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J.J. Lankes and His Woodcuts

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Lankes, the Virginia woodcut man, is really a gentle quiet man. He goes about looking for little slices of something significant and lovely in commonplace things. Things please him. He has that rare, that charming faculty, so seldom found nowadays, of getting delight out of many little commonplace phases of our everyday, life. You frame one of his little woodcuts and put it on the wall of your room. It is a group of trees on a windswept hillside, or a winter scene in a barnyard, or a Virginia village street. There it is. Why, you have yourself seen just such scenes a thousand times. They did not catch your attention, even seemed ugly to you, but now, under the touch of this man’s hand, see what they have become.

I am writing of Lankes on a grey October day. Well, I got up this morning and tried to work. I couldn’t. There was a certain scene, a chapter of a book I had planned to write. The words would not flow. They were dead meaningless things under my hand.

I went out into the street and wandered about, grey, skies looked down at me, and suddenly there was something grey and old and tired about the town I was in and about the people of the town. There were ugly people along the street, ugly people were going in and out of stores. I was myself ugly. “It is on such days as this murders are done,” I said to myself.

There are always murders being done. I am myself always killing the flow of life in myself. “It is all really very simple. The object of life is simply to live,” I say to myself on such days as this. By living I do not mean dwelling in a big house, having servants to wait on me. I do not mean living in a house hung with expensive and luxurious hangings, drinking rare wines, eating rich foods.

Life in your great house can be as ugly as in the most miserable of little mountain cabins or in a tenement in a city. There is a queer sort of separation from the life about us that at times attacks us all, and it is that separation from life that dams up the flow. The damming up is pretty universal nowadays.

Why, life should be fascinating. People everywhere are living, after a fashion, even in times like these. We go on, but it is a spiritually tired time. Who can deny it? Why, so far as I am concerned, my mails are filled with it.

Such desperate letters come to me. There is talk of suicide, even among the young. “There is no light,” people say. “Where is the sun?”

People are wanting to draw nearer each other—understand each other better, but they cannot do it. It may be because we are all trying on the grand scale.

We should begin with little things.

I am here in this small town street. There are dirty papers, blown by a damp wintry wind into gutters. A sick old woman gets out of a Ford and goes up a dirty stairway to a doctor’s office. A woman passes with a child. The child is crying and the mother is indifferent. She fairly drags the child along the street.

What I am trying to say is that there are always these little scenes, presenting themselves for our notice, out of the commonplace little incidents of our everyday lives. They are ugly. Surely. But let them be truly presented, so that we feel them as part of ourselves, and something happens.

Beauty happens. That strange intangible quality of looking at life and at things, feeling into life and things, making others feel, is in everything this man Lankes, the Virginia woodcut man, is doing.

He is, I think, a very significant man. I have said he is a gentle and a quiet man. Now that I come to think of him, I remember that he is not always so quiet.

He is a man who does not talk readily. There he is, a tall dark man clad in workingmen’s clothes. He will be going about so.

He comes to see you or you go to see him. Let us say you take a walk. Lankes will go moodily and silently along. You sit down upon a bridge.

Now he begins to talk. He will begin making little woodcuts with words.

He was in a house once. He tells you about that. The talk has nothing to do with anything that has been said. He was merely going along a road, was sketching along a road. It began to rain and there was an unpainted farmhouse nearby. He went to it and an old woman invited him into the house. He will be telling you about what happened.

Nothing much happened.

Now he is talking eagerly. Words flow from him. They roll and tumble from him. While he was in that house, the house dropped into casually like that . . . he only stayed until a shower passed . . . not much was said . . . but he saw everything. He will give you a description of the inside of the house or of a room in that house, infinitely detailed, for some queer reason absorbingly interesting.

Now perhaps I am getting at what I want to say about this man, I spoke of having some of his woodcuts framed in my house. They are in the dining room. What an odd place for these things, some one says.

Not really. I am not a man absorbed in eating, in that kind of fleshly delight. I do not want painted baskets of fruit or game or fish hung in my dining room. I am not an Elizabethan. I wish I were.

I prefer company as I eat, some one talking to me. I prefer thoughts. I like things in my dining room that arouse, that awaken thoughts in me.

