Authors: Ben Ruhe
Date Submitted: February 28, 2007
Article Type: Journal

Being a major collector of kite prints from Japan has led Scott Skinner, president of the Drachen Foundation, into rewarding scholarship. His recent acquisition of a charming woodblock print titled Kite Time by the American artist Helen Hyde provoked him to wonder exactly who she was and what was her history. He decided to find out.

After a signicant search, Skinner located information on the artist in a series of specialist monographs on American printmakers issued by the Smithsonian Institution. Hyde, he learned, was born in New York State and studied in New York City, San Francisco, Berlin, and Paris. When she was in her early 30s, she moved to “alluring Japan,” as she called it at one point, to study ukiyo-e (floating world) color woodblock techniques. It was at the turn of the last century and Japanese prints had by this time made a significant impact on many advanced Western artists, including Van Gogh and Whistler. In Japan, Hyde encountered the time-honored division of labor that was Japanese woodblock printmaking. Whereas in the West an artist usually did all the work of making a woodblock print, in Japan the process typically involved three people—-artist, cutter, printer.

After a disastrous start in Japan, Hyde apprenticed herself to an Austrian expert who was also in Japan studying ukiyo-e and presently learned every step of the process. Now adept, she created Kite Time in 1903. The technique involved making preliminary pencil sketches, then drawing the image with brush and ink on thin, transparent paper. Her cutter, named Matsumoto, glued this paper, face down, on a block of cherrywood, then he cut away unwanted portions of the wood around the design. The resulting image became the key block. Next, the printer took over. He was Shohiro Murata, who formerly worked with the famed Hiroshige 3rd. After inking it, he placed the block on a moist sheet of paper and rubbed it to transfer the image. The resulting print went back to the artist for hand-coloring. This was given back to the printer for use as a pattern. In a long process, the cutter then made separate blocks for each color, accurate registration being of course critical. The print gained detail and hue as each color was given its own rubbing. Complicated prints using many colors required many blocks.

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