The road to Gillyin Gatto’s studio and nearby home in East Machias is a winding one, at first hugging the Down East coast and then pulling away, into the woods. It’s a path, really, bordered by orange and yellow signs that warn visitors that dogs and cats walk the lane, so please drive slowly.
About a quarter of a mile into the woods, there it is: a grayed wooden structure, narrow and not deep, but soaring three stories high. Windows fill the south side and a crude deck encircles the studio. A rowboat sits incongruously on the railing, next to the stairs that lead to her second-story workshop.
And Gatto, with her trademark hat and easy grin, waits amid her art.
Who is this woman, probably Maine’s premier woodcut artist? Who is this woman who lived off the power grid for more than 30 years? Who birthed her two children in the bedroom of the home she built with her own hands? Who has a phone and Internet service, but uses solar power and a gas refrigerator and a cast-iron water pump that still sits on the edge of her sink?
How she lives and survives is as much a part of Gatto’s character as the stunning wood carvings she creates, carvings that are gaining national acclaim and evoke the pure sense of Maine outdoors and rural living.
“To me, art is life,” Gatto says, as she walks down a path to her rabbit warren. “I’ve created my own reality.”
“Art has a function in life that can often be overlooked or swept aside in favor of seemingly more practical things,” she said. “I am exploring the healing energy and creative spirit that art can give the viewer as well as the maker. The spark of recognition that makes you think, laugh or cry, and the feeling of oneness with others when that occurs. As I carve scenes from my life in Down East Maine and the lives of my friends and neighbors — both two- and four-legged and winged — I find that people respond to them and see their own lives in the work. This
helps me to feel connected and that a great sharing has taken place.”
To be an artist, a farmer and a self-sustaining woman was what Gatto set out to do. And she has succeeded masterfully.
It’s not an easy life, she admits, but the only one she wants. “I like to say that I liked winter camping so much that I’ve done it all my life,” she said. “I would much rather be outside.”
“Woodcutting is so simple that you can do it anywhere. All you need are a piece of wood, gouges and knives,” she said.
Gatto grew up 12 miles west of Boston and used to ride the MTA train for a nickel to sit in the bleacher seats at Fenway Park. She took art classes in high school, but it was her athleticism that got her into college as she excelled in three sports: field hockey, basketball and softball. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1970, the first one offered at the school.
“I thought I would teach art,” she said, “but there were no jobs in 1972.” Bored and disillusioned with city life, Gatto headed for the woods and a back-to-the-land lifestyle. She and her then-husband bought 20 acres in East Machias. They built a little one-room cabin, had two children — a boy and a girl — and Gatto thrived on the rural life, putting the emphasis on nature, art and friends, rather than things.
She’s a packrat and collector, she admits, and a master recycler. Bits and pieces of yet-to-be carved wood are everywhere.
She supplements her art career as a carpenter and over the years has added room after room to the little cabin, turning it into a house that rises from the forest floor, almost as if from a fairy tale. It has sideways windows, a three-story turret and half a geodesic dome attached on one end.
“I just wanted to see what would happen if you attached a half circle to a rectangle,” she said. The house is such a part of its surroundings that moss grows up its walls.
Inside, the building is just as eccentric. There are ladders to the second floor, bridges from one bedroom to another, a clawfoot bathtub on the second floor. The dome section is where she carves and paints because the light is so abundant.
“It sort of looks like a snail coming out of its shell,” she said of her house, which is festooned with drums, feathers, a bird’s nest on a branch. Even indoors, you feel like you are outdoors.
Walking back to the studio, Gatto points out the outhouse. “I also have an ‘inhouse,’” she brags.
The first floor of her studio is a gallery, with print after print of her woodcuts breathing life into the walls. They are a historical testament to Maine life.
There are children being born, skunks waddling through the woods, a bit of political satire and protest, family portraits, the sea, the sky and wildlife. In every print, the woods of Maine and the people of Maine, from lobstermen to farmers, are represented.
“The relief printmaking medium of woodcut has lent itself well to my lifestyle, with its no-nonsense, all-you-need-is gouges, rollers, ink and paper format,” Gatto said. “I am as likely to find a wood gouge or a cat on my kitchen table, as finding a fork.”
Upstairs, Gatto makes the prints from the original woodcuts — at least 200 of them. Today, she is printing “Heron and Hawk at Picture Rock,” an artwork almost taller than Gatto.
In her typical thrifty fashion, Gatto has made the carving on the leaf of a maple dining table. It is exquisite in its detail and is part of The Petroglyph Project, which is at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and next will go to the Smithsonian.
She puts a mound of ink on a window pane leaning on a bench, moistens her roller and then inks it onto the carving. When she has enough ink on the woodcut, she places the thick paper on top, first rubbing it into the ink with her hands and then using a tool called a baren. “You could use a doorknob,” she said, mentioning that she sometimes uses a very worn silver serving spoon that was her great-aunt’s, when working on small projects.
As she rubs, she reflects. “It’s hard to tell how long a piece takes. I’ve usually spent more time not doing it, than doing it,” she said. She keeps rubbing. “I hate it too light. I want strong blacks,” she said.
She said many woodcut artists use presses. “But that is just a machine to me. I like the feel of the paper in my hands.”
Carefully she checks to see if it is dark enough. “If it is too light, I can hand-color some areas with pastels,” she said.
This particular woodcut is one solitary panel, but others can take five or more different blocks, carefully carved to complement one another.
When the ink is dark enough for Gatto, she peels the paper from the block and hangs it on a clothesline running through the studio.
“It’s easy to find material,” she said. “People who heat with wood, their furniture starts falling apart and they give it to me. I’ll use anything.” Pointing to a beautiful scene, Gatto said, “That piece was carved on wood from the dump. It used to be a hamper cover.”
Handwritten on the wall across from her workbench is her mantra: “Just get busy and work with what you have — Malvena Reynolds.”
She has used paneling, tables, old signs, flooring — as long as you can carve it, Gatto will use it.
Her first piece was a linoleum cut in the fourth grade — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But she really got serious shortly after moving to Maine 35 years ago. “I was lonely when I first moved here and missed my friends. I wanted to send a card so I carved an owl,” she said. “I guess that was the beginning.”
Gatto’s works can be found in a variety of galleries, including The Woodwind Gallery in Machias; Alone Moose in Bar Harbor; Eastport Gallery; McGrath Dunham Gallery in Castine; and A Framework Co. in Coco Beach, Fla. Her work can also be seen at her online gallery at www.rst-art.com/gattowoodcuts.htm. Inquiries can be made through her e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.