CARVING A NICHE – ARTIST KENT AMBLER
ARTIST KENT AMBLER CREATES UNIQUE PRINTS THAT REFLECT HIS SOUTH CAROLINA SURROUNDINGS.
Kent Ambler spends a lot of time outside, and a lot of time creating.
It all started when he was a kid; being raised by a hard-working single mother in Indiana often meant finding his own adventures, which he gladly embraced. He cobbled together forts, built rafts, and invented stories in his head as he clamored through the forests, thriving in the fresh, open air. At home and school, he buried his head in pads of paper, drawing from his own perspectives, ideas, and memories. He spent countless hours shaping modeling clay into creatures and sculptures, and jumped at the chance to take painting lessons from a neighbor. Before long, his teachers began taking note of his talents, and often requested to keep his art projects to use as examples for future students.
“I never thought I was special in any way,” remembers Ambler. “I had the ability to concentrate, which seemed only slightly unusual compared to my classmates, but they’d always comment on it as I drew every single brick in a building or detailed the bark of a tree. I just thought creating art was something I liked to do, and didn’t think much further than that.”
As Ambler navigated his way to college, it became clear to him that creating art was a clear and unwavering calling, and he never gave any other career path a second thought. Upon arrival at Ball State University, he declared his major in the Fine Arts Department, and began officially studying a wide range of techniques and styles. During his printmaking studies, he was tasked with a woodcutting project, and Ambler fell in love with the medium, deftly carving his blocks with uncommon skill.
While he studied a plethora of subjects and artistic mediums during college, the unique elements of woodcutting mentally stuck with him through his graduation, beginnings of his marriage, and subsequent moves across the country.
After graduation, Ambler and his new wife moved to New Mexico, and the artist began trying to make a living off of a lifetime of skill and a freshly minted Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Ball State. With an observational style that was decidedly not Southwestern, and living in a time before the rise of social media and internet commerce, Ambler struggled to fit into the art scene. Finally, Ambler and his wife decided to move, and they pulled out an atlas to make the decision together. First, they crossed out any states they deemed too cold, then the entire Southwest, Florida, and the gulf coast states. They knew they wanted to travel east, so left before them on the map was North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Northern Georgia.
“I wanted to move somewhere that I didn’t get an immediate image in my head as to what the art was like there,” Ambler recalls. “And Greenville just stood out to me as this mysterious city that I couldn’t quite pin down.”
Intrigued, Ambler visited the city of Greenville, and was immediately struck by the eclectic mix of artistic styles and the welcoming attitude toward art and artists in general. He was sold, and soon moved into a Greenville area home with over a hundred fruit trees on the property that attracted birds of every feather right to his doorstep.
Ambler, fascinated, encouraged the visits by putting tray feeders in the windows, and it was not long before his art began to reflect his everyday observations. Later, he moved onto the property where he lives today: 12 acres of forest, full of flora and fauna that inspires Ambler every day. Birds are omnipresent throughout Ambler’s work, though dogs, trees, insects and buildings are quite common, as well.
“I study my surroundings extensively,” says Ambler, “But I try to focus less on creating a true scientific study of, say, a bird, and more on capturing the essence of the bird. So the beak may not be perfect, or the tail is the wrong color for it to be a certain exact species, but the character and the aesthetic is there.”
Though Ambler is quite fluent in drawing, painting, and sculpting, woodcut art takes up most of his time these days as he is driven by the demand for his unique prints from galleries, festival attendees, and individual buyers.
His process begins with a wooden block – a simple, bare pine plank – upon which he draws from memory or sketches. He then carves this first, or “key” block with the majority of the image using chisels, gouges, and other tools. When the key block is complete, he applies a black oil-based ink with brayers, lays the block face-up on his press, tops that with paper and press blankets, and cranks the whole thing through the press to proof. Next, he studies the proof to determine how many color blocks he needs, and applies the key block proof to the new blocks, running each through the press as well. This creates a light image of the art on the color blocks, giving a clearer picture of where Ambler needs to carve to place color in his desired spot on the final image. He then mixes his inks, often creating transparent inks so that color can overlap and create new colors on the final print. Finally, he prints the blocks, running each block through the press as many times as it takes to get the right colors. Ambler usually creates a 20 or 30 print edition per woodcut, and then destroys the blocks, never to be reprinted again.
Nearly two decades after encountering the medium for the first time, Ambler is still fascinated with the process of woodcutting.
“You can’t force an image with a woodcut,” Ambler says. “I carve what I see, but it really just evolves with each mark, block, and ink application. It’s not a sterile process. I just try to let the woodcut be a woodcut and become what it will become.”
Much like the reliable tendency of a woodcut to become just that, Kent Ambler has forever been an artist, an ever-evolving creator perpetually on a path to his creations. Talented and ambitious with his observations on life in the South, his woodcuts reflect a simple connection to nature in an increasingly complicated world, and lend a depth of focus to the walls which they adorn.
By Jana Riley