One of Canada’s premier printmakers, George Raab has a distinctive style that combines intaglio printmaking with photography and watercolour painting to create haunting and evocative images of his favourite natural landscapes. His work brings a fresh perspective on Ontario’s wilderness and countryside to global audiences. For this, George has won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize for Prints at the prestigious American Biennial of Graphic Art and invited exhibitions at the Pratt Graphics Center in New York and the International Graphic Arts Foundation in Washington, DC.
George’s most recent exhibit, Into the Woods, has been traveling across the province. Now, the 35-piece exhibit recently arrived at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington, a beautiful converted mill near in Bowmanville, a short drive east of Oshawa. The official opening exhibition (with George on hand) takes place Sunday, July 27. The exhibit runs through October.
George’s rise to one of Canada’s premier print makers seems an unlikely journey. Born in Marseilles to Austrian and Czech refugees who participated in the French Resistance, George emigrated as a child to Toronto’s mega metropolis. Early on, he realized art was his calling; he “was that kid who was always doodling in class.” And growing up in an urban environment only highlighted that George enjoyed the company of trees, rivers, and his own thoughts more than the commotion and bustle of big city life.
To pursue a career in art, George attended Sheridan College the University of Toronto. And it was a chance encounter with the university’s artist-in-residence – a print maker and etching artist – which introduced George to his chosen medium. He was so enamored that even after graduation, George continued to take a few university extension courses just to continue using the studio etching press. Eventually, after buying his own press and traveling in Europe and Africa, George bought a couple hundred acres near Bancroft where he could enjoy a treasured solitude while honing his craft.
To make one of his etched images, George covers the surface of a zinc plate in an acid-resistant liquid ground and then draws lines on the plate. He also creates tone using a process called aquatint. The plate is etched in an acid bath and ink is then applied to it which is absorbed into the grooves in the plate. A piece of damprag paper is placed over the plate as it compressed onto the plate by turning a large wheel on the side of the printing press. Afterwards, the black and white image appears on the paper. The plate is then cleaned and reused to create another print. George uses his talents as a watercolourist to hand paint some of his images; others are left as black and white images.
“I find this is the medium that makes me less conscious of time and effort. Even though it demands a lot of discipline and a certain amount of alchemy, there’s also an unpredictability and complexity that I find appealing,” George explains. “I enjoy the way etching creates soft tones along with deep rich blacks in a way that’s unlike any other art form. It helps me create ethereal, contemplative images that don’t make it obvious how they were produced.”
While George may have been happy canoeing the lakes of Algonquin and Muskoka, photographing and etching natural scenes, when he met his wife, they decided to move back into civilization. Balancing community amenities and social opportunities with a desire for peace and quiet, they decided on Millbrook, a village near Peterborough.
His new exhibit allows visitors to get a closer look at how he creates his indelible images. At the VAC, there are two display cases showcasing the sketchbook, camera, and printmakers’ tools George uses in his work.
For the VAC Executive Director and Curator James Campbell, he has seen the deep connection visitors make with the Into the Woods works. A particular favourite is the exhibits huge (9′ by 16′) namesake piece – comprised of a backdrop of a forest scene with eight translucent veils in front.
“Optically, you eye is carried through to the background. It literally takes you into the woods; it’s really quite captivating and hypnotic. You can see the term “master printmaker” really applies here,” James explains. “I think the exhibit will remind people about how precious our Canadian landscape is, and inspire them to get away from the city sometimes and into the woods.”
For those who become inspired to try their hand at printmaking after seeing the exhibit, the VAC is hosting two workshops in September taught by Todd Tremeer, a local artist responsible for several murals in downtown Bowmanville.
For George, the exhibit is about making a connection with our environment, “My work helps me capture my emotional response to natural landscapes. As a culture we’re moving away from receptivity to nature, but reflecting and connecting with our landscape is important because it’s a part of us.”
Caitlin Carpenter is founder of Days Out Ontario, a trip planning website and travel blog.