The Artists' Artist

Ruth Kirchmeier’s woodcuts capture the natural world as well as the sensibilities of her colleagues.

West Tisbury artist Ruth Kirchmeier has been making woodcut prints for fifty years. She’s acquired some major fans among the Island’s artists. West Tisbury painter Kib Bramhall admired Ruth’s work so much he enlisted her to give him some lessons. He found the process so daunting, though, he gave up and left the craft to her. “There’s no artist on the Vineyard that I admire more than her,” he says.

West Tisbury painter Rez Williams calls Ruth “just brilliant.” Likening her work to Van Gogh’s, Williams calls her underrated on the Island. Dan Waters of Indian Hill Press in West Tisbury has been making linoleum prints for twenty years but insists, “She’s at an entirely different level than me. She’s painting with blocks,” he says. “It’s really reminiscent of the best ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints.”

West Tisbury’s Hermine Hull, who has exhibited with Ruth for five years at the Chilmark Library, describes Ruth’s work as “the most technically complex woodcut prints I’ve ever seen.” In honor of her friend’s first seventy years, Hermine has organized “Ruth Kirchmeier: A Retrospective of 50 Years” at Hermine Merel Smith Fine Art, her West Tisbury gallery.

“They’re visually beautiful and intriguing images,” Hermine says of Ruth’s woodcuts. She explains that most printmakers create editions that are numbered and are all exactly alike. Ruth’s are not. Each one is unique, as the artist returns to the same subject again and again, a little like Monet and his waterlilies.

The sprightly, slender artist began her career in New York City. Ruth grew up in a section of New Jersey so rural the nearest town was five miles away. Her parents, Resi and Hein, were German immigrants, so in addition to having no running water or electricity, no English was spoken at home.

“It was a little enclave of German socialists,” Ruth says. “They were radicals. In no time at all, one of them had started a little insurance company, so they even had a health program.” The group provided shelter for refugees escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe, and Resi cooked for everyone. Ruth has fond memories of the excitement of debates about art, politics, and philosophy.

Her father was a cabinetmaker as well as a good carver, so Ruth discovered her métier early on. “I loved to hang out in his workshop,” she remembers.

“I just loved the smell of wood.”

At seventeen, she took a summer job on Nantucket baby-sitting for renowned urban expert Jane Jacobs. So smitten was Jacobs with the young aspiring artist that she asked Ruth to move in with the family that fall. Ruth spent her first year in New York living with them on Hudson Street, while she attended Pratt Institute, one of the leading art schools in the country. After two years at Pratt, she won acceptance to New York’s The Cooper Union, one of the most selective full-scholarship schools in the United States for fine arts, architecture, and engineering.

“I loved Cooper,” Ruth says. “Pratt was a professional school where the teachers were Olympian.” At The Cooper Union, she found mentors. The most influential for her was Wil Barnet, considered by some to be one of the leading New York–based artists of the twentieth century. Barnet guided Ruth through the process of making woodcuts. “I still have the knife and chipper I used then,” she says. Now, with arthritis in her fingers, she uses gouges.

Ruth met and married German-born architectural student Rolf Ohlhausen. They spent a year in Boston while he finished his master’s degree at Harvard and she worked in advertising. Next stop for the couple was the University of Oregon, where he taught design. Ruth made woodcuts sporadically, but confesses, “I wasted my youth. I think I was absorbing things. I was a late bloomer.” She was also busy being a wife and mother to two sons, Eli and Jacob, in Brooklyn, where they moved after two years in Oregon.

During her forties, Ruth joined several New York artists’ groups, including one led by well-known Wellfleet artists Selina Trieff and Bob Henry. At the time, Trieff and Henry were summering in a converted West Tisbury chicken coop, so Ruth and her family followed them to the Vineyard, eventually buying their own renovated goat shed in West Tisbury for a summer home. She loved the Island’s tunnels where “the trees are holding hands.”

When she and her husband separated in 1988, Ruth moved permanently to the Island with her younger son, Jacob. They took up residence in what had been the family’s summer home. Striking up a friendship with neighbor Olga Bryant, she met Olga’s son, former New York Times Outdoors columnist Nelson Bryant, the man who has been her partner for eighteen years.

Looking back over her long career, Ruth says, “When I got up to the Vineyard, I really took off. I felt empowered.” She had not found the process of becoming a good draftsman or painter easy.

“Allen Whiting is a natural draftsman,” she observes. “I really worked hard at it.” She recalls feeling utterly intimidated by the words of Munich artist Josef Scharl, one of her father’s close friends. “Remember, Ruth, there is only one line,” he told her. “It is the right line.”

Over the years, she and Nelson spent a great deal of time camping and canoeing in the wilds of Maine and New Hampshire, and Ruth carried little notebooks for sketching. Soon she found herself obsessed by the movement of water. Once it became a changing, moving landscape for her, she began to translate the drawings into woodcuts.

“You do a master plate,” she explains. “Then every color is carved separately.” Layers and layers of color go on with a brayer, or roller, and a wooden spoon. Sometimes she uses one hundred different colors in one woodcut. “I can’t make two prints alike,” she says. “I’m sure enjoying it. It’s a gift to enjoy doing something you’re good at and never get tired of it.”

Through the use of different colors, Ruth may change the time of day or season to give a particular subject an entirely different feeling. “So in a sense,” Hermine explains, “they’re monotypes or monoprints – or a combination between a painting and a woodcut.” She plans to spread a series of Ruth’s prints on the walls of her gallery so that the effect of such transformations becomes visible. “It’s a kind of wondrous process that she’s created.”