As members of the Curating Los Angeles (CLA) community know, I am very interested in the arts and regularly use CLA’s blog, Facebook page and Twitter account to promote the work of local artists who I admire, share news of arts related events and profile artists who produce work related in one way or another to Los Angeles. It should therefore come as no surprise that when Loren Kantor informed me about his new woodcut, titled “LA Freeway,” and asked if I wanted to learn more about his work, I took him up on his offer.
After conducting an interview via email, Kantor the artist, the Angeleno, the writer and the teacher came into view. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.
CLA: What inspired you to produce woodcuts and where did you receive your training?
KANTOR: My interest in woodcuts began in 1987 when I attended a German Expressionist show at the LA County Museum of Art. I encountered the woodcut prints and paintings of George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. I was mesmerized. I loved the stark lines and bold imagery. I was blown away by the dark subject matter. Characters expressed emotional angst and internal conflict not typically seen in fine art of the period.
In 2007, my wife surprised me with a woodcutting set for my birthday. I checked out a few online tutorial videos and I dove in, head first. The carving process was difficult at first. I cut myself often, the blocks were ragtag and I felt like a kid with his first set of finger paints. Before long I was hooked and carving became my passion.
CLA: Do you work professionally as an artist or do you have a day job as well?
KANTOR: In addition to selling my prints and taking on woodcut commissions, I teach block printmaking classes throughout the city. I teach at parks and rec centers, senior homes, hospitals, drug and alcohol rehab facilities, churches and temples, private functions and parties.
CLA: What did you do before getting into woodcuts?
KANTOR: I was a working screenwriter, television writer and script reader through my 20’s. During that time, I also worked on several movies as an assistant director. I became burnt out by the long hours of production and moved to San Francisco for several years. During this period, I worked at a number of odd jobs including food taster, fortune cookie writer (for a company in SF Chinatown) and customer service rep at an oven mitt company. My worst job was transporting urine to a lab for a San Francisco law firm that drug tested prospective employees.
CLA: What’s the story behind the LA Freeway woodcut that you shared with me?
KANTOR: As a block printmaking instructor, I’m often caught in LA Freeway traffic jams. My wife suggested that I carve a woodcut of the LA Freeway as a “peace offering” – a way to help me make peace with the traffic. The action seemed to work. I now see local freeways with new eyes, viewing them not just as arteries of traffic but as a work of art. I often stare at the trees and plants on the sides of the freeway and give thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. who helped design New York’s Central Park), who influenced the introduction of foliage to the LA freeway system.
CLA: Are you from Los Angeles?
KANTOR: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I grew up in Studio City and have spent most of my adult life living in Los Angeles.
CLA: Has Los Angeles inspired other woodcuts that you’ve produced over the years.
KANTOR: I’m passionate about old Los Angeles and I’m often inspired to carve woodcuts of LA personalities old and new. Some of my favorite LA iconic figures include Charles Bukowski, Sandy Koufax, David Lynch, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and screenwriter Shane Black who was my college roommate at UCLA. I also love carving images of friends and family, most of whom call Los Angeles home.
CLA: What is it about old Los Angeles that captivates you?
KANTOR: My time in San Francisco, though enjoyable, reinforced my passion for Los Angeles. I remember attending a party in Nob Hill, one of the ritziest parts of the city. I was mingling in the backyard of a huge mansion when the host said his was one of the only homes in the city to have a lemon tree. I immediately thought of Los Angeles where every neighborhood, from South Central to Santa Monica, boasted lemon trees. This precipitated my move back to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles remains quirky and iconic. I love the ethnic diversity and cultural panorama. The city is always bustling while the mountains and nearby ocean beckons for one to take the day off and hike or swim. So much of old Los Angeles has been destroyed, yet so many iconic locations remain. I love going to Philippe’s for a French Dip sandwich or to Taix Restaurant for Bordeaux and French fries. I love seeing old movies at the New Beverly Theater or listening to music at the Hollywood Bowl. I hike in Franklin Canyon and remember the Claudette Colbert hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night. I ride my bike past the Ballona Wetlands or play basketball at Venice Beach. This is a great city and as someone who was born and raised here, I always enjoy showing friends and newbies what Los Angeles has to offer.
CLA: How would you describe your creative process?
KANTOR: The woodcut process begins when I find an old photo or image I’m attracted to. From this image I make an initial pencil sketch, which I transfer to a wood or linoleum block. I use standard woodcutting blades and gouges and other odd tools (awls, dental implements, sewing needles.) Once the image is carved I clean the block, apply a thin layer of ink and hand press the image on archival paper using a Japanese Baren (a bamboo tool that looks kind of like an air-hockey paddle). The entire process takes 40-50 hours depending on the size and complexity of the image. If I make a major mistake I have to start over. Minor mistakes I live with; they add to the organic nature of the print.
The process is slow and meditative. I’ll put on music, immerse myself in the carving and hours will go by in a flash. In these days when everything is moving so fast it’s nice to have an activity that forces me to relax. I guess woodcutting has become my own personal yoga.
CLA: Do you ever use color in your woodcuts?
KANTOR: I rarely use color. As I mentioned before, I’m influenced by the German Expressionist woodcut artists of the 20’s and 30’s who exclusively printed in black and white. I admire the stark, bold black lines that remind me of film noir imagery. The block prints have a simplicity and striking tone that resonates in my soul.
CLA: Are there other woodcut artists working in Los Angeles who you admire?
KANTOR: At one time, the great Mexican woodcut artist Artemio Rodriguez lived at the Brewery Art Colony in Downtown Los Angeles. I was honored to meet him and hoped to take classes with him, but he moved back to Mexico. I have met other block printmaking artists around town, but they’re few and far between. My current favorite woodcut artist is Tom Killion, a Big Sur printmaker who prints Japanese-style woodcut prints of California landscapes.