Seven Questions for Mary Brodbeck, Japanese Woodblock Printmaker

Mary Brodbeck grew up in a large family—she’s the fifth of seven kids—on a dairy farm in Michigan, near where she lives and works in Kalamazoo.  I happened upon a series of her prints in a gallery in Saugatuck, when I was teaching at Hope College, in Holland MI. When I received my first promotion as a professor, I wanted to purchase one of her works to mark the occasion.

So, one of the first pieces of art I ever bought was Mary’s color woodblock print, “Sheltered.”  It hangs over my writing desk today, in Florida. I took months—nearly a year—to make my decision about which piece to purchase. I visited her studio multiple times, and over tea, we talked about the beautiful challenges and exquisite teachings that come from devoting one’s life to making art.  For The Georgia Review, I wrote an essay about meeting her, becoming friends through all the studio visits, and the long, deliberate, and rich process of deciding which image of hers to bring into my home. Twenty years later, we’re still talking about shaping a life as an artist, the art of friendship, how to bring the lessons from our own teachers over to our students, dealing with frustrations (“Just don’t get injured,” Mary says), and artistic failure and hard-won success.

Mary Brodbeck holds a woodblock in her studio
Mary in her studio with carving.
Photograph courtesy of Mary Brodbeck

Mary Brodbeck was trained as an Industrial Designer and worked as a furniture designer for many years before turning to print-making full time.  “Like keys on a piano, your touch really matters,” Mary says of her ultra-labor intensive by-hand making process. I think the same is true—absolutely—for those of us working on a different kind of keyboard, along with the daily immersive commitment, the not-knowing, and the essential farm work that is making art.  You get up early. You go do.

Here’s her bio:

Mary Brodbeck studied the traditional methods of Japanese woodblock printmaking with Yoshisuke Funasaka, through the auspices of a Japanese government sponsored Bunka-Cho fellowship in 1998. Mary's nature inspired woodblock prints are in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Hunterdon Art Museum, Muskegon Museum of Art, and many other public and private collections internationally.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I have.

What are some of the things that are most frustrating to you as an artist? How do you deal with frustration now differently than you did in the past?

The medium I work in is very slow. When people realize how long it takes to design, separate the colors onto each block, then carve and print each color separately to make a completed image, they always say "You must have a lot of patience" and I do! What I find frustrating sometimes, is that I am not more productive. I always feel that I don't produce enough so I guess that is a kind of frustration. In the end, however, I guess it doesn't bother me enough for me to find ways to work faster . . . in fact, my work is getting more complex. It's getting even slower. How I deal with it is to accept it.

I used to be a lot more frustrated with people not knowing what a woodblock print was, let alone a "Japanese" woodblock print. Now, I don't care as much. I've come to realize that I'm working in an esoteric medium even though that was never my intention. I just followed my interests, and then met people who took me on this path. By the way, I have never forgotten those people–my teachers!

What are the most helpful teachings you’ve received (recently) from teachers?

This medium is so unusual and culturally different–my primary teacher even spoke a different language than me. But recently, I have received the most help by reading English translations from Japanese artists who worked in this medium in the 19th century, the period of Ukiyo-e. Nature, and our relationship with it, no matter your medium, has no time restraints. Like learning has no time restraints.

How do you stay motivated to create?

Hahaha. The proverbial angel (or devil) that sits on my shoulder . . . I am not happy unless I am creating something. Commitments and deadlines are also a huge motivator!

When you think about approaching work as practice—what comes to mind?

I do consider my work as practice, which is easy to do since there is so much craftsmanship involved. A lot of time I think of my work like playing an instrument, or "practicing" an instrument. It's a rare musician that can perform at peak levels without a lot of practice. I also think of discipline, or focus. For example; staying on topic, and not switching to another project because it might be easier or more fun. Another way to describe it would be to "post hole", going deep into a subject.

A woodblock of a snow-covered fir tree
Loop woodblock print. Constructed from 8 woodblocks and 15 color applications.
Photograph courtesy of Mary Brodbeck

When demons of self-doubt or fear or lack of confidence come into play, what strategies have you developed over the years to work through the stuff in your head?

I tell myself to just finish. If you were running a race and didn't like it, what would you do, stop and sit down? No! If I feel doubt in the middle of something, I just tell myself to keep going, just get to the finish line.

What do you think is most important for young artists, beginners, to focus on? How did you personally move from being a student to seeing yourself as an artist?

I don't know that my advice is any good on this. By being yourself, I guess. And to not get too far in debt or get too many responsibilities, if possible, because it takes a lot of time to create. It's not easy being an artist but I surmise that many of us might feel that we didn't have a choice. I didn't make the step from student-to-artist directly. I went from student-to creative employee-to needing to create for myself. When I found my need to create was solely for my own desires, discoveries, and satisfaction, that's when I saw myself as an artist. I didn't have to do it for anyone but me.

What are you trying to improve, technique-wise, right now? How do you go about learning a new skill or technique or mind set?

A lot of what I do develops unconsciously. My work always changes without me having to chart it out (even though I have tried). I will add that I am learning new skills in other areas that are really fun and super hard, by telling myself to do it for an hour at a time. I am trying new techniques of cross country skiing and took up paddle boarding last fall. Both will be good for my art practice since sports, especially ones that have repetitive motions, help me to get relaxed and into another zone where creative things can still happen.