by Ben Swenson
Paula Goodman Koz’s canvas is never blank, but then it’s never canvas either. Her medium is wood, flat blocks of lumber with grain and knots – character that influences the images she brings to life.
Koz is a woodblock printmaker. She is among a small cadre of artists who cut, gouge and chisel boards into an art form that’s increasingly rare, but heavy with history and meaning.
Woodblock printmaking started in eastern Asia nearly 2,000 years ago and evolved into a popular way to share political messages in Europe prior to widespread literacy. Printmakers aligned with Martin Luther distributed images with anti-Catholic messages. There’s been a continuing thread of non-conformity, activism and satire ever since.
Koz isn’t above making commentary herself. She came to woodblock printmaking in young adulthood. Her parents, she says, were perpetually restless and Koz, now 72, spent her first years in Peru before moving between Pennsylvania, Jamaica, Panama, and New York.
As a girl, she was drawn to books with pictures, and never outgrew the doodling phase of childhood, meticulously sketching horses she rode with other British and American
children in Jamaica.
Later, she studied philosophy and French literature at Bryn Mawr College. But it was during a year traveling Europe that she realized she wanted to be an artist. She received classical training at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. There, under the tutelage of Hans Jelinek, she learned woodblock printmaking.
The power and accessibility of the medium struck her. It didn’t carry the expense or
hassle of other art forms of fine art, such as acid etching. “It was the cheapest way to recreate a drawing,” she says.
She launched into a world of freelance illustration, a path in the late 1970s that had few barriers. She found work with The New York Times Book Review and other major
publications. She’s been making woodblock prints from her Williamsburg studio for a while now. She works on her personal art, as well as continuing to create for publishers.
Her studio, in the basement of her Williamsburg home, is both busy and well-tended. Her bookshelves are full. Tools, supplies and sketches blanket a drafting table. Prints hang from the ceiling. Woodcuts lie around, many stained with ink from recent pressings.
Her prints begin as sketches on paper to work through any tricky bits. Next, Koz traces the drawing on a block of wood. She prefers cherry, though it’s pricey, so alternatives such as poplar will do. Before the first blade touches wood, she studies the block, making note of where she’ll be moving with the grain and where against. Then slowly, methodically, one small sliver of wood at a time, sometimes for weeks, the image reveals itself.
From there, the completed block – a mirror-image of what will appear as a print – is inked and the sheaves of paper pressed to it, often with multiple layers of color. That first pressing is unpredictable. The artist has a good sense of where the raised lines will touch the paper, but sometimes there are unexpected surprises.
Koz’s work frequently explores the themes of birds, food and faith. A recent work was a recipe for ratatouille. She also made a woodcut illustrating the biblical story of Balaam and Balak. Often her work makes viewers think; a recent print called Mask for Terra presented an outer space-vantage rendering of the earth wearing a mask.
Woodblock prints can’t be replicated with paintbrushes or technology, says Xande Anderer, a graphic designer and art director for The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly publication of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Koz has been a frequent contributor to the magazine, including four covers. Anderer says that her most recent cover was typical of the richness of her work. The black silhouette of an occupied guard tower lays atop background of a harvest moon, enormous against the horizon. The image introduced the first-person account of an airman on guard duty in Vietnam looking up at the moon the night in July 1969 that man first took a step on the lunar surface.
The story is powerful and nuanced, and so is Koz’s print, Anderer says. “She used a different type of cut for all the layers,” he says. “The jungle is lush, the background is craggy. There’s so much storytelling.”