Are illustrators fine artists? There is a lot of debate about this issue in the art world, basically centered on the question of whether artists’ choices should be driven by commercial concerns. It is argued well on both sides, but in my opinion, the answer to the question is “Absolutely! Illustrators are some of my favorite artists, especially when the illustrator is as talented as printmaker Mary Azarian.”
Born on December 8, 1940, in Washington, D.C, Mary Azarian has illustrated over 50 books in her unique folk style, but rather than jump right in to the story of Mary’s life, I’m going to back up to the beginning of woodcut printmaking to help set the stage for her style of work.
The earliest printing came from Egypt and China where wooden or clay stamps were used to impress images on clay, wax or unbaked bricks. Block printing, however wasn’t developed until woodcutters in Japan designed images to decorate fabric. Paper printing came far later and the first woodcuts didn’t make their way to Europe until around 1400.
Discuss this image: How do you think the technique is done? Does the name woodcut give you any clues? What makes some parts white and some black? can you find any gray areas? To the woodcutter, lines are very important. What kind of lines can you find?
With the invention of the printing press, woodcuts became much more popular, and the style continues to inspire artists today. Many printmakers use multiple “stamps,” or passes of the printing press, to add color, but Mary Azarian chose watercolors to add color in her unique way. One of our favorite activities when studying her images is to search for parts of the picture that were added in the coloring stage. Footprints, shadows, and falling snow are the ones that come to mind first.
Mary Azarian grew up outside of Washington DC on her grandfather’s farm. There she enjoyed the country life with thousands of chickens and geese, farm stand chores, and a pony named Patsy. She says of this time,
“I began drawing and painting at an early age and fell in love with woodcuts when I did my first relief print in the fourth grade. It was a 3”X4” lino block of an angel with “NOEL” at the bottom. It was a valuable lesson… The finished print read ‘LEON’.”
Despite this love of woodcuts, she didn’t plan to become an artist. Mary Azarian started school wanting to study medicine but a requirement put her in a printmaking class, and she fell in love with the process again. Luckily she was able to study printmaking with the one of the great 20th century printmakers, Leonard Baskin.
After graduation Mary Azarian got married and moved to small farm in northern Vermont where the newly-weds raised animals, gardened, and sold maple syrup. While fulfilling, this lifestyle was not lucrative, so to make ends meet she agreed to teach in a one-room school house. With no training in this area, she focused her efforts on planning to the best of her ability. She noticed that her new classroom needed new decorations and she wanted these to be educational, so she created a series of alphabet prints illustrating the sound each letter makes. These were so successful that, years later, the Vermont Council for the Arts extended her a grant to do another series of woodcut alphabet posters which were eventually distributed to every public elementary school in Vermont.
After three years of teaching, Mary Azarian’s second son was born, and it became necessary for her to find a job with more flexibility. She decided to see if it would be possible to earn a living selling her woodcut prints.
“I began producing prints in black and white, printing each block by hand. Eventually I began adding color by hand-painting each black and white print, a non-traditional approach, to say the least.”
In the 1970s she got involved with illustrating picture books, and eventually produced over 50 different titles. My personal favorite, Snowflake Bentley, won the 1999 Caldecott Award for the best illustrated picture book of the year.
Mary Azarian is still at work today, and we look forward to seeing what she produces next.
- Watch a video of Mary Azarian describing her work on Snowflake Bentley & other woodcuts
- Read about Mary Azarian’s print making process
- Visit the artist’s own site to see more of her work
- Learn more about Wilson Bentley, the man behind the story of Snowflake Bentley
Make your own snowflake prints in the style of Mary Azarian. These are far easier than the photographs might lend you to believe. Even the preschoolers in our class were able to make some stunning images.
- Some of the first printed materials were indulgences. Papers sold to absolve owners of sin. Is a purchase necessary for forgiveness? Read Ephesians 2
- Who are some of your own favorite artists? Are any of them illustrators? Where do you stand on the illustrators as artists debate? We have crafts, activities and biographies of many other master artists available. Choose your favorite and learn about the relationship between their art and their finances.