The career arc of most artists includes the explosive moment when a very specific means of creative expression opens before them, the doorway through which their imagination creates a unique visual form. For Hendersonville artist Rita Peranio, that moment came when she discovered printmaking, the laborious and transformative process of creating an image on paper from any number of original sources — from wood to copper — demanding skill in drawing, painting and pure manual labor.
“You can just put a few blobs of paint on a canvas, and there’s your painting,” Rita says during a tour of her home studio, west of downtown Hendersonville. “But I like the discipline of making prints, the process you go through, and the fact it stresses drawing, which I love. A print can’t be successful without drawing, and with composition, design and color playing an integral part in the final print.”
Displayed throughout the home she and her late husband Anthony bought when they moved to Hendersonville from New Jersey in 1992 are examples of Rita’s expertise in combining those elements: richly-detailed woodcuts, delicate mezzotints and bold collagraphs, the subjects drawn from years of traveling with her husband. The baroque steeples of Salzburg and the cobbled streets of Tallinn appear in woodcuts washed in serene shades of green and yellow; two livestock skulls the couple found in the Israeli desert float, ghost-like, in the gray shadings of mezzotints.
“Tony taught environmental engineering at the Technion, the technology institute in Haifa,” Rita says of her nearly 30 years living in the Israeli port city, where she taught printmaking at Haifa University. “When he took a sabbatical, we’d travel all over Europe, and South America when we came home to visit.” A tour of Mexico’s Copper Canyon inspired one of Rita’s first collagraphs, a print produced from a collage-like assemblage of elements — in this case, a series of plywood forms that Rita cut like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Particularly striking are a series of woodcuts produced from photographs of Coney Island, the venerable amusement park in Brooklyn, not far from where she and Anthony settled in New Jersey on their permanent return from Israel in 1982; and it is in these prints that Rita’s compositional eye is most apparent, particularly her studies of the park’s iconic ferris wheel, the Wonder Wheel, and its neighbor, the Thunderbolt roller coaster. It was their understructures that caught Rita’s attention, the diagonals and thrusting lines of wooden beams and metal trusses that criss-cross the prints in stark black-and-white. “I like the tension,” Rita says of the series. Another woodcut, of a dinghy docked at a pier, captures the form from above and at an angle to the picture frame, adding a sense of drama to what would otherwise be a perfectly innocuous genre work.
The attraction to unusually portrayed everyday subjects may be influenced by Rita’s student years in New York City, where she studied at Cooper Union during the city’s heyday as the center of the modern art world and the cynosure of Abstract Expressionism. “After classes at Cooper Union, we’d often spend the rest of the day at the museums and the galleries,” Rita recalls of those mid-twentieth century times, recalling especially her admiration for the drawings and prints of Rembrandt and Picasso. More contemporary work by the master printmakers John Ross and Clare Romano, and the Hungarian-born Gabor Peterdi, also figure in Rita’s inspirational background. But her earliest exposure to work on paper was via an older sister, whose talent for drawing extended to preparing pastel one-sheets for display at the local movie theater in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Rita was born and spent her early childhood. “She could draw any of the movie stars from memory,” Rita says of her sister, “and she was good enough to get accepted at the Art Students League in New York, which is how the family moved to the city.”
In a small studio on the lower level of her home, Rita spends months working on a print, starting with a pen, ink and tempera drawing based on her photographs. The drawings are works of art in themselves, finely detailed and precise, down to each individual blade of dried grass surrounding Rita’s current subject, a dilapidated farmhouse not far from where she lives. From the drawing, Rita will prepare a series of traces for each of several wood blocks, made of birch plywood, that she will cut using a power chisel to rough out the block, and a variety of smaller hand instruments for the detailed work. Each block represents a layer of shading for the final print, with as many as seven or eight layers required for some works. Proofs will be made along the way to allow for adjustments before the final step, when each block will go to her hand-turned etching press for printing in sequence onto dampened paper, starting with the darkest layer.
“When I’m starting to print, I tell everyone I’m incommunicado,” Rita says. “The registration of each block on the press is critical and your attention can’t wander. I try to work at least a few hours a day in the studio, but it can take me months to get a finished print.” The process becomes particularly fraught when Rita is preparing for a solo show, most recently at Hendersonville’s Opportunity House, but the effort has produced 20 awards and prizes over the years along with exhibitions in Israel, South Africa and in the New York area. Through her longstanding membership in the Society of American Graphic Artists and the National Association of Women Artists, among others, her prints have appeared throughout the United States in various group shows. “I enjoy every aspect of my work,” Rita says of a six-decade career that shows no signs of slowing. “Each proof is exciting and provides its own reward.”
For more information about Rita Peranio’s woodcut prints, call 828-891-2947.