Martha Knox entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with aspirations to become a painter. In time, however, the reactions of her teachers and her peers convinced her forte was the woodcut, a labor-intensive medium that most other artists pursue as a sideline, if at all.
“My hand hurts all the time,” Knox said March 20 in a telephone interview. “It would be so much easier to do watercolors or something … In my case, it is my main body of work. I specialize in it because that’s what I was best at. That’s really what it comes down to. “
Creating a wood cut requires the precision of a jeweler and the muscle of a lumberjack. For color prints, a block is carved in stages as layers of ink are applied and transferred to paper separately. Each color requires another round of carving, which ultimately destroys the block, limiting the number of prints that can be made. Most artists transfer the ink to paper with a roller or a mechanical press, but Knox prefers a homier technique.
“I hand-print them with a wooden spoon, which is also very physically demanding,” she said. “It’s really a control thing. I just like having control of how the ink transfers onto the paper.”
Knox, 35, lives with her husband and two young daughters in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Such an urban setting might not seem the best place to nurture an interest in the natural world, but Knox has learned to appreciate wildlife on a small scale. Her current one-woman show, which runs through May at the Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington, is titled “In My Yard,” and includes woodcuts of birds, bugs and plants that make their home next to hers.
“The biggest thing I have is a finch,” she said.
The show also includes selections from a series called “Owl and Cat in Love,” by the Edward Lear poem “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” as well as portraits of Scarlett, a one-eyed screech owl that lives at Briar Bush as a sort of unofficial mascot.
“Scarlett had to be rescued because she lost and eye,” Knox said. “Because they’re predators they rely upon their vision. They zero in on prey with depth perception. If an owl loses one of its eyes, it’s not going to be able to catch its prey anymore. That’s why Scarlet lives at Briar Bush.”
Knox sees her interest in nature and evolution as closely tied to what she describes as her “secular humanist life stance.” She writes about parenthood, food and related topics at her blog, “Humanist Mom,” and, as artist in residence at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, she teaches middle schoolers how to make woodcuts as a complement their studies on the life cycle of insects. The children raise butterflies in class, then make prints of them, learning not only how to carve wood, but also how to observe the world.
“I love that people who are religious have a great sense of awe when they contemplate God and religious concepts. I get all those feelings of awe and wonder when I look at the natural world,” Knox said. “I look at my pet cats and think, ‘You’re a predator that generations ago was a wild animal. And now you’re a member of my family.’”
Art and science may be linked in Knox’s view, but ultimately, she said, art had its own value, as a means of expression. At heart, Knox remains more of a fine artist than an illustrator, and she uses a fine artist’s standards to judge even the paintings of her own daughters. In Knox’s kitchen, the refrigerator is reserved for A work.
“I don’t put them up just for self-esteem. I put them up because they’re beautiful,” she said. “I only put up the ones I think are really good.”
Her older daughter, who has demonstrated a knack for art, has taken up the challenge.
“She sets pretty high standards for herself,” Knox said. “I never ask her if she wants to paint. Trust me, I’d be happier if she wanted to be doctor. She’d make a lot more money.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “In My Yard” Woodcuts by Martha Knox.
WHEN: Now through May 31. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 pm. Monday-Saturday
1-5 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: The Briar Bush Nature Center, 1212 Edge Hill Road, Abington
ADMISSION: Free to Abington residents and members. Nonresidents: adults $3; children 2-17, $2; under 2 free.
INFO.: Call (215) 887-6603 or chck www.briarbush.org.