural and artistic perspectives, and the experiences from a childhood spent in Japan. Her father, a patent administrator (and chemist), moved his family to the suburbs of Tokyo when Nesbitt, the youngest of three, was four. Once settled into the Land of the Rising Sun her mother, a gifted artist with no formal training, immersed herself in her art, often with her youngest child painting and drawing by her side. Many of her mother’s Japaninspired scrolls and brush paintings hang on the walls of Nesbitt’s home today.

The show at Redwood is quite “complete”; but it is also a tease. The website provides a satisfying overview of the body of her work – which includes four books (totaling 65 illustrations) featuring a sprawl of poets and writers, from Goethe to her own reflections on her garden; 40 single prints; and 21 iconic Third & Elm note cards. Towards the back of that front room is another press, one that is hand-operated. The story of how this second machine was acquired illustrates the story of an artist’s life, lived in Newport. The Nesbitts moved into their new home on Nov. 5, 1965. Around the corner on Washington Street lived the Bensons, another family of Newport artists: typographers in another medium. “They were fellow artists,” said Ilse, “fellow fighters.” And like the Nesbitts, they lived where they worked. She mentioned that she was looking for a hand press and word came back that John Howard Benson, head of the stone carving dynasty, had one he wasn’t using. If she could track it down, she could use it. It was finally located nearby in a warehouse on Halsey Street that was being used for storage by the Navy. “We walked in, and there, surrounded by kitchen appliances,” she said, “sat the press. A huge heavy black arch in the midst of an ocean of white kitchen appliances.”

That was 50 years ago. “It’s still on loan,” she said.

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