Review by Peter Polaine
When you pick up Thoughts of a Hangman: Wooducts by Bill Hamper aka Billy Childish book you could be forgiven for thinking that you had come across some new German Expressionist woodcuts or imitations. They may be a bit rougher but they have the same appeal where the artist almost forgets the medium to get straight to the story.
Bill Hamper is a woodcarver, painter, poet and musician. Despite being dyslexic, has more than twenty volumes of poetry to his name and his music label ‘Hangman Records’ carries his own woodcut emblem of a gallows.
“The first woodcuts I made were in the early’80s. My experience of print making before this was very limited. I’d been thrown out of the print making department of my foundation course at Medway College of Design in 1977 before I had managed to attend a single class. I have never studied art history and was subsequently expelled from the painting department at St Martins in the early 1980s still without encountering print making. Around this time I met Traci (Tracey Emin) who was studying fashion at Medway. Traci, and others, said in passing that my paintings reminded them of woodcuts and so I attempted cutting some prints using a knife, cardboard and paint (a method I’d made up when I was a 12 year old kid doing some pop art Jimi Hendrixes). Traci subsequently left Medway, got on to the print making course at Maidstone College of Art and brought home a set of tools for me. I got scrapwood out of a skip and was away. There was no training involved, I just got on with it the same as painting.”
Now here is the connection with great woodcut artists.The German Expressionists used odd pieces of wood, any piece that was at hand even plywood. It didn’t matter to them if it was out of shape or had a crack down the middle. Even Gauguin when making his woodcuts used pieces of driftwood.
The woodcut on the cover this book is typical. A found piece of wood with a split, even nail holes and yet this woodcut has the power to override the medium. To me a great woodcut has this power. The power and feeling of the artist. But, the key is in Bill Hamper’s words ‘I just get on with it’. If you are an artist like me, this hits home. I frequently think too much about other things such the size, the colour, keeping the image tidy instead of ‘getting on with it’ thereby losing the spontaneity which to me is crucial to a decent work of art.
Still in doubt? Just look at the work of small children – they just get on with it.
Physically, the book even feels like a woodcut block – it’s a chunky A4 three centimetre thick no nonsense hardback stuffed with 218 pages of woodcut images on heavy woven paper. It is now on my shelf in my studio among other great woodcut artists from around the world from whom I draw inspiration.
About the reviewer
Peter Polaine trained as an artist, had a long career in graphic design and advertising before returning to his artistic roots with woodcut printmaking, oil painting and occasionally sculpture. Peter’s work and bio can be found on peterpolaine.com and you can find him on Twitter as @peterpolaine. (For those of you wondering, Peter is indeed the father of DRoB Editor, Andy Polaine).