Katie Machain grew up in a family of engineers and doctors and, while it was her goal to follow suit, it wasn’t her instinct. In 2009, she enrolled at the University of Montana as an electrical engineering student, but by 2013, she had come out the other end of her studies with a bachelor’s degree in fine art.
“I love math and process, but I didn’t want to sit at a desk and make schematics all day,” Machain says. “For me to dive into an art career felt really risky. But I wanted to do something more unique. And I did.”
During her years at UM, Machain studied under James Bailey, an artist known for experimental printmaking approaches. She discovered a love for reduction printmaking, aka suicide block print, which satiated her desire to create art but also fed her engineering brain. The reduction printing process is a lot like other types of printmaking, because it involves carving images into wood, covering it in ink and making a print. But it requires some extra calculation — almost like treating images as equations — and an eye for architecture. In reduction printmaking, after each layer is printed, new reliefs are carved into the wood and others are removed to make the next layer. By the end, the ink print is a full-on picture — multi-layer and often multicolor — but the woodblock has been carved and reduced so many times, it’s destroyed. Hence the nickname: suicide print.
“You’re reducing the block, then printing, and then reducing again,” Machain says. “With regular printmaking, printmakers can go back and reprint their work as many times as the block will allow. But mine, once it’s done, it’s done.”
Machain’s new exhibit at Bernice’s Bakery, Elements, features eight reduction prints illustrating earth, wind, fire, ice, nature, darkness and light. They are landscapes but with human faces embedded in clouds, cliffs and the smoke of a forest fire.
“I’m drawn to landscapes and nature,” Machain says. “I think almost everyone can relate to it. But landscape is also really common in art, so it’s hard to make your own landscapes stand out from other people’s. I started making faces inside the landscapes just to draw [the viewer’s] eye in and play off the idea that we are born from the earth and we return to it and we all need to be kind to each other.”
The fleetingness of the reduction process connects well with the themes of birth and death, too. Printmaking was created as a way to mass produce art work, but the suicide method works against that idea.
“I just love it,” Machain says. “I’m a process girl. Reduction printing requires so many different levels, and it’s something where the engineer in me is satisfied and the arts side is satisfied. And once I’m done, I can never go back. They become limited prints in that way. I like having something that’s one of kind.”
Katie Machain’s Elements shows through the end of February at Bernice’s Bakery. Visit katiemachain.com.