Artist Betsy Bowen: Woodcut Wonders

It’s a time of slowing down. The crowds of summer tourists have exited Grand Marais. The brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of autumn leaves have dropped from the trees of the North Woods and signs of winter are appearing.

“There’s a sense of rhythm of the seasons that I really like here,” says this month’s cover artist, Betsy Bowen, who has been a longtime, year-round resident of the North Woods.

May to mid-October is her busy season, filled with gallery visitors and art fairs. “I like the role of our town,” Bowen says of Grand Marais, in far northeastern Minnesota on Lake Superior’s North Shore. “Just watching people come here, their shoulders soften, like they’re losing the weight of daily life, washing it away. It’s nice.”

The quiet of fall and winter is welcomed by Bowen, too – time to do more art and production work and book illustration projects, or just “concentrating on less,” she says.

Antlers and bears and canoes – oh my!

Bowen is known for her woodcuts, illustrations and paintings that reflect the natural world that surrounds her. In the 1960s, Bowen settled on an old homestead 7 miles west of Grand Marais.

Her first book of woodcut illustrations was created nearly 25 years ago. “Antler, Bear, Canoe,” a children’s alphabet book, is a favorite of many Minnesota families. Her woodcuts depict aspects of a North Woods life from (moose) antlers to zero (as in zero degrees!).

Bowen’s woodcut “Bb is for bear,” on this month’s cover, illustrates a mama bear hibernating with her cubs, while two skiers obliviously pass by. “I think of the awareness – that there’s much going on in the natural world around us, even if we’re just skiing by,” Bowen says. “There’s more than we can see.”

That first book was a real breakout, she says, a chance to express herself in a heartfelt way about life in the North Woods. “I realize now that there was some unconscious sense that this was a story I had to tell.”

What this storytelling opportunity opened for her was a wonderful niche as a book illustrator.

Bowen has produced over a dozen books – including two more of her own woodcut-designed books for children, “Tracks in the Wild” and “Gathering: A Northwoods Counting Book.” She has collaborated with several Minnesota authors, including illustrating books about owls and hawks (with author Laura Erickson) and bogs and prairie landscapes (with author Phyllis Root).

“I couldn’t have thought it up better,” she says. “I’ve just followed the open doors through the path of life, rather than figuring out where I wanted to go.”

‘Original art’

Bowen grew up in Chicago and studied art at New College in Sarasota, Fla. It was during her college years that she was introduced to the art of woodcuts by her drawing and painting teacher. “It appealed to me,” she says.

Bowen says she appreciated the populist history of printmaking. “It’s original art, made by hand,” she says. “It’s not so fancy that it has to cost a million bucks.” She likes the idea that families can have original, handmade art in their homes. “I love that,” Bowen says.

Her studio is located in the former Norwegian Lutheran church in Grand Marais, built in 1903. The structure has had many lives, serving as a church until the mid-1960s, when it became auxiliary classroom space for the Cook County School District.

In the early 1970s, the building became home to a community theater group. When the theater group moved in 1998, the old church was used for costume and prop storage until 2002, when Bowen bought the building and transformed it into a gallery and studio space.

Pressing work

Bowen’s artwork process is meditative, conducive to the quiet of fall and winter.

She transfers a thumbnail sketch of her design idea to a wood block, then carves the block with simple hand tools, such as an X-acto knife. When she has gone as far as she can without seeing what the print will look like, she takes the block to her 1950s-era newspaper press, rolls ink across the block and presses it into paper to see the print. She repeats the inking and presswork process for each color layer.

“Once I see that first impression, then I can fuss with the carving some more,” Bowen says. “It ends up looking like a pretty cool thing.”

Aside from in her books and at galleries and art fairs, Bowen’s prints and illustrations are on display at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near Isabella and are held in the archives of the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Research Collection of Children’s Literature. Or you can stop by her gallery during the busy summer season. Most of her carved wood blocks are displayed on the high ceiling of the old church.

FFI: woodcut.com Betsy Bowen Studio 301 First Ave. W., Grand Marais, Minn.