State Of The Artist: 'We're All A Part Of The Environment'

Mar 18, 2020

Alfred Stark is a woodblock printmaker from DeKalb. He also makes and flies his own kites. I followed him for a day to a couple places that are meaningful to him.

We started at Gordon's Hardware Store, where he has worked for nearly 20 years. "I fix screens and windows and help people," he explained. He said he enjoys helping customers with things they "definitely need" plus he likes his coworkers.

"It's nice working with a small group of people," he said. "We all know each other pretty well." 

A hardware store is a nuts and bolts operation loaded with potential and specificity. Gordon's is unique because instead of installing corporate signage in the aisles, they display Alfred's art. His black and white cartoon style signage promotes everything from batteries and acid to sprinklers and store hours. 

Credit Connie Kuntz / Connie Kuntz

"Just working here, I was asked to make signs and it's fun," he said. "It's a way to be creative at my day-to-day job." He showed me a sign about Thanksgiving hours. "This one is a bunch of turkeys getting onto a spaceship so they can leave Earth," he said, "which seemed like a good idea."

Alfred has a gentle demeanor and a dry sense of humor. He also has a formal education in the arts. He started at Kishwaukee Community College where he said he had "excellent art instructors." After that, he transferred to Northern Illinois University (NIU), which is where he took his first printmaking class. He said he was immediately drawn to the idea that "you could take one image and make it differently many times."  Then, about four years after he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he "came across Japanese prints and really got back into it." That, he said, is when his informal education began.

"I learned how to do Japanese printmaking through a lot of trial and error," he said, "but also with some advice from Helen Merritt -- from the books that she's written, and books that others have written."

Helen Merritt was one of Alfred's regular customers at the hardware store. She was also a world renowned scholar on Japanese printmaking and encouraged Alfred in this direction. She died in 2009. Nowadays, Alfred educates and inspires others. He runs a life drawing group and teaches Japanese printmaking in Illinois and Wisconsin.

"I learn so much from my students," Alfred said, "as I teach and see what they do." Teaching, he said, is a great way to learn and an unlimited source of inspiration.

He gave a little demonstration in the glass shop, which is in the basement of the store. He talked about his process and the tools he uses which include carving knives, woodblocks, paper, a baren (used in Japanese woodcuts, it's a pad of twisted cord covered on one side by a smooth sheet), a chopstick, and Sumi ink.

Credit Connie Kuntz

"Sumi ink," Alfred said, "is made from pine needles and it's the only ink that I found that is truly black. It doesn't look blue or red or purple. It's black."

As he rubbed the baren over the woodblock, ink and paper, he said, "Japanese printmaking is so clean and nontoxic and direct." He peeled back the protective paper to reveal a vibrant, tea kettle in black and white.

"Black and white is my favorite way to work," he said. "I feel like I can get down to what's essentially beautiful about the form of the subject -- the movement of the subject. Sometimes I think color actually interferes with that."

As he demonstrated, he talked about his wife, Elinor. They share a love of nature and animals. They live with their dog, three cats, and "some finches." He said the busy household factors into his work.

"I like to combine animals and images of nature with things from around our house," he said. "For me, it's a way of showing that our house -- our environment that we live in -- isn't separate from the world around us. We're all a part of the environment. You're never actually leaving the environment." 

We never left the environment, but we did leave the store. We went to Afton Forest Preserve to fly some of Alfred's handmade Japanese kites. One of his kites features Elinor's portrait. Another has a teakettle printed on it. Yet another is light blue, bigger but plain.

Credit Connie Kuntz

None of the kites are flashy or have "tails." Instead of being spectacular, they seem spiritual. When the wind is right, the kite bolts up into the air like a determined little kid sprinting off to recess. The sky is the playground of kites. Up there, they tease, taunt, flirt and -- usually -- find peace. 

Alfred said flying a kite is a "a punctuation mark of what's around you." He continued, "You start to notice things more, like the pattern of the wind. There's definitely a pattern of just how much stronger the wind is a few hundred feet up versus on the ground. And you start seeing birds and trees around you. It's kind of relaxing."

To learn more about Alfred Stark, visit his website here.