MANY DECADES AGO, in a time when gender roles factored strongly into classes a student could and couldn’t take in high school, I learned to carve a design into a linoleum block for printing. Girls and boys traded classes for two weeks with female students allowed into the male-dominated world of shop class. The guys headed to the home economics kitchens to acquire basic cooking and baking skills.
Oh, how things have changed since I was an early 1970s high school student briefly surrounded by saws and tools and other equipment and carving art into a linoleum block. I don’t recall the design I crafted. But I do remember feeling empowered inside that industrial arts shop, my eyes opened to possibilities that stretched beyond societal limitations.
Maybe that experience is partially why I am drawn to linoleum block prints. On a return trip to my native southwestern Minnesota prairie in September, I visited the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council Arts Center which was hosting an exhibit, appropriately named “Block Party,” by watercolor block print artist Nan Karr Kaufenberg of Redwood Falls. I’d previously seen, and admired, her work.
That admiration remains for this artist who observes the prairie world around her and then creates. I feel comfortably at home with her interpretations of rural southwestern Minnesota. Her depictions of prairie flowers, farm scenes, small towns, even laundry on a clothesline, touch me with that sense of familiarity, that feeling of connection to a place I called home and forever hold dear.
For more than 30 years, Kaufenberg, who has art degrees (from the University of Minnesota and Southwest Minnesota State University), who once worked at a tourism center in extreme southwestern Minnesota (she moved following the 2001 high profile murder of her daughter Carrie Nelson), and who is also a realtor, has specialized in tinted linoleum block prints. She colors her printed designs with watercolors. The results are simply stunning. Bold black stamped ink softened by watercolor.
Granite Falls artist Bradley D. Hall does the same, hand-carving linoleum blocks, then hand-printing the inked block design before hand-coloring with watercolors. I also saw his work inside the Marshall Arts Center. While similar to that of Kaufenberg in its rural themes, Hall’s art features finer black lines. Each artist has developed a certain identifiable style with the same basic art form.
Hall, who left southwestern Minnesota for Chicago and worked there for 20 years in factories, returned to his native Granite Falls in 2002 to open a studio. By then he’d already taken numerous art classes, including at the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago. Upon his return to Minnesota, Hall connected with letterpress artist Andy Kahmann of A to Z Letterpress in Montevideo and learned the arts of linoleum block carving and printmaking. I love that these creatives shared with, and learned from, one another.
More than 50 years ago, industrial arts teacher Ralph Brown shared his linoleum block print skills with me and a shop full of other teenage girls at Wabasso High School. Those two weeks of hands-on learning inside a place typically reserved for male students proved pivotal. I could see the world beginning to crack open to young women, emerging women who would ink life with their designs, their styles, their strong bold lines.
© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Artwork photographed with permission of the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council Arts Center. Individual art is copyrighted by the artists.