On Step at a Time
Words by: Noël Hahn
When John Amoss thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, he didn’t know that he would be putting his experiences into a three-year long printmaking project 40 years later.
Diving into the peaks and valleys of his mind, Amoss returned to the summer/fall of 1980. At the age of 17, Amoss and a friend started at the Southern Terminus of Georgia and hiked through Maine, passing through 14 states and traveling about 2,190 miles on foot. The captivating landscapes and experiences along the trail are still imprinted in Amoss’ soul.
“While hiking the Trail, I learned that small steps can add up to huge strides,” Amoss, a Professor of Printmaking at the University of North Georgia in Georgia, United States of America, said.
Amoss turned these internal remembrances of the trail into a tangible artifact not only for himself but for fellow trail enthusiasts and artists. The Appalachian Trail Print Collection’s September 2020 release coincides with the artist’s 40-year anniversary of his thru-hike.
Along with being a long-distance hiker and back-packer, Amoss is an artist specializing in Japanese-style (mokuhanga) printmaking. He has been making woodblocks for over 25 years.
“I got into printmaking in 1992, when a book about Hiroshi Yoshida came out,” Amoss said. “I spotted it in a bookstore from across the room and I’ve had my nose in it ever since. I began to collect these fascinating prints, then asked myself ‘I’m an artist, how hard could it be?’ Well, after studying and working for 25 years now, I’m still plumbing its depth.” Hiroshi Yoshida was a Japanese painter and woodblock printmaker who specialized in landscapes in the Shin-hanga style during the 20th century. This style is based on Ukiyo-e, a style of printmaking in Japan from the 17th century.
Amoss chose to use the shin-hanga style for his upcoming book, The Print Collection. This style combines western rendering such as expressions of light and mood and Japanese printmaking techniques.
“Mokuhanga is notoriously difficult,” Amoss said. “Water-based pigments combined with dampened paper creates a host of variables. Add to that, rice paste to provide a ‘body’ to the ink, hand pressure, using sharkskin-conditioned brushes, sharpening, baren tying, hand grinding pigments, etc. it provides a very long and steep learning curve that often daunts beginners.”
The nine barens Amoss used in the printmaking for The Print Collection, were made by Hidehiko Gotou, considered to be the last true hon baren maker in the world. Each baren takes about six months to make and are handmade discs made of bamboo strips that are coiled, placed in a pad (ategawa), and wrapped with a bamboo leaf.
Amoss used mokuhanga to make the 14 landscape prints in his Print Collection. The handmade prints include select scenes for each state along the Appalachian Trail and were inspired by the artist’s memories and photographs of the thru-hike. “Mokuhanga allows for the ink to permeate the paper — it draws the viewer into the print as the pigment was,” he said.
All 8″ x 10″ scenes were created by Amoss using the same centuries-old Japanese traditional techniques of mokuhanga printmaking: Scenes were hand-printed on premium archival handmade mulberry paper (washi) from Japan. The book was then hand-bound with acid-free materials. Each scene was made to be easily removed for a standard-sized frame if the owner desires to do so.
“The beauty of the scenery around the trail would blindside me,” Amoss said. “Sometimes the mist, smells, and light would make you forget all about yourself and in a twisted way this and the ever-present struggle of aches and pains helped to encourage me to get out of my head. Pain and pleasure provided simple and sublime contrasts.”
Amoss tried to capture these feelings and experience in his printmaking. All designs required 154 carved blocks and an average of 19 colors. In order to capture some of the elements of the trail, different materials were incorporated into the print. In traditional Japanese-style painting, mostly transparent inks were used, but in one of the prints, he chose to use opaque pigment. These opaque pigments were brushed over the previously-printed colors to convey the rain streaks using white gofun, made of seashell powder.
Amoss also added soil for the Appalachian Trail into the water-based ink. He spent his first year cutting blocks and printing color proofs. The second year was full print production mode. “I built a very traditional Japanese printing bench based on what I saw in Japan,” Amoss said. ” It feels like sitting in a jet cockpit with everything within your reach and really quite comfortable. This allowed me to print 8-10 hours a day, just like the old days. 840 impressions in a day was my record.”
This long printmaking process involved using many different shades of the same colors to capture the different environments along the East Coast of America: from the lush greens and browns of the trees, to the blues of the lakes, to the greys of the rock and misty mountains. “I’d like to incarnate the emotions of being confronted by the variety of elements. There are still monumental things done, monumental experiences out there. Thru-hiking 2,000 miles is about commitment — as is carving over 150 blocks, as is printing 32,000 colors, as is hand-binding 220 copies,” Amoss said. “An artist or hiker must submit to the process putting fear and limitation aside. Last year, I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, had two major surgeries, radiation therapy, and lost my father to Alzheimer’s. In a way, I think this project helped me stay on track.”
Two versions of the book, 110 copies each, are being produced. The Complete Edition will contain prints from each of the 14 states along the trail and the Terminus Edition will contain two prints featuring each end of the trail — Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.
In 2016, Amoss started his own company, Tanuki Prints. In addition to the Appalachian Trail Prints Collection, Amoss sells original woodblock print work and printmaking tools.
The company’s name origin comes from Japan’s version of the American Racccon. Tanuki, often called raccoon dogs, are native to East Asia and serve as a major cultural and mythological icon in Japanese folklore. In this folklore, tanuki have magical powers including shape-shifting scrotums. Sake-wielding statues are often placed in front of bars to beckon passers-by to join him for a drink.
For more information about the Appalachian Trail Print Collection project, see Tanukiprints.com.