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Midwest Modern

Clevelander Mabel Hewit's color woodcuts reflect a lifetime of artistic production
July 25, 2016

Jane Glaubinger Curator of Prints

Mabel Amelia Hewit (1903–1984) is a Cleveland treasure. Born in Conneaut and raised in Youngstown, she lived the last 50 years of her life in Cleveland, exhibiting in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show, an annual exhibition for regional artists, every year from 1935 to 1957. Hewit was resourceful and multi-talented, working in many different media. A printmaker of distinction with an aptitude for carving woodblocks, she produced beautiful color woodcuts and handsome textiles. She experimented with modernist ideas in these two media, creating her most interesting works, while also executing numerous lithographs and working in both watercolor and enamel on copper. Ten sketchbooks survive that served as a dictionary of motifs for her prints, water-colors, and enamels throughout a five-decade career. 

In the summer of 1933 Hewit traveled to Province-town, Massachusetts, to learn the white-line woodcut technique from its most famous practitioner, Blanche Lazzell. Traditionally a separate block is cut for each color in a woodcut print, but this method uses only a single block. The artist cuts a groove around each section so that when the block is inked and printed, a white line (the uninked paper) delineates the variously colored areas. 


Around the Camp Stove
Around the Camp Stove

Around the Camp Stove about 1937. Color woodcut; 27.5 x 22.6 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey 

Around the Camp Stove about 1937. Color woodcut; 27.5 x 22.7 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey in memory of Mabel A. Hewit 2003.369


Hewit secured the block in a wooden frame to which she pinned the top of the paper, assuring proper registration. One area of the block, separated from other distinct shapes by the grooves, was colored and then the paper folded down to cover the block. The back of the sheet was rubbed with a flat utensil to transfer the color from the block to the paper. This pressure forced the paper into the grooves, which embossed the sheet and created unprinted, slightly protruding white lines. The blocks into which the color has soaked are handsome carved reliefs, works of art in themselves.

The white-line technique was Hewit’s favorite medium and she used it for some 30 years. She produced scenes of the quaint buildings in Provincetown, views of industrial structures, landscapes based on her travels, and charming figural scenes from everyday life. “I like block printing,” she explained, “because it gives the family of moderate means an opportunity to have something of color and art in their homes.” 

Familiar with the latest trends in art, Hewit often divided certain areas into a series of geometric shapes that enliven an otherwise static composition, as in The Gardeners. Derived from Cubism, these fragmented, faceted forms reflect the influence of her teacher Lazzell, who defined Cubism as the “organization of flat planes of color, with an interplay of space, instead of perspective.” Some of Hewit’s work reflects other styles that were popular at the time, such as Precisionism and Art Deco.


Sun Bathing
Sun Bathing

Sun Bathing about 1937. Woodblock; 30.9 x 27.5 x 1.9 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey 

Sun Bathing 1937. Color woodcut; 27.7 x 30.3 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey in memory of Mabel A. Hewit 2003.362  


Hewit took a modernist approach to composition. Sun Bathing illustrates how large areas of unmodulated color and other devices flatten space. A low viewpoint and close-up tableau of monumental figures enhance the scene’s immediacy. The brilliant crisp forms emphasize the two-dimensional nature of the support as does the water in the background, which is described as a stack of flat jagged shapes topped by a brown band that fills the space to the borderline.

Like her mentor, Hewit was fascinated with the possibilities inherent in this labor-intensive method. Both she and Lazzell experimented and varied the hues continuously so that each impression was unique. “The artist in block printing is responsible for every line and effect,” Hewit asserted, “and so very quaint and personal things happen.” By varying hues, Hewit achieved many different results. While the vivid orange and yellow stripes in the background of Around the Camp Stove infuse the room with warmth and a feeling of cozy companionship, the gray background in another impression creates a cooler atmosphere, as if the stove has grown cold.


The Gardeners

The Gardeners about 1934. Color woodcut; 35.6 x 29.7 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey 


Although Provincetown was important in Hewit’s career because she learned the white-line technique from Lazzell there, her stay was brief and she never became part of the community. For some 16 summers starting in 1937, however, Hewit visited the Summer School of Painting at Saugatuck, better known as Ox-Bow, where she studied lithography and watercolor. Situated on the Kalamazoo River near where it flows into Lake Michigan, Ox-Bow offered a pristine landscape and “rich source material, ranging from river and lake, majestic dunes and deep forests, to fishing shacks and docks, great orchards and farm scenes.” Saugatuck subjects appear in sketchbooks and lithographs as well as in watercolors, color woodcuts, and printed textiles.

After a trip to Mexico in 1950, Hewit increasingly depicted more exotic locales inspired by that trip and others to Guatemala, Bermuda, and the West Indies. The strong light of southern venues affected the artist’s palette. Pastel hues begin to prevail so that in Mule Skinners the intense light has bleached the pyramids that dominate the landscape. There is also a change in scale; most of Hewit’s color woodcuts from the 1950s and 1960s are quite small. 


The Mule Skinners

Mule Skinners 1963. Mabel Hewit. Color woodcut; 20.2 x 16.4 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William Jurey 

Working in a variety of media over the years and exhibiting widely, Hewit pursued a rewarding career. Her charming and joyfully colored woodcuts depict life in a simple and appealing manner while exemplifying new artistic ways of describing the world. After five decades of total involvement in producing prints, in 1980 the 77-year-old Hewit observed, “Art was my life.”  



All images © Mabel Hewit


Cleveland Art, July/August 2010