Of the many unexpected pleasures and discoveries from my July trip to Aurora NY, one occurred as the result of a lake-cruise chat with a fellow student also at the Wells College book-arts summer institute. She started to talk about J.J. Lankes (1884-1960) of whom I had not the foggiest notion. He was an American visual artist who lived and worked in Virginia, New York State, and North Carolina. For some years in the 1930s he was a faculty member of Wells College and his wood engravings can still be seen in the hallways of Morgan Hall (where many of this summer’s courses were located). He and Robert Frost were good friends.

What enchanted me about the boat conversation, however, was the fellow-student’s description of Lankes’ book entitled “A Woodcut Manual”. Published in 1932 it was very well regarded, but bad luck in the form of the Great Depression not only affected sales but also his ability to survive as an artist. The University of Tampa Press issued a lovely reprint of the book in 2006 with additional essays and images by Lankes, and in October I managed to get my hands on a copy. The “Manual” is a joy to read, the character of Lankes streaming through his text in a way that is full of charm and yet never garrulous. I experienced many moments of LOL, and this seems to be what my fellow student told me to expect.

Although he was addressing those making woodcuts and wood engravings and otherwise interested in the medium, much of what Lankes had to say seems apropos for those with an interest in the creative life, those who hope to thrive in such a life. The rest of this month’s post consists of snippets from his writing.


From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: As I see it, creative effort is about the only justification of existence; although some people say it is for the making of angels. The degree in which an institution increases or reduces the opportunities for those creative efforts determines its importance to life. The development of the machine itself has induced a tremendous amount of such effort, but the power and glory of creation has gone to the machine-makers; to the rest of the world the opportunities have been curtailed when not utterly deprived. To preserve the psychic balance, other means to exercise the creative faculties must be found.

From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Other Subjects”): It is up to every artist to divine and define art after his own concepts. There is the talk against literary and associative content; of introversion and extroversion—the subjective as opposed to the objective—the inlook against the outlook; conservatism against modernism; the emotional against the intellectual, and so on. Nothing comes of the talk, for the people who make the big talk are not the artists.

From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Editions”): It is a great pity because a thing is beautiful, or at least meant to represent art, that it has to be rigidly restricted in production in order to sell it. For myself I would not be bothered by the knowledge that a picture in my possession which gives me aesthetic satisfaction is one of two copies or one of a million. But that is a state of mind not to be encouraged in the buying public.

From “The Creative Impulse”: You will find that the person who is not giving vent to his urge to make things is an uncomfortable person to live with. On the other hand, many artists are hard to live with too—but for another reason. Their creative impulses are abnormal and they cannot brook even normal interferences. I have wondered why some hobbies, such as button and match book collecting, are creative. It must be that the items in such collections furnish the excuse for getting a little order out of chaos—organizing them. That is what the artist does; he organizes too—lives, masses, tones, colors, sounds, forms, words.

From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: For the city dweller there are all the modern institutions that will later be superseded by more effective methods. The laundry, pool and lunch rooms, all the varying apparatus catering to modern needs. If the filling station with its glaringly colored pumps had been an institution of the Middle Ages, what a romantic subject it would have been. Imagine a woodcut by Dürer of one with its accessories—an attendant swishing a rag over the windshield, while another feeds in the gas. It would be wonderful. Today the filling station is the most ubiquitous object on the landscape. Someday it will be only an historical fact—a past phase of a social institution. It will be preserved for the future because, before it disappears it will have served as subject matter for the artist. Now is the time to capture it in its greatest glory.