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ArtBeat: Karen Gaudette’s ‘Wishing for the Moon’

Greenfield artist’s scratchboard images on display at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center

  • By varying the size and shape of her lines, their distance from one another and how they overlap, Karen Gaudette can create a wide range of effects, including luminosity and the illusion of gray tones. Contributed image/Karen GAUDETTE

  • Contributed image

  • Contributed image

  • Contributed image

  • Greenfield artist Karen Gaudette’s exhibit “Wishing for the Moon,” will be at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through June 13. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo



For The Recorder
Monday, April 04, 2016

They look at first like woodcuts, only some of the lines are so thin, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to carve into wood with such exactitude. In simple black and white, the images evoke landscapes that are far from simple. There’s mythology at work here: a large toad squats on a lily pad, a handless pocket watch dangling from his lips. A mermaid raises her head through a hole in the ice, while three male skaters glide across the frozen surface above her.

These are Greenfield artist Karen Gaudette’s scratchboard images. Her exhibit, “Wishing for the Moon,” which features 14 large (17-by-24-inch) original scratchboards, is on display at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through June 13.

Gaudette, who teaches art in the Greenfield public school system, created the images at the request of Susan Calabria, who was then the curator for the Art Center and had seen her work at Gallery in the Woods in Brattleboro. Calabria thought the sense of mystery in Gaudette’s work would lend itself nicely to the museum’s Visual Thinking Strategies program, an educational approach that asks open-ended questions to encourage art viewers to think freely and — in the best sense of the word — critically about art.

“What makes VTS work really well for novice viewers, no matter what age they are, is recognizable things,” Calabria says. “And narrative, a story going on. And what really makes it work well, and Karen did this beautifully, is to have the story be something that has multiple meanings.”

Gaudette created her images with these ideas in mind. Each image can be absorbed on its own, but together they create a curious realm in which folklore, personal symbolism and everyday imagery overlap and blend.

“I grew up in a house where we didn’t have many books,” Gaudette says. “About the only ones we had were the original Grimm fairy tales. And a sister once sent me a Hans Christian Anderson book, which was a big deal.”

She wasn’t a big reader, Gaudette says, adding, “My dad worked for a paper company; I spent all of my time drawing.”

Gaudette’s images are full of characters both human and animal — a mermaid, a bather, a lion, a school of flying fish, a deer dressed in a flannel shirt like a Northeastern woodsman. And sometimes in plain view and sometimes hidden, Gaudette adds everyday details — a clock, a key, a piece of pie, a wishbone. Oak leaves, acorns, blueberries and cherries reappear in the landscapes. Most of the imagery means something to her personally, Gaudette says. And she has often used drawing as a cathartic process during challenging times.

“Some people keep a diary or journal,” Gaudette says. “I do drawings.”

She might use a certain animal to represent a specific person.

“I always thought that if I was a bird, I’d be a great blue heron,” she says, shedding a sliver of light on this one character, which still manages to remain enigmatic, standing calmly in the show’s first image, a caged moth hanging from its beak.

Other times, Gaudette will explore imagery she’s been drawn to without really knowing why. Six years ago she did some drawings of a bather and some of an ice skater, she says, just working from images she’d found online. She pinned the drawings to her studio wall, not knowing they would become characters in the free-floating narrative of “Wishing for the Moon.”

The process of creating a scratchboard involves many steps. Gaudette brainstorms ideas in a sketchbook, then, when she has a drawing “resolved,” transfers it to tracing paper. She then uses graphite paper to transfer it to the scratchboard — a hard surface coated first with white clay, then with India ink. As Gaudette gouges through the black ink layer, using very small, sharp metal nibs, she exposes the white underneath. A scratchboard drawing is really a very shallow carving, she explains.

“It has the immediacy of drawing, which I love, but I can replicate the look of prints,” Gaudette says. “I can make it look like a block print if I want to.”

By varying the size and shape of her lines, their distance from one another and how they overlap, Gaudette can create a wide range of effects, including luminosity and the illusion of gray tones.

“With this series, I tried to make different marks,” Gaudette says. “I tried to make wind. I’d never done wind before … And I knew water was going to be a recurring theme, which is something I haven’t drawn often, which was interesting.”

Most of the images do include water, “Whether it’s frozen water or storm or rain or river,” Gaudette says.

The gallery space at the Art Center, with its interior walls that unfold like an accordion book, required that Gaudette work larger than she had in over a decade. A series completed right before this one, “L’il Birds,” featured 4-by-4-inch scratchboard drawings of common birds. A Kickstarter campaign launched in October 2015 helped Gaudette raise $3,890 toward framing both shows, for which she is grateful.

A few of the “L’il Birds” can be seen in a companion exhibit at the Art Center titled, “Your Space: Black and White” (see “Where to see it,” below).

The jump from that small scale to the larger prints was freeing for Gaudette.

“I had forgotten just how great it is to work large because it did give me an opportunity to be more narrative and fill the space in a way you can’t with a tiny image. And I would like to continue to work this big because I have more ideas,” she says.

“I’ve always got pieces of paper in my back pocket, even while I’m teaching.”

She mimes pulling a piece of paper out and sketching on it quickly. “And I’ll come up with a new idea.”

Where to see it: Brattleboro Museum and Art Center; 10 Vernon St., Brattleboro, VT; 802-257-0124; www.brattleboromuseum.org. Hours: Every day except Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. First Fridays, the museum stays open until 8:30 p.m., with free admission after 5:30 p.m.

“Your Space: Black and White,” presents reproductions of 51 works of art chosen from across history — from ancient pottery vessels to an installation created two years ago — in every imaginable medium. The unifying element is the artist’s choice to work solely in black and white. A sheet of questions prods viewers to think about this choice, and to explore further what they see.

Art viewers are also offered the opportunity to become art makers, trying their hand at a scratchboard drawing or working with white crayon on black paper. The activities are designed for people “ages 3 to 100,” Calabria says.

To find out more about Visual Thinking Strategies:

www.vtshome.org/what-is-vts