So I have these Lankes woodcuts. There is a frame house, belonging, let us say, to a merchant. There is an old house in Williamsburg, Virginia.

It isn’t much of a house, that one, and never was. It is a little box-like structure, thrown hastily up, a long time ago.

Why, not so long ago, perhaps twenty years ago, but look at it now. This is not one of our proud old Virginia mansions of Colonial days. Already it is all warped out of shape. There is a little shed at the back, all askew, and a dilapidated Ford stands in the road. A little washing has been hung out. It is wash day in the house. Well.

There is the sky hanging over all this. The little house rests upon the breast of mother earth. But let us not be sentimental. Lankes never is. I honor him for that.

The man has feeling. He has that odd quality, so infinitely valuable, the feeling for things, for the reflected life in things. Why, at this moment I have on my desk before me a letter from him. I have already told him that I am anxious to write of him. “You let me do it,” I have said to him. “I want to.”

I have a notion I have something to say, and he is afraid that I will be writing of himself, the man. He is afraid I will try to draw a character sketch of him.

He has been trying to beguile me. He writes me letters, making little drawings on the margins. He wants me to write, not of himself, but of wood cutting. When I have been with him he has talked to me of his craft.

He will talk at length of the various kinds of wood. I am sure I do not quote him correctly, now. Wood cutting is not my craft. “Chestnut is a good wood,” he says. I do not remember whether he said chestnut, or oak, or hickory.

I do remember that when I have been with him he spoke of the grain in various woods. “In such and such a wood the grain runs so and so. You look at this piece of wood now. The grain makes these certain convolutions. Look at the end of this piece. Look at the sides.” He has written me letters. There are little drawings of wood carvers’ tools along the margins of the letters.

What I think of Lankes, what I really want to say of him is that he has got hold of something lost nowadays to most of us. He is a man who has sensed, who senses constantly, delicately, the reflected things in life.

There is an old fence going up a hill through a pasture. Look at it, in a Lankes woodcut. There is an old fence and an old gate.

Or, let us say, there is a large woodcut of a barnyard. You see a house in the distance, a farmer’s house. It is winter, let us say. The farmer’s wife got from a fruit tree agent who came dowi along the road on which her house stands some young fruit trees. She was a poor woman but she sold eggs and butter in town and got the money to buy these young trees.

She got two peach trees, an apricot, two Bartlett pears and some cherry trees.

The trees were put out two years ago but the farmer’s wife had bad luck with them. Last winter rabbits came into the yard and nibbled at the tender young things. Some of them died in the spring. One day a cow destroyed three trees. She only had a dozen. It got down at last to one tree, a young pear tree, and she got her husband to build a little fence about it. He got some old boards and sticks and put up a kind of fence. There it is. It is just thrown together.

You see it there in a Lankes woodcut and as you look you know the whole story of that poor farmer’s wife. You know about her hopes, her disappointments. There is her whole story told in these few sticks awkwardly nailed up there. She herself doesn’t appear. You never see her. In spite of yourself you look, your heart filled with anxiety. You do so want the last young tree to live, to bear fruit for that woman.

Lankes gets at you in this way. He is always getting at you. He is a man deeply concerned with life really, but it is his way to get at it through things. He feels always the reflected life in things, in barns, sheds back of barns, in little houses in which poor people live. He is always asserting something. “Look,” he says. “Look again. Don’t you see it?” He is telling you about something. “It is human life,” he says. “Life is here in these inanimate things people have touched.

“Because this old fence, this gate, this old house here, this store to which people come to trade, this cart behind the barn, because these things have been touched by human hands, because they have become a part of this strange muddle we call life, they have become sacred things. See the significance, the beauty in them.”

If you cannot see, if what Lankes is always telling you you cannot see, if life escapes you, it isn’t the fault of this man. He at least is doing his part. He is reasserting the life and the beauty buried away in things, is always reasserting it in every woodcut he makes.

It is his determination, his assertion and reassertion, as well as the beauty of his work that, it seems to me, makes Lankes, the Virginia woodcut man, one of the very significant living artists of our day.

Why, he is content not to be in the grand tone. He is a modest, a humble man. He isn’t loud. There he is, always at work. In a time of low spiritual vitality he is constantly at it, asserting and reasserting in his work the beauty and wonder of everyday life.


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