Art Editor’s Note: The Artist’s View is part of MockingHeart Review’s burgeoning commitment to the discussion, exploration, and celebration of art. This interview (with more of its kind coming in the future) aims to delve further into each featured artist’s unique perspective. James Ehlers, MHR 4.2’s featured artist, is a canny and versatile observer and maker whose work delves into the fast-paced world of politics through the carefully crafted media of printmaking and engraving. I hope you enjoy learning more about his unique perspective and creative process.
Alex J. Arceneaux, Art Editor
MockingHeart Review: Hi, James. Congratulations on your recent solo show and inclusion in the 2019 North American Print Biennal! Are there any technical aspects of your process that aid your ongoing interest in printmaking?
James Ehlers: Thank you. My solo show at Kansas City Artist Coalition was a very positive experience. Everyone there is wonderful to work with. The Boston Printmakers exhibition has been my white whale for years, so it was exciting to finally have work accepted into the show. I have seen postings of some of the work in show and it looks be a really good one. Wish I could have seen the show.
In printmaking, I enjoy the physicality of carving directly into the surface of metal or linoleum. Though it is comparatively slower than some of the other techniques, I enjoy the immediacy of the cutting and the control. The type of mark making in of itself is a draw. One employs a calligraphic mark in both processes that entails a sensitivity to the pressure and to the material.
MHR: Your work has a strong narrative quality. How did you discover and nurture the narrative nature of your work?
JE: The imagery is informed from experiences with social media and witnessing how it is effecting myself and the people that are around me. It brings out a lot bad in people and sadly it seems to kill the ability to focus on anything. Social media is still relatively young, and it’s something that we are still getting used to and learning to manage. Think of the panic in 1938 that went with Orson Welles’ reading of The War of the Worlds on the radio. Similarly, there’s a lot of panic and anger in the virtual landscape that I see manifesting. People are lonely and demand to be listened to, they don’t want to listen to others, and many people are jealous of their friends—this isn’t anything new, but it does (now) seem worse. It’s a sad thing to witness. It’s bigger than politics.
MHR: The process of engraving seems calculated and methodical. What connects you to this process, and how did you discover engraving (and/or printmaking)?
At McNeese State University, my printmaking Professor Gerry Wubben worked primarily with intaglio. One day he had a print on the wall with these large beautiful calligraphic marks mixed with a gestural method of etching. It was this dynamic and explosive-looking landscape. I asked him how he did it and he demoed hand engraving. I was terrible when I first tried it but became obsessed with learning how to do it myself. I worked at a movie theater, and I would bring in a small plate and burin to practice making marks. The next semester the first engraving I did was an 18” x 24” rendering of Medusa’s head. I have been obsessed ever since. Later I was able to obtain Gerry’s landscape print—the image that started all of this. I also worked with Oscar Gillespie at Bradley University and he helped take my cutting, drawing, craft, composition, and work ethic to a whole different level. Those were valuable years.
MHR: A lot of your work focuses on and satirizes politics and the state of the world at large. Could you talk about satire, and how it shapes your work?
JE: I like to think that my primary approach to the work is that of allegory. I utilize a lot of symbolism to express things I am frustrated with. My work before 2015 used specific people, but I have stopped doing that as much. I want to make the work more accessible. Sometimes it ends up being funny. The artist that influence my imagery most are Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Heinreich Aldegrever, Lucas Van Leyden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hieronymus Bosch. What I think about most when I make work now is social dynamics and poor communication. At this point it seems impossible to do anything without it being interpreted as a political statement. I often avoid posting my thoughts as I feel I would have write it out like a legal document to fully explain any position I have.
With art, I don’t really care as much. I don’t think anyone gets what I am saying completely right, but I enjoy that. People carry their own baggage to viewing the work and interpreting it. Maybe they are looking for things they agree with? Or maybe they are hellbent on finding things that they could be angry about in it? This recently happened with one print I did that resulted in protest of the work and a bizarre writeup about how I was mocking Christ.
MHR: In our conversations in the past, you’ve expressed admiration for specific artists like Albrecht Dürer and Stanley William Hayter. Is the work of these artists a part of your development as a printmaker? How have you oriented yourself and your work in the context of these influences?
JE: Hayter was important to me as he showed me a way to improvise with engraving. I tried working in a similar manner and it helped me develop my engraving skills and problem-solving skills on a plate. With Dürer, I learned a lot about light, crosshatching, and composition. My work leans harder visually towards the influence of Dürer, but that improvisational element is always there. I rarely have an entire image planned out before I start working. I’ll have the main figures sorted out and then let much of the image evolve as I’m working.
MHR: Every artist seems to have their own individualized process for art-making. Could you share some tips for artists seeking to pursue printmaking or engraving?
JE: Give yourself reasonable goals to start off with. If you don’t, you’ll get discouraged quickly. As an example, drawing is at the core of all my working methods. Draw with a pen or marker and learn to crosshatch. Copy some of the old master works that you like. You’ll learn a lot from doing that. There’s no shame in doing master studies. The old masters did the same thing!
MHR: Does teaching influence your work if so how do your students play a part in your work? How do you maintain a prolific studio practice while on top of the demands of teaching?
JE: Some of the techniques that I have learned have been more so about learning to teach it. Scrollwork is a good example. Had I not gotten the job here, I would have never felt obligated to learn to do that. I’m thankful for it, as I feel I have been able to make some pretty interesting designs. As far as some of the prints, I imagine some of the things they talk about spark my imagination in some way.
Teaching and making work is an ongoing struggle. I do most of my work during the summer and try to do a little during the school year. I tend to get depressed when I’m not working on anything, so it’s important that I have something to chip away at. I started making more relief prints as those are quicker than engravings. During the school year, it’s typically me showing work and not really making as much new work.
MHR: Would you share your thoughts on what constitutes an effective art piece—whatever that word might mean from your perspective?
JE: That’s a hard one to answer. I suppose there are certain types of work that will always engage me regardless of the mood that I am in. In particular: work that is illustrative, technically sound, and has some meaning to it. I can look at work and not understand it, but still realize that there is a complex message. Then there’s more conceptual work that takes more time to take in. I have to be patient and ready to receive the work. I have to be in the right mindset. Sometimes the best work says something better than I could ever articulate.
James Ehlers earned his MFA from the University of Florida and is currently the Don and Mary Glaser Distinguished Professor of Engraving Arts at Emporia State University in Kansas — the only school in the nation to offer a BFA in Engraving Arts. Since 2007, he has given numerous engraving workshops at various events including the Frogman’s Printmaking Workshop (South Dakota), IMPACT Printmaking Conferences (Dundee, Scotland and Bristol, England), MAPC (Minnesota), and universities around the country. He has participated in group exhibitions in Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Norway, Romania, The Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, and across the United States.