‘I love printmaking,” Becky Hammer said. “It’s such a magical medium because you can control certain things. But there’s a lot that you can’t control. And the thing I love about botanical contact printing is that you have so many variables, you just never quite know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you’re greatly disappointed, but sometimes you are just like, ‘Wow!’”
It’s a metaphor for the elementary school teacher and artist who, in her professional and artistic endeavors, has a willingness to try things and see what happens. “I can’t just live in the world of ideas. I have to actually put material together.”
The materials Hammer puts together are local plants and the heavy duty watercolor paper she transfers their images onto in a process that evokes Alaska at an elemental level. Her work is featured at Two Street Gallery throughout March as part of an exhibit that also involves her adult child Claire Granger, who added meticulously detailed bird paintings to some of the prints.
“The printmaking process starts with gathering,” Hammer said. “That means long walks with the dogs. I’m constantly filling my pockets. Or I have a bag.”
To make her prints, Hammer collects leaves and other plant parts. Back at home, she soaks heavy duty watercolor paper, then arranges the leaves on it. Next she rolls the paper tightly around a pipe and binds it. She has a steam tray type pan where she simmers hot water and adds things like different types of metal to it that cause chemical reactions between the plants and the paper, adding tones and depth to the end product. She simmers the rolls in the water for two to three hours. When she’s done, she unwraps the rolls, picks off the plant matter, “and the plant has left an image.”
What emerges can be serendipitous. In the piece “Passage,” there are leaves to the front, with water behind them, land in the background, and what appears to be a bridge running through the upper third of the scene. This “bridge” resulted from a crease in the paper and created one of those happy little accidents that the beloved PBS art instructor Bob Ross always talked about. “That is the magical surprise of printmaking,” Hammer said. “I was trying to create a piece with upward interest. This is what came out.”
Hammer’s path to Alaska was a similar mix of intention and accident. Raised in Upstate New York, she spent the bulk of her childhood outdoors, developing an interest in gardening and plant life. While attending the University of Wisconsin in the early eighties, where she obtained an English degree, she spent a summer working for her brother at a bakery he operated in Homer. “I always swore that I would come back to Alaska after I was done with college.”
Following a few intervening stops, Hammer landed a job in Petersburg in 1986, where she fell into commercial fishing, a career she pursued for many years. She met her husband through the industry. The two moved to his homestead near Slana and by the mid nineties had a set net permit in Kasilof. “It was commercial fish, go back to the woods until your money runs out, go fishing for herring in April because you’re broke … we did that for a long time,” she said of those years.
After their first child arrived, the couple moved to Fairbanks in 1996 for better employment opportunities. Hammer, who had always followed her creative muses, began working with a local artist. Then she started subbing with the school district through the Art Center. This prompted her to obtain her masters in education through UAS and begin teaching, eventually landing at Pearl Creek, where she presently teaches fifth grade.
“I’ve always been involved in some kind of artistic pursuit. I like to make things. So either I’m weaving or knitting or quilting,” Hammer said. A few years ago, she attended a workshop on botanical printmaking, “and I got completely hooked.”
Hammer began making prints, often using them as covers for journals she hand-crafts. She said printmaking has, at least for now, edged out other artistic endeavors. “I love painting, and I love bright colors. But I find it so interesting to just work with the shape and the shadows that are created from the plants.
“Last summer, I never slept,” she added. “I made so much paper. I had a ton of material to work with. So all fall I was making journals, making books.
The collaboration with Granger, who now lives in Portland, resulted from the slowdowns of the last two years. “We were all dealing with the Covid blues and trying to survive by doing art,” Hammer said. She paid Granger a visit and brought some scraps of her work. Granger painted several birds onto the sheets, “and they were beautiful,” Hammer recalled. “I said, ‘Claire, I think we could do this. How about if I keep sending you some paper. And if you want to, you can consider it a part time job.’”
Granger, who has attracted attention for their richly detailed bird pantings, found the perfect canvas in the prints. “When I look at my mom’s prints, I almost always see a composition within the print immediately,” they explained. “After I’ve decided what kind of background the print is, I’ll decide what kind of bird will fit into that scene.”
Regarding one of the end products, “Common Loon,” Hammer enthused, “Claire did a beautiful job painting that. I don’t think I’d have the patience to paint a loon myself.”
For Hammer, the work is about connecting with nature, something she’s done all her life. “I feel like because it starts with being outdoors and gathering plants and observing everything and looking at it and taking it all in, I make a product that reminds me of all that. It’s really about this relationship with the outdoors, this relationship with all these living things.”
Botanical Prints&Paintings by Rebecca Hammer and Claire Granger is the featured show for March at Two Street Gallery in the Co-Op Plaza at 532 2nd Ave. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Hammer and Granger can be found online at https://www.instagram.com/woodrunnerprints/?utm_medium=copy_link.