Lyell Castonguay is a printmaker creating narrative woodcut prints depicting the natural world. Recently he has been playing with the introduction of man-made imagery, a plane seen immersed in a murmuration of birds, a submarine moving through a shoal of fish; but his work always has a natural underlying theme. His main subject is the portraiture of birds.
The artist’s interest in avian subjects began when he was gifted two juvenile society finches. Being fascinated with the hidden lives of animals and birds, an avid consumer of natural history literature and films, Lyell found himself the ethologist. He recognized their distinct personalities and observed them communicating with one another and huddle together at night. Aviculture remains a part of the artists home life, and birds the main protagonists in his work.
“Birds take on a larger than life presence in my work. As a long-time bird owner, I see my subjects up close every day. I’ve learned to appreciate their personality as much as their beautiful colors, shapes, and patterns. Birds always remain their own master, and my art is about capturing their indomitable spirit. Like the ancient shamans, who once drew spiritual power from animals, birds are my source of creative power.”
Early in the creation of this body of work Lyell was inspired by Audubon’s book, “The Birds of America”, to compile his growing bestiary of larger-than-life bird imagery. That is not to say his intent was documentation through scientific illustration. He is more concerned with the peculiarity of behavior and perceived personality of his subject from the viewpoint of the observer. These are allegorical beasts distorted through the lens of personification.
Lyell Castonguay was introduced to printmaking at New Hampshire Institute of Art. After experimenting with other media, he settled on woodcut printmaking as his primary instrument of creativity. He is drawn to the process orientated natured of the technique, which helps to slow down the creative process but also throws unexpected curve balls. “Woodcut is a decision-making process. Once a mark is carved into the plywood’s surface, it cannot be undone.” The finality of the mark making is offset with the uncertainty of how the matrix will print, the inks overlay, and myriad of issues the process may present.
Lyell Castonguay received his BFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2010. His influences include Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Bruce Waldman, and Christopher Hartshorne. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including France, Ireland, and Wales. In addition to his own studio practice he is also the director of BIG INK, a collaborative project that encourages the practice and understanding of large woodcut. BIG INK revolves around a variety of programming including workshops and community printing events.
Lyell’s favorite piece of equipment in the studio is his mammoth press, which he affectionately calls “The Big Tuna”. Traditional woodcut techniques are often based around hand printing, but access to a large press has enabled Lyell to create large scale, multi-layered color works.
“I start a project by making painterly marks with ink onto plywood, establishing general forms. Then a finer rendering using sharpies and pencils balances the immediacy of the ink painting. This is in preparation for the hours I will spend hand carving around each drawn line with small chisels. Once the carving is complete, the woodblock is ready to print! A thin coat of oil-based ink is applied to a rubber roller. The roller distributes ink across the surface of the carved image. Ink sticks to all the raised areas of the plywood. The carved areas don’t catch the ink and remain white on the printed paper. Paper is placed on top of the inked surface and the woodblock is run through a press. The press applies even pressure thereby pushing the paper into the woodblock’s sticky inked surface. Finally, the paper is peeled away from the woodblock, resulting in a finished print.”