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North Saanich artist carves out legacy

Art Gallery of Victoria will archive the Japanese woodblock prints of Graham Scholes
Graham Scholes holds up his very first woodblock print done in the Japanese style of Moku Hanga. One of the carved woodblocks stands in the foreground. The Art Gallery of Victoria recently announced that it archive his complete set of woodblock prints. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

A North Saanich artist says he has “no words to describe” the decision of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to archive his complete set of woodblock prints.

“How many people get that opportunity? So few,” said Graham Scholes. “It’s a huge distinction. It’s a huge lift to your career, to your outlook, because the art business is rejection. It is a sense of validation that you are a real, honest, hard-working professional artist.”

Scholes joins illustrious company. Among the last print makers to receive the honour was Walter J. Phillips, whose watercolours and woodcuts have appeared in museums around the world, and whose name appears often in the same breath as the Group of 7. In fact, Philips’ grandson has been collecting Scholes’ work.

Scholes’ artistic path started with disillusionment after 20 years of working in the packaging and printing industry in a creative and marketing capacity. “I was selling fine packaging,” he said. “I had some some great accounts. I had Avon for example, I had Clairol.”

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But Scholes left the corporate sector behind at the age of 45 to focus on his own art, starting with watercolours that also appeared in prominent art books. But changing tastes towards what Scholes called “decorative art” signalling a certain lifestyle, mass reproductions and eventually computer-based productions inspired Scholes to make yet another transition, this time towards Japanese woodblock printing.

Also known as Moku Hanga, the intricate technique dates back to the middle of the 18th century, and sees artists working off a sketch, carving blocks of woods, one for each colour to be printed. Artists then cut away areas that are not to be printed, leaving behind a raised surface. The blocks then receive their respective colours, spread across the surface. Artists then place special paper on the block, pressing the paint into the paper with a special brush. Overall, it can take up to a month or more for the final piece to emerge, but that is time well-spent for Scholes, as the technique allows him to ‘touch’ the subject.

“I love building things,” said Scholes, who also sculpts as a hobby. “I like the aspect of building something and working from that to get a print,” he said. “I find it fascinating. It was a way to just grow with my abilities and be able to see this. I like the mental aspect of building things, of seeing things come together.”

Scholes first received training in the technique through a two-week course in 1994 in Metchosin, spending $3,000 on materials and equipment. The experience was revelatory. “As I was doing it, I knew where I was going to spend the rest of my life and I have,” he said.

Since then, Scholes has carved 500 plates and burnished more than 75,000 sheets of paper, with a total of 87 pieces going to the archives. His perhaps most known artistic contribution is a series of woodblock prints for all 35 manned coastal light stations in British Columbia.

Over the years, his work has appeared in galleries across the country, and along the way, he has helped to bridge the cultural gap between Japan and Canada.

It is not clear whether the gallery will mark its decision to archive Scholes’ work with another show.

If it happens, it happens, he said.

“They will have a show,” he said. “Will I be alive? I don’t know. I don’t care. But the main thing is that I am pleased that they are preserved and there forever.”

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