While pursuing a traditional path in his fine art education, Dan Cautrell did a full stop, then a hard turn, when he discovered a class in printmaking. Sometimes experiences just click, and printmaking was Dan’s a-ha moment. He continues to work with the bold, graphic images of his original linoleum and wood cuts, sometimes incorporating verse to add an additional layer of meaning.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I dabbled in art while in high school, but I did not take any art classes. After high school, I ended up working and surfing. Then I was 25 and in a job that gave me no sense of pride or accomplishment besides income. I was very inspired by my wife who is a teacher. She had a sense of purpose with her work and was devoted to it. I wanted something like that. So I went to a community college and started taking classes in art and design.
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What inspires you? How does your environment influence your creativity?
My move from California to Washington is as a good example of how I seek inspiration. It starts with where I live. I learn what I can about the history of the area. Why is the place here? From there it moves on to the environment. What lives here? What grows here? And what is the weather? Then comes the people. Who lives here? Why do they live here? And so on. Because, on occasion, I am political with my work, I consider any issues that are relevant to the area. I might look into the human condition of the area as well.
What attracted you to woodcut and linoleum printing? What is it about that work that sustains your interest?
This was a very distinct moment in time that turned me into a printmaker. I was taking standard art classes, drawing and painting, at the community college.
One day the printmaking instructor came into one of my drawing classes to solicit for students for her next semester classes. She brought several examples of printmakers in history and some examples of some of her students’ work. I was blown away by the samples that she had shown, especially the powerful bold graphic quality of the linoleum and woodcut prints. I took her class the next semester and never stopped.
It changed my entire approach to art making. There was also a correlation between printmaking and graphic design that I was attracted to because I was also studying graphics.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
The foundation of all my work is based on printmaking. Carving a woodcut plate led me to carving wood surfaces in general. I evolved that process into large format works of art and woodcut murals. I try to determine the commonality of myself and others to create images that we both can relate to.
Often I include poetry and captions in my work to increase the interaction between artist and viewer. With that in mind, I have chosen to be an active participant in communication and dialogue with my work and how people understand it and interact with it. Image and verse used together makes my work unique.
Does your work have stories to tell?
Literally every piece of work I do has a story, an inspiration that I choose to act upon.
As I have mentioned, much of my work has verse or text associated with it which is derived from the story it wants to tell. When I create an image, I prefer to give the viewer a clue as to what the image means by adding words.
So I give them a place to begin to understand what the image means. I don’t want them to develop their own ideas on it. I want them to know what my idea is, even though they can build on my ideas to create their own based on mine.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
All ideas begin with introspection which leads to writing about the idea. It is the beginning of understanding the idea and developing it. Key words become evident, then comes the graphic to support the developing story.
Words and the graphic interact and interrelate to draw upon the larger meaning of the image and the story associated with it. In some cases the image comes first, then I will apply words to it – to empower it with language.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
My most challenging image was my Holiday card design that I created to honor my son who had passed away. I wrote endlessly trying to give it the meaning that I wanted it to convey. In this case, I had the image already in mind based on an actual moment in time. I struggled to keep it simple but still maintain the power of the image and the deepest relevance of the design and the verse.
I have the same difficulty whenever I do a memorial piece, of which I have done several. In most of those cases, all I had to do was imagine loss of a loved one and the level of grief. But, in this case, I did not have to imagine it. Now I knew the level of the overpowering sadness.
Many print artists produce editions with a finite number of impressions. How do you decide how many copies you will make of a particular print?
Because I do art festivals, my print editions are comparatively large compared to other print artists. I have a general edition number for all of my limited edition prints.
I also do several prints that are considered Open Edition works. These usually smaller inconsequential works designed for demonstrations and gift giving. I will print these small works indefinitely.
Tell us about your anonymous public art pieces. What prompted the first one, and why did you keep going?
The “Offerings To The Wind” Project began by a Wind Storm in 2006 that had a very heavy impact on my community. Trees were down, roads were closed and power was out for over two weeks with outside temperatures below freezing. People struggled for basic needs.
One of the first signs of progress and overcoming the disaster was the tree crews coming through and cutting the trees from the road right back to the roads edge. So now many of the wires that had fallen were restored. It was a sign that we were coming out of it. It is then when I noticed the freshly cut trees along the now open roads.
