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January 2008
 

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The Artist's Way

BY SARA GILBERT

CECILIA LIEDER '64 remembers the moment her future as an artist was decided. She was a junior at St. Margaret's Academy in Minneapolis and her art teacher - Sister Bernadine - was introducing printmaking. She showed the students how to carve a design in a linoleum block, how to ink the block and how to press that pattern on to a piece of paper. From that moment on, Lieder was hooked.

"That was it for me," Lieder says now. "The passion wouldn't die. It never has."

Although the linoleum blocks have been replaced by sheets of birch and her high school carving implements by a set of lightweight Japanese woodcutting tools, Lieder is still making prints just as she did in high school and, later, as a student at the College of St. Catherine. The passing decades have honed her skills and developed her style, but they haven't diminished her passion for printmaking.

"The first response to the 'Flowers and People' series may be that my life has been untroubled and my thought processing fairly light. Yet there are clues that this is not so."

In fact, when health concerns forced a six-year hiatus from doing the woodcuts that have been the hallmark of her career, she tried to replace the process - which is long and laborious, requiring both artistic precision and physical strength - with something less strenuous. She couldn't. "That was the hardest time in my life," Lieder concedes. "I couldn't stop making art, so I tried to find some other media. But that just helped me to better understand the qualities of printmaking that I so love, because I could never find another I liked better."

The time away from printmaking served to renew her commitment to it. "It taught me that there is something very unique to printmaking," Lieder says. "It is very well suited to the constellation of talents that I happen to have."

Labor of Love

Printmaking is a physical endeavor, and woodcuts are among the most physical of all prints. There's the act of carving the hardwood blocks, one for each of the colors in the print (occasionally one or two but more often at least eight and sometimes as many as 16). It's a time and labor-intensive process that can take weeks, maybe months to complete. Lieder creates her colors, mixing together thick, tacky inks to make exactly the shades she had in mind.

When that's done, she rolls the ink over the woodblock and pulls her paper down on the plate. She uses a special tool to press the paper onto the block so that the ink is impressed upon it. Then she goes over the entire print with a wooden spoon, pressing the ink into the paper exactly where it's intended to fit. When she's finished, she pulls the paper off and hangs it up to dry, a process that takes two or three days.

"Each step takes concentration and physical energy," Lieder says. "There's an endurance factor to it."

From the time she first creates a colored sketch with markers to the moment the entire edition of 25 or 50 prints is finished, months can go by. Lieder barely notices. "I know that I have spent a great deal of time in my life making prints," she says. "But I can't quantify that. The time spent is rewarding in and of itself."

Lieder invests herself both physically and emotionally in each piece she creates. But in the end, the process is simply a vehicle for what really matters. "In and of itself, process is meaningless," she says. "What the artist has to give to her society is not the technical know-how of production. It's the idea that a technical process, consciously chosen, can somehow transmit what the artist-instrument herself is like and has learned: her preferences and processing of her experiences, the physical and mental capabilities that she has from birth and has developed over time. These, too, are evident in the final product, in a subtle way."

Every ounce of energy that Lieder puts into a print is evident in the final piece. "The impression of the woodblock on the paper remains visible," she says, "an enduring testament to the physicality of the process of printing and the vigor and strength and skill of the printer herself." Likewise, the color and content represent her emotional life. "My colors are rich, highly pigmented and vibrant and reflect a wide range of emotional flexibility," she explains. "To the informed viewer, that would say that I have experienced hardships and lived through them and that optimism, or idealism, prevailed."

Consider the series of prints that Lieder's longtime friend and former classmate, Mary Seifert McIntyre '64, and her husband, Larry McIntyre, donated to St. Catherine's. Eventually, the gift will include 26 of Lieder's woodcuts. Although she hasn't yet completed all the prints in the "Flowers and People" series, 20 are currently on display on the first floor of Derham Hall.

The subject matter may seem lighthearted and the colors joyful, but the ups and downs of Lieder's own life are carved into every line and poured into every plane of color printed on the page. From the intensity of the imagery to the strength of the line and form, her life is revealed in each piece. "The first response to that series may be that my life has been untroubled and my thought processing fairly light," Lieder says. "Yet there are clues that this is not so."

Life's Work

Sister Bernadine introduced Lieder to printmaking and encouraged the young artist to keep working at it. "She saw how interested I was in it and made sure that I had both the means and the reasons to keep doing it," Lieder recalls. "She made me the illustrator for the class newspaper and had me do the cover for the yearbook."

Her family supported her decision to major in art, partly because they were sure she would just get married anyway. But the faculty at St. Kate's launched her into her life's work, convinced that art would, indeed, be her career. "The art faculty was so wonderfully unaware that a woman would not make a living at art," Lieder says. "They always took it seriously."

By the time she graduated in 1964, Lieder's professors - she names Sister Magdalene and Peter Lupori, sculptor and St. Catherine's professor emeritus of art, as the most influential - had offered her every opportunity they could think of to learn about printmaking.

Even though the College had no classes in printmaking at the time, the faculty found the tools and materials she needed. They took her to exhibits and introduced her to printmakers in the area. Lupori even purchased the first print she ever sold.

"The art faculty taught me craftsmanship, design, critical judgment . and gave me a living example of dedication to and joy in the making of art as a life work."

Lieder reflected on the importance of that foundation four decades later, when she returned to campus to celebrate the gift of her work the McIntyres had made to the College. "The art faculty taught me craftsmanship, design, critical judgment," Lieder said in her talk last September. "They honed my eye, sensitively fostered my native skills, placed my work in the context of the long history of Western art, and gave me a living example of dedication to and joy in the making of art as a life work."

Since leaving St. Catherine's, Lieder has studied at the Richmond Professional Institute at the College of William and Mary and completed a master of arts degree at the University of Minnesota- Duluth. She studied under a Japanese master woodcutter. She lived and made her art in Boston for 10 years. And, she has exhibited her work locally, nationally and internationally.

 
She, woodcut, 23”x31”

She, woodcut, 23"x 31"

Camelia, woodcut, 17”x 22”

Camelia, woodcut, 17"x 22"

Flags, woodcut, 26”x 27”

Flags, woodcut, 26"x 27"

Together, woodcut, 27”x 34”

Together, woodcut, 27"x 34"

Cedars, woodcut, 20”x 27”

Cedars, woodcut, 20"x 27"

Creativity is part of each step in Lieder’s process.

Creativity is part of each step in Lieder's process. Here, she holds the many color separations needed for one print.

Sara Gilbert is a freelance writer based
in Mankato, Minn.