03 Aug Claire Emery
It all started with toads.
“I grew up in Texas, and actually, the best thing about Houston was the toads,” artist Claire Emery recalls with a laugh. “There were so many toads, and I was an avid toad collector. They would come out of their holes just after sunset, and there were certain puddles on the street that never dried up. That’s where I’d find them laying their eggs. Every spring, I’d get to watch that, and I’d collect the eggs and raise them in my tin bucket and feed them boiled lettuce. Then, I’d release them all into the grass and hope that a few of them would make it.”
Emery’s childhood experiences observing toads and hundreds of other wild animals and plants kept her fascinated with the world. They also prepared her to share nature in exuberant ways.
Since she became an artist 30 years ago, Emery has delved into drawing, painting, field journaling, and teaching. Today, she is best known for creating vibrant, hand-colored woodcut prints depicting the animals, history, culture, and wonders of the Northern Rockies. In addition to selling individual prints, Emery compiles her images and offers them as calendars — her most recent, dubbed “Restoration,” includes subjects ranging from two cross-country skiers laying tracks through a starlit forest to a lone whitebark pine clinging to a wind-scoured mountaintop. Her images demand study and contemplation for their elegant compositions and bold execution. And all of them spring from Emery’s encounters with nature.
Despite her toad experiences, Emery chafed at spending so much of her childhood in Houston. Her parents were from New England, and every summer the family would return there. “In New England, we would have the forest nearby,” Emery recalls. “My grandfather, he was up in the Vermont woods, and different relatives were in the Berkshires. I would get to run through the forest and be completely happy, which I could never do in Houston. So I developed a great love of wild nature early. That was my happy place.”
As a teenager, Emery attended boarding school in rural northwest Connecticut. “The school was surrounded by forest and streams and lakes, and so, every Sunday, I would don my father’s red flannel shirt and go out by myself. I called it ‘woodsing,’ and that was the happiest time. That was the first time I saw migrating salmon swimming upstream. It was the first time I heard ice cracking on this huge lake.” However, it wasn’t until she came to Montana in 1991 that her artist’s journey began in earnest.
Emery was working at an outdoor gear store in Houston when a coworker told her that he needed to make a quick drive up to Missoula to renew his driver’s license. “I said ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to kill yourself. I’m coming with you,’” Emery recalls. The trip took three days. “On the third day, I remember we rolled into town and just looked at each other. We said, ‘You know what? We’re earning minimum wage. If we go back to Houston, we’ll never get out of there.’”
With that, she called the outdoor gear store and gave her two-week notice. Then, she caught the Greyhound back to Houston, finished work, and moved to Missoula for good. A short time later, she signed up for the wilderness and civilization program at the University of Montana. “It was an amazing year-long interdisciplinary program where we took five classes a semester [that] focused on wilderness and civilization through the lens of different disciplines,” Emery says. “We started with a 10-day backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and we were required to do something like a five- or six-page journal entry every day. We wrote. We drew. After I did this reflection on the trip, my teacher, Matt Houghton, called me up and said, ‘You know, I just want to tell you that you have a real gift for this.’”
Although she had been keeping journals since the sixth grade, her journaling about the Bob Marshall ushered in a new way of seeing for Emery, one that further deepened her connections to nature. It also inspired her to begin seriously sketching and painting, and teaching field journaling to others. Eventually, it led her to woodcuts and woodblock prints.
drawing with light
Emery describes her printing process as drawing with light. “You’ve got a solid piece of wood, and you take your cutting tools, which are like different-shaped knives — the same as metal engraving tools. Then, you draw with light. You cut away whatever you want to be lit.”
“These blocks are made from the basswood tree family,” she adds, holding up a board made from five layers. “They’re from Japan, and they’re specifically made for woodblock printing. And this is called a ‘five-ply.’ It’s five layers of the same wood with minimum glue holding it together. When I carve into it, I carve as deep as I need to in order to not print that area.”
As she talks, Emery prepares to make prints from a recent woodcut — an image of a black-capped chickadee. She dollops out blobs of thick black ink onto a glass table surface and then uses a roller, or “brayer,” to begin smoothing the ink in a super-thin, even layer. “You can tell when the ink is ready by the sound of it. This is the sound we really like,” she says as the brayer rolls over the ink, emitting a smooth, silky hiss.
After making sure the brayer is saturated, she deliberately and forcefully rolls it over the chickadee woodcut again and again. Every once in a while, she picks up the block and angles it toward the light to ensure that the raised portions have absorbed the ink equally. Satisfied, she carries the woodcut to her giant press and places a sheet of handmade paper over it. She piles several other pieces of scrap paper over that and then smothers the whole thing with two blankets of felted wool.
“Now, let’s see what happens,” she says. She turns the press’s large captain’s wheel so the woodcut slides under a giant steel roller. Once it has emerged on the other side, she removes the wool blankets and extra paper. Then, she carefully peels the printing paper from the block. Often, she explains, the wood block doesn’t get fully “charged” with ink the first time around. This time, though, Emery seems pleased. “Hey, that came out pretty well! I actually like it with some of the wood grain showing,” she says, pointing out areas of the print she initially wanted black.
capturing the moment
After she prints from a woodcut, Emery brings each copy to life by hand-coloring it with watercolors. Usually, she prints a limited edition from each block, but she also turns many of her images into notecards and calendars that have become a mainstay of her livelihood.
Some of her woodcuts tell a story, but most try to capture an encounter from her experiences outdoors. “Do you see these crossbills?” she asks, pointing to a print of two red-and-black birds sitting in a ponderosa pine. “I did that because I got inspired by a crossbill that flew into a tree right next to me while I was drawing some cottonwoods. I just love how you have those little moments outdoors. And in my work, I feel like I can provide that experience for other people or remind them of their own experiences when they have felt rejuvenated and restored by nature.”
Birds, in particular, are favored subjects of Emery’s. She has created two dozen images of Montana birds during the past decade, from American dippers and pileated woodpeckers to mountain bluebirds and Clark’s nutcrackers. Her ongoing series of circular raven woodcuts portrays essential human experiences like freedom, enlightenment, and mortality.
With her children now out of the home, she also feels ready to leap into new endeavors. “I want to keep going with my field journaling because the discoveries I make when I’m out writing and drawing are the basis for all my work. I feel inspired to work bigger, looser — with translucent colors that reference life forces contained within all beings.” Already, this new phase of life is pushing her to create larger, one-of-a-kind woodcuts, as well as other works inspired by Japanese woodcuts and three-part retablos from Mexico.
“My work is really about celebrating the present moment,” Emery reflects. In whichever ways her future work manifests, we’re fortunate that we’ll be able to keep celebrating those moments with her.