Is it the art of romance or the romance of art? It’s hard to tell when it comes to London-based print artist Alex Booker, the two concepts are so closely intertwined. He runs the Booker Print House where he explores the “intimate affair” that is woodcut printing, fusing the properties of ink and wood in an ongoing series of experimental works that are inspired by his lifelong fascination with the sea.
“The sea has a deep human history of navigation, migration, adventure, song, mythology, science, war and the beautiful whale,” he says. For Alex, the sea has a more personal history; he grew up in a family that was quite familiar with the ways of the sea. His dad served in the Merchant Navy and his, “deep-sea tales and a library of maritime history” captured Alex’s young imagination.
Today, family visits bring him back to the British Coast, to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. He’s also been able to combine two of his more recent hobbies, sailing and singing, to further his maritime education. “I sing in a sea shanty choir, so the stories and dramas from around the world are always in abundance.”
He finds beauty in these dramatic stories, the epic and tragic stories of shipwrecks for example. He refers to the incredible collection of photographs documenting more than a century of Cornish shipwrecks taken by the Gibson family over four generations as a source of inspiration. “I’m interested in the shipwreck as a memorial and poignant reminder to the power of nature and the loss of life at sea. The broken vessels encapsulate loneliness, speculation and fantasy.”
It’s as though these stories lend themselves to the art of woodcutting: the dramatic marks that can be achieved in the wood blocks create a certain depth that seem to complement the subject matter. In a way, woodcut printing mimics the sometimes rhythmic, other times unpredictable nature of the waves in the sea. “It may seem like I dictate how the work emerges but a lot of it is out of my hands. The grain of the block and the density of the ply have a lot to do with the outcome.”
Once the cuts have been made, Alex rolls a thin layer of ink on the wood – the darker he wants the area, the more ink he applies. Japanese Hosho paper is pressed on the block and eventually pealed back to reveal the final image. It’s a laborious process, one he embraces for its intimacy: “Cutting a block by hand is often a technical labyrinth, and areas of fine detail can be especially hard; a steady hand and strong concentration are paramount.”
To find this focused state, Alex retreats into his studio from the hustle and bustle of London (which he considers “magical, multicultural and at times quite manic”). He cherishes this solitude, spending long hours researching, drawing, tracing, cutting, inking and printing. “I reflect on life, attempt to process what’s going on, and print to my heart’s content.”