Things That Are Past
Things That Are Past

Judith Jaidinger’s obsession with cutting began in her 1960s student days at the School of the Art Institute, and is linked to her equally long, frankly sensuous relationship with boxwood. She was introduced to both in an engraving class taught by British-born print-master Adrian Troy, who did his best to keep her interest in wood and what could be done to it on the straight-and-narrow path to high art. But he made a critical mistake along the way.

At that time, woodblock engraving was dangerous territory for serious artists. A thriving industry in the 19th century, when it was the primary means of illustration for everything in print, from literature to the Sears catalog, it involves intricate, fine-line incisions on end-cut hardwood (sliced across the grain). It was considered a trade, and was painstakingly learned through apprenticeships of five to seven years.

“Twentieth-century artists were embarrassed by commercial wood engravers,” the practitioners of a mere craft, Jaidinger says. “It was looked down upon.” And the art world zeitgeist, recoiling from Victorian elaboration and delicacy, was all about bold, expressionistic modernism. That made the woodcut—with a wider, rawer line incised on wood that’s been sliced in the direction of its grain—the preferred technique. The few American artists who still practiced woodblock engraving were likely to turn out prints that emulated its cruder cousin.

At the same time, printing industry technology had moved on, supplanting woodblock engravings with line drawings and photography. “A dying art,” Jaidinger says. It was also a seriously slumping industry. But in the 1960s in Chicago, hub of an enormous catalog business, there were still a few commercial wood-engraving establishments turning out the precise, detailed images more typical of the previous century. One of them, Sander Wood Engraving, on Dearborn Street, was where Professor Troy, a committed modernist, sent his students to buy the best material: rare, English-grown, boxwood blocks, so expensive they’re sold by the square inch.

“He warned us,” Jaidinger recalls. “He said, ‘If you go to Sander and buy your wood from them, don’t look at what those engravers are doing. I don’t want you to be influenced by them.'”

That made it irresistible. Like Lot’s wife, Jaidinger looked, and her life was changed. “I fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe what they could do with a piece of wood. I was hooked.” She landed a job at Sander, and later, at Zacher Studio on West Jackson, that allowed her to learn woodblock engraving as apprentices had learned it since the 15th century—by working for years at the side of senior craftsmen.

But by 1970, when she finished her degree at the SAIC, even those companies were gone. She went to work at her family’s west-side light-electronics manufacturing company, where she’s still the office manager. For the last 40 years and counting, working with 19th-century tools passed down to her by the elder tradesmen, she’s been cutting art into wood on her own terms and her own time.

“It’s intense,” she says. “The wood is warm, the surface is smooth, like a piece of glass. The grain is standing up, very dense.” Boxwood is a slow-growing hardwood, she says, “and it can hold such a tiny line.”

Outfitted in a headpiece with magnifying lenses, she sketches directly on the wood, going where the grain leads her, creating incredibly detailed, narrative images, elaborately symbolic and replete with allusions to their polite Victorian (and earlier) antecedents. When she’s satisfied with the design, she retraces it with pen and India ink, and smears the block with blue oil paint. Once that’s dry, she’s ready to cut, the wood handle of her graver locked into her palm, the pointed tip of the blade opening the white, inner flesh of the block in a line usually no wider than a hair.

A large engraving will take about nine months and thousands of these surgical maneuvers to complete. “It’s an unforgiving medium,” she says. “Once you cut that line, you’re committed.” When working on it, “You’re in this quiet, tight little world.”

Jaidinger does her own printing on a vintage Vandercook press, usually in editions of about a hundred. She’s been elected to the Society of Wood Engravers, in Great Britain (where the art form’s more prevalent), and Bankside Gallery in London sells her work. “Most people are pulled in because of the delicateness and the lines,” she says of her finished products. “It’s seductive.” The subject matter, on the other hand, “can be something of a shock.”

That’s evident in the most powerful among the little cache of Jaidinger prints that wound up in the Recycled Art Sale, an annual summer bonanza of owner-donated work at the Art Center of Highland Park. At press time, you could still see and acquire her Things That Are Past, for example, which puts Freud, sporting a single fetish boot, on a couch, as Lizzie Borden wields an ax in the background and a winged bird-woman perches naked in the foreground. Or Flesh of My Flesh, a violently fecund melding of woman and tree that seems to dissolve the borders between the artist with the blade in her hand and the warm, smooth object she’s given so much close attention. The sale, which offers thousands of items, continues through August 18. Prices, a huge bargain to begin with, are cut in half during the final days.