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Donald Martin: ‘I never tire of the magic of the printed image’

Donald Martin: ‘I never tire of the magic of the printed image’

November 4, 2016 // by Denise M. Reagan

Donald Martin finds inspiration in the plants and animals that inhabit the woods around his St. Augustine home. His natural environment appears throughout his prints and sculptures.

In preparation for his exhibition Leaves: Recent Prints and Sculpture by Donald Martin in the UNF Gallery at MOCA Jacksonville, we asked him to talk about the process behind his work.

Donald Martin Making Print b
Donald Martin makes a print in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

How would you describe your work to someone who's never seen it?

I use traditional printmaking media that is deeply embedded in the past, but I hope that I am able to give these traditional media a relevance to a contemporary audience. The work is all about natural forms in general and specifically the nature that is part of my life in Northeast Florida.

What ideas do you explore in your work?

I like to juxtapose an exploration of that which is beautiful in nature with a sense of loss and longing.

Describe your interest in printmaking processes as well as sculpture.

I enjoy the rituals and tools of printmaking processes. Each time I prepare a plate or block for printing, I am engaging in the creative craftsmanship of the printmaker, and for me it is this “process” that feeds the creative impulse to make art. I never tire of the magic of the printed image; there is that moment when you pull the paper off of the inked plate or block that is always a surprise, like opening a present.

I never know what my sculptures are going to look like until they are finished; they are very intuitive. I just start making and quit when I can't think of anything more to add.

Describe the linoleum block printing process as visible in most of the prints in the show. 

I begin by taking lots of photographs. At first, I was photographing plant forms in their natural state, but more recently I have begun to arrange the objects like a still life. I then execute a drawing from the selected photograph on the scale of the final print, translating the values of the photograph to lines and crosshatching. I prepare my block by gluing the linoleum to a plywood backing that assures that the linoleum will remain rigid then transfer the drawing to the block using fine markers. I then begin the meticulous process of carving the image into the linoleum block using knives and gouges. The areas that appear “white” in the final print are the areas that are carved out of the block. Once the image is carved, the block is ready to print by rolling ink over the surface of the block. A sheet of Japanese mulberry paper is placed over the inked plate, and the back of the paper is rubbed with enough pressure to transfer the ink from the block to the paper. For the largest prints, this whole process will take about a month.

You often work in series--grasses, eggs, palms, sanctuary, among others. Please pick one of your series and describe your goals for it.

The Sanctuary series is my most recent so it is probably the easiest to discuss. As a resident of St. Augustine, I enjoy taking walks along our beaches. On these walks, you come across these feeble little fences made of wooden stakes and survey tape to mark turtle egg nests. I suppose it is somehow hopeful to see these markers, but mostly they strike me as very sad. These "fences" seemed to be the perfect metaphor to me for our desire to somehow protect so much that is rapidly disappearing. In this series, the foliage of Florida, the beauty of the codex, the references to a past of abundance, all appear with a random selection of natural objects that inhabit this "sanctuary."

What's the most challenging and/or rewarding part of working with your chosen medium?

As I mentioned, it is the “process” that is most rewarding but also the most challenging.  These processes always present unexpected obstacles but also enduring rewards.

Donald Martin Grasses #1 Linoleum Block Print
© Donald Martin, Grasses #1, 2015. Linoleum block print, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Take one artwork on view in MOCA Jacksonville's exhibition and share what you would like a visitor to know about it.

The piece I would like to discuss from the exhibition in the relief print Grasses #1. This was the third relief print that I made from this series of plant forms. It measures 24 x 24 inches and is printed in black ink on bleached Japanese mulberry paper. Our house is situated in the back of a small pasture area of two or three acres, and in the center of this pasture is a stand of pine trees that is frequented by an extended family of white-tailed deer that tend to gather among the tress and seem to sleep in the protection of the trees and tall grasses. I usually avoid this area so as not to disturb the deer, but one afternoon when I realized they were gone, I wandered into this area with my camera and noticed an area of broad leaf grasses that I had seen many times before but never really noticed. It was late afternoon light, and I lay on the ground and took dozens of pictures of the grasses as the light changed. The patterns of light and dark were compelling, as was the pure density of pattern. As I translated this image to the visual language of the relief print, I knew that I wanted every square inch of the image to be equally interesting and I wanted to capture the remarkable dense pattern of light and the shallow compressed space that I saw in those grasses.

Where do you find inspiration? 

We have a little original Florida cracker house on five acres in the scrub woods just outside St. Augustine, and the plants and animals that we share in that little piece of ground are my primary source of inspiration.

What's your workspace like? When and where do you like to create your art?

I have a studio of around 500 square feet that I built outside our home on our property. It is a great little sanctuary (that word again) and the perfect place for me to make a mess and play music a little too loud.

How do you prepare for a new project?

I really don't prepare for a new project. I am always working on something, and about halfway through the piece that I am working on, I usually get the idea for the next piece.

What is your next project?

I don't feel that I am finished with the Sanctuary series yet. I think I have, at least, a few more prints and (perhaps) sculptures on this subject to explore.

How will exhibiting your work at MOCA Jacksonville affect your career?

During the last couple of years, I have been included in several national exhibitions, but apart from my mural at the Jacksonville airport, I don't feel that my work is very well known in Jacksonville. I hope that this exhibition gives my work a wider audience in this city.

Meet the artist at the exhibition reception on Thursday, November 10.

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