Bill Wolf — Wood & Ink

Background and Inspiration

In 1859, Peter Cooper founded a free college rooted in his belief that "Education should be free as Air and Water."

In 1984, 125 years later, I graduated from his School of Art at Cooper Union. During my time there, I paid no tuition and I received an extraordinarily fine education.

In 2009, Cooper finished construction of a stylish New Academic Building. No expense was spared.

A couple of years later, a newly installed President declared that a free Cooper was no longer financially sustainable, and launched his revenue-generating ReInvention Plan, including a vote by the Board of Trustees to institute tuition at Cooper Union for the first time in over 150 years.

Many in the Cooper Community strongly opposed both tuition and the accompanying reinvention plan as affronts to the school's founding principles. A group of students, faculty, and alumni formed the Committee to Save Cooper Union (CSCU), and filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the reinvention plan and reverse the tuition policy decision. I created this woodcut and donated a printed edition to CSCU to serve as rewards for some contributors to the legal fund.

After a hearing in the NY State Supreme Court, the lawsuit was eventually settled. Cooper Union has a new president, new Board representation, and is well on the way to restoring both financial stability and free tuition.

Work and Process

Here follows a series of documentarian photos with accompanying text, presented in suitably mannered, archaic run-on formal writing voice, hearkening back to that of the yellowing, obsolete, moldy paper technical art manuals of the 19th century, today found primarily residing in the discard bin among the obscure poets, histories of long-gone nations, and forgotten art critiques of questionable relevance.

Step One, being most essential, in which a carefully chosen plank, preferably of maple, is cut to size, and diligently scraped on one face with a razor blade in order to obtain a perfectly level surface, free of all marks, waves, dips, tears, or any other imperfections which might later interfere with the work.

Step Two, by which a number of tools and materials are gathered and prepared in advance of the commencement of the actual cutting. For general removal of waste wood, an assortment of quality gouges and chisels, preferably of Victorian-era Sheffield steel, such as those once offered by the Herring Brothers, or Mr. J.B. Addis & Co., are to be employed, though the bulk of the work may be accomplished with the modern Xacto blade, modified for increased efficiency of cutting by honing on a fine grade oilstone, followed by stropping on a scrap of leather impregnated with an appropriate polishing compound. Knowledge of proper sharpening technique is essential to successful execution of the work, as the importance of maintaining a fine edge throughout the entire cutting process cannot be overstressed.

Step Three, in which the desired image is drawn in reverse on a thin sheet of paper, then taped on two sides to the block, allowing for a sheet of carbon paper to be carefully positioned in between. The image is then diligently traced over with a thoroughly sharpened lead pencil of appropriate hardness, (the 3H being recommended for finer lines, and the 2H for a slightly heavier and smoother quality,) with the intention of transferring the image to the surface of the block so that it may be employed as a useful reference during the cutting process. The carbon paper provides a fine black line that is well fixed in place by the wax found in its makeup, and is generally superior in all ways to an equivalent graphite line. 

Also, it is of considerable importance to note that while any image might be employed to good effect, one that is carefully devised to appeal to both the eye and mind of the viewer will most often bring about a superior result.

Step Four, in which the tape is removed from one edge of the paper drawing, so that the sheet may be pulled back, thus revealing the transferred image for inspection. Any missed lines or desired additions may be addressed by repositioning the drawing sheet, replacing the carbon paper, and tracing or drawing as required. When all is satisfactory, only then may one remove the sheet entirely and proceed with the work. 

At this point, in looking ahead to the final print, the block as it stands will yield a solid filled rectangle. The key to the next step is the removal of wood from the background, thus lowering it from the level of the prepared surface of the block, taking care to leave only areas of the original surface which form the desired image. This may be accomplished by means of prudent employment of various edged tools, as gathered in Step Two of the process.

Step Five, being of critical importance, and generally one of significant time investment, in which the wood is cut in such fashion as to lower the background, thus defining a raised image that is capable of retaining ink during the printing process. This may be accomplished by means of a series of controlled "V" cuts with the knife, with the intention of defining the edges of the printable surfaces, followed by the clearing of larger open areas with a series of gouges and chisels. Significant care should be taken to avoid any unintentional cuts to either the wood, or the fingers.

A continuation of Step Five, showing further progress. In executing the woodcut, patience is essential, particularly in such areas which may require a large number of carefully controlled, repetitious cuts.

The work will often appear to progress quite slowly, particularly due to the difficulties of accommodating the naturally hard and fibrous qualities of the Maple, but the significant benefits of this noble species will ultimately become apparent in the guise of a finely textured grain pattern within the printed image that will contribute an otherwise unobtainable, unique visual interest.

Step Six, having completed the preliminary cutting of the wood, thereby revealing the raised image in its entirety, the block is then carefully inspected for any missed cuts or loose chips, prior to the pulling of an initial proof print. At this stage of the work, many of the thin lines have been deliberately left overly heavy, in anticipation of further refinement once the print quality is revealed.

Though the image is now essentially made manifest, it is yet to be determined whether the finished work will live on as a celebration, or as a memorial. Today, being a particular day of substantial note, will almost certainly play a critical role in making that determination.

[Editor's Note: This series was originally published on Facebook, and this post appeared on August 15, 2014 — the day of the NY State Supreme Court hearing for the Committee to Save Cooper Union’s legal case to preserve free tuition.]

Step Seven, in which an appropriate quantity of ink is rolled out with a rubber brayer onto a sheet of glass, and thenceforth onto the printable surface of the block, upon which a suitable sheet of paper is then carefully positioned by means of two reference strips.

Step Eight, in which the sheet of paper is then vigorously rubbed, first with the hand, and then with a printer's baren, or a suitable substitute, under substantial pressure, until the ink is ultimately transferred to the paper. One may check on the progress by carefully lifting a corner, taking care not to disturb the remainder of the sheet in any way. The resulting first proof impression is used to evaluate the image, prior to cutting any desired refinements on the block.

Step Nine, having been omitted from this photo narrative for the sake of climactic buildup, involves the cutting of refinements and revisions to the block, as deemed desirable by review of the initial proof print.

Step Ten, shown here, in which the finished print, entitled: "Air & Water," has been pulled from the block. In it, we observe a scene in which the Union of Science and Art is represented by two beasts, a Fish and a Bird, who have come together atop Peter Cooper's Foundation Building to form a mechanical device, in which a wheel, representative of the active process of education, turns like a mill, the four spokes of the wheel being representative of the four disciplines of the college: Art, Architecture, Engineering, and Humanities. Together, the Fish, representing "Water", and the Bird, representing "Air", reference Peter Cooper's popular belief that "Education should be Free as Air and Water".

About The Artist

Bill Wolf is a designer and concept-driven fine artist working in both sculpture and two dimensional imagery. His work addresses perceptions of allegory, archetype, and metaphor, within a systematic, mythological, non-linear narrative framework.

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