By Miriam Rieck
Kent Kessinger began his artistic expression back in the days when pyrography was simply known as wood burning. One of his first artistic memories is being at his grandparents’ dairy farm and being sent to the bedroom to fetch something needed. Walking into the bedroom, Kent says he was struck speechless by the sight of his first attempts at wood burning hanging over his grandparents’ bed. It made such a huge impression that it stayed with Kent as he continued growing as a self-taught artist.
While he started in wood burning, Kent later made his way to large, hand-pulled wood block prints. He preferred the large format, but he was limited in the number of prints he could produce. He downsized to wood engraving prints so he could print multiple editions.
Growing up in a small village in Kansas, Kent says all he longed for was to leave it behind and has since lived all over the United States. He graduated from the University of Missouri, majoring in English, then made his way to San Francisco State University where he obtained an MA in speech. He finished his education at the University of California, Berkeley with a PhD in rhetoric. Through it all he maintained his love of wood engraving and printing. Kent has had 18 one-man shows around Texas. He maintains membership in the Wood Engravers Network, the Amalgamated Printers Association, and the Printers Guild of Houston.
Entering the Kessinger home, which is also a gallery of Kent’s work, visitors are greeted with a series of six wood-engraved prints in the hallway. Delicate and detail oriented, they also are framed beautifully. Framing art is also a talent, and one that Kent’s wife Madeleine acquired, making her an equal partner in placing Kent’s prints and poetry on display. Her deft use of color and shape in matting and framing fully compliments Kent’s work.
While touring the Kessinger home, Kent explains that he has recently turned to pyrography, producing designs on wood. They are available only from England at an extraordinary price. The wood used for engraving blocks are small pieces of wood placed side-by-side instead of a single slice of wood. Engraving blocks allow for the delicate detail work that wood engraving encompasses.
Wood engraving is a printmaking and letterpress printing technique in which the artist works the image or matrix of images into a block of wood. Functionally a type of woodcut, it uses relief printing with the artist applying ink to the face of the block and making prints using relatively low pressure.
By contrast, ordinary engraving, like etching, uses a metal plate for the matrix and is printed by the intaglio method where the ink fills the valleys or the removed areas. As a result, wood engravings deteriorate less quickly than copperplate engravings, and have a distinctive white-on-black character.
“Wood engraving is my preferred medium of expression,” Kent says, “because it allows me to create highly graphic visual symbols in multiple editions. Spiritual abstraction, which does not exclude the figurative but gives it added dimension, is my goal.
“I believe that art needs to be beautiful, peaceful and universal. The engraving is a symbol of visual substitutions for a higher reality and presence of which we are always aware, but which we cannot see in the material world. A wood engraving is a visual reminder to move beyond perception into the realm of absolute knowing.”