Bethany Marett uses print, sculpture and photography to explore the physical body and the way we see it. Her figurative prints often feature female nudes and slumbering men, challenging notions of the gaze and vulnerability. Her reduction woodcut Lockdown Morning captures a private moment of calm and was made and printed at home, with her housemate as the model. Bethany explains how getting hands-on with materials is key to her work and why relief prints have more in common with sculpture than you might think.
Why did you decide to make Lockdown Morning?
As one of the many artists in London who juggles multiple jobs, my time is precious and it often feels like there isn’t enough of it. I was fortunate enough to have a safe and comfortable living situation during lockdown, so I relished the chance to be at home with no pressing deadlines and feelings of missing out. I wanted to capture the calmness of that, when I was able to spend time in the garden, linger over coffee in the morning, and just generally reset my priorities.
I made two colour woodcuts at the start of the spring lockdown. I became particularly interested in the movement of light, as I hadn’t really noticed the journey of the sun and the shadows in my room and garden before. It gained new significance as it helped me to track the endless days and passage of time. Having a garden was a precious resource, and I made new connections with my housemate (who is modelling for me in "Lockdown Morning") because we had time to take care of it and use it.
How did your practice change during lockdown?
With my studio a fair walk away, I made work that didn’t need large equipment or a printing press to achieve, and could be done from my bedroom. Being effectively furloughed from work, and with more space in my houseshare as others had fled London, I had much more time and lots of room to dry prints. This gave me the freedom to make a reduction woodcut, which involves a longer printing process than I usually do and requires quite a lot of planning for all the different stages. It felt like a great challenge to get stuck into and keep me occupied. Although I will always love the printed contrast of black and white, I've been intending to try introducing more colour into my work for a while, and this was the perfect opportunity.
It’s a hand-finished reduction woodcut. What was the process to make it at home? What tools did you use?
I began by making a drawing on the wooden block, and from there I decided which colours to use and how many layers I wanted to cut. This print has five layers of colour. It’s a reduction woodcut, so all the colours are printed from the same wooden block. You have to think ahead about layering and what needs to be carved away after each colour is printed, because you can’t go back to a previous layer once you’ve started on the next one.
I use Swiss engraving tools because they are fine and sharp, so they’re great for small details. After carving each layer, I inked up the plate and printed it using a Japanese bamboo baren (a flat tool with a handle used to create pressure by hand over the paper to get a clear print). I’d always just used a metal spoon to print by hand before, so the bamboo baren made a big difference in achieving a smooth and uniform print.
While one layer of colour was drying, I could start carving the next layer. I touched up each print by hand, adding details such as red toenail polish and filing in any spots where the ink hadn't taken.
Why did you decide to use woodcut as the medium for this print?
Slumber was the first woodcut I made. It’s a monochromatic print that is on display in my featured artist exhibition. I’d picked up a lovely piece of fine-grain wood from Intaglio Printmakers a few years ago, which was quite expensive, and I’d been saving it for something but I was never quite sure what. After going to the incredible Félix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy last year, I went home, unwrapped it and began! It was much harder work than carving lino, and I had the woodgrain to deal with, but I loved working with a natural material rather than plastic, and seeing the wood grain come through in the prints brings an added materiality to the work rather than the smooth linoleum. I liked the added challenge and physically harder work with woodcut. The wood splinters and it has more resistance to it than the soft-cut lino I usually use, so the cuts do create a different kind of mark.
Is Félix Vallotton’s work an influence on "Lockdown Morning" too?
Vallotton is definitely an influence on my print work. I am fascinated by his drama-filled interiors and the ability to be quite frugal with line – you don't need to give all the information for the image to be successful, and leaving out information allows space for the viewer's imagination to step in. My work pretty much always involves figures or the body, usually nudes, either from life drawing sketches I’ve made or everyday photographs I have taken. I want the viewer to be sucked into the image, and if there are multiple readings and layers of meaning, then I am very pleased about that.
You also work in sculpture and photography. Does this play into your prints, or do you see them as quite separate?
The mediums are very different, but I do feel that the relief printing process is very much akin to sculpture. I’m working with materials, either removing from them or adding to them. A relief block is a piece of sculpture – it has been carved no differently than a piece of marble or oak might be. It just becomes a surface to make a picture from instead of the finished artwork itself. I am very experimental in my practice and fascinated by different processes and materials, so I work across many mediums. There is definitely a theme throughout all my work, but in terms of my prints being predominantly figurative and my sculpture abstract and more conceptual, they might appear to be separate. Likewise with photography, especially alternative photographic techniques that involve chemicals, liquids and light – well, these are directly linked with printmaking techniques.
What themes do you take through your work in different mediums? Do you immediately know which direction you want to take an idea?
I would say that the theme that extends across mediums is that of exploring this mortal body that we all inhabit, and I especially want to do this from a feminist and empowering perspective. I often make prints of women, and many self-portraits too, and it is important to me that they do not appear as ‘Photoshopped’ fashion models, but as real women. I also make works showing men in states of vulnerability, representing them in guises that women have been shown in for many hundreds of years, such as sleeping or as objects of beauty themselves. I want to understand the power of the gaze and who is looking at whom. of pictures.
In my sculptural work, I feel more freedom to be experimental and to express abstract concepts because working in three-dimensions lends itself to this. When you confront a piece of sculpture, it’s a thing that exists in the real world, it actually invades your personal space. I feel like a two-dimensional image takes you somewhere else, whereas sculpture almost brings you back to where you physically are, but with this weird thing there too.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m back to playing with materials in my studio, and working on some distorted resin casts of my face that I might light for an exhibition ‘in the dark’ next year with the London Group. I’m also thinking about new woodcuts to make now that my featured artist exhibition is up and the art world is beginning to get going again. I’m pleased to say that Lockdown Morning was selected for a touring exhibition with the New Light Art Prize for artists from the north of England, which starts in Scarborough and will run in Carlisle, Newcastle and end up in Bankside Gallery in London in autumn 2021.
Bethany has a special exhibition of her prints as our featured artist at the Greenwich Printmakers Gallery until October 4. To find out more about her work, visit her artist’s page and her website. The gallery will be open on Thursday, September 24 from 5-8pm for an evening viewing of Bethany's featured artist exhibition (as well as our current opening hours). Please contact Bethany on Instagram @beth.marett for details and to express interest. This will be run in line with government guidelines to control coronavirus and may be subject to change, so please contact Bethany or the gallery if you have any questions.