I was inspired to carve some simple designs and attach them to the ends of the logs – and there were many opportunities for this project – so many trees had fallen. I did a couple designs secretly and people began to notice and wondered who was doing it. It was a mystery, which I enjoyed for a while.
Then the local newspaper did a feature on the “secret wood artist” haunting the woods. Next, a local TV station picked up the story and my anonymity was over. I ended up using several heartfelt quotes from admirers of the project to apply for a couple of grants from some art organizations, which I received. So I expanded the project, and it became one of my signature works.
Do commissions play a big role in your artistic life? What is the most unusual commission request you have received?
Yes, I have done several custom commissions, In fact, I am doing a couple right now which has been very beneficial since all of my typical Summer Art Festivals have been cancelled. I am thankful that I have them to keep some revenue coming in.
The most unusual custom project I have had was to make an artwork/urn in memory of a small child who passed away. The parents had contacted me because of the “Offerings To The Wind” works that they had seen – and, their small son had noticed and enjoyed.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I designed my printmaking studio for maximum efficiency to accomplish the task at hand, from creating the artwork to framing it for display. My linoleum print process is fairly simple, so I have defined specific areas in my studio that gives every part of the process its place – and room – all revolving around the printing press. It is much easier to keep things organized and accessible while creating and producing that work.
My woodworking studio is similar but much more messy, and the power carvers I use are much more dangerous and must be taken very seriously. So there is much more room to allow for space in which to safely work.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My printing process is fairly simple but my press is the most important tool. After that, there is the linoleum or wood and the cutters. Then, there is paper and ink. Also, I do my own framing, so there are several tools that are necessary to do proper professional framing of my work: mat cutter and, most importantly, the frame builder.
Do you have a lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I think the only “repurposed” thing in my studio is the clear glass dinner plates that I used as coverings for the bare light fixtures that illuminate my work space.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?
I listen to music while I work, and I chew gum. It helps me focus on what I am doing. It also depends on what I am doing: creating or visualizing a composition, drawing and developing an image or the actual printing of the works which is more technical than creative. My music is eclectic from country, rock, reggae, bluegrass to African folk music.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think that there are some who have a natural gift for creating. The son of mine who passed away was an artist. I had a natural ability and could look into his mind’s eye and transfer it to paper. Of course, when we noticed he had the skill, we tried to nourish it.
On the other hand, I think that if someone has a creative mind they might not consider using it for art making. But, should they practice it, as in an instrument is practiced, they can develop the craftsmanship to make a thing that can be identified as art.
If you were no longer able to use the mediums that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?
I think I would either write poetry or take up a musical instrument. I have written a couple of songs. In fact, I wrote a Christmas song for a contest on NPR for new Christmas music, and it was played on the air.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Most of the artists that I admire work in my own medium – woodcut or linoleum printing, but I really don’t dwell on other artists’ work. I have enough to think about in my own work. Some of the inspiration artists from school were Kathé Kollwitz, José Posada and Albrecht Dürer.
What areas of your work do you hope to explore further?
Within the last couple of years I have expanded my woodworking techniques into cast concrete sculpture. I did this transition to explore a more resilient material for outdoor display and public art.
I am currently developing an approach to incorporate plasma cut steel into the concrete sculptures I have created. But, it will require collecting a new quiver of tools to be used which I am not quite ready to get into due to the custom work I am doing.
How has the Covid Pandemic influenced your work?
I have done a couple things inspired by the Virus Crisis. Each of them we created for the benefit of others.
My first response to the crisis was to do a public installation of some “prayer flags” that came from a previous project. I installed the flags on the Snoqualmie River Trail in Duvall as a gesture of goodwill and to lift the spirits of my community during this difficult time. It has become one of the most well received works that I have done.
Similar to the Offerings To The Wind Project, it involved putting art in an unexpected place which immediately infers a mystery about the work. And, again, inspiring such heartfelt and emotional responses from those who had experienced it. It also inspired a feature on KING 5 News about Art in the times of a pandemic.
The other piece I did was a small print that I made as a fundraiser in support of the beleaguered healthcare workers who were on the front lines of the pandemic. I have plans to do a series of woodcut works to honor the Healthcare workers as well.
Learn more about Dan Cautrell and his art on his website.
Interview posted July 2020
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