The first in a series of monologues from some of Evanston's most interesting personalities that you may have seen or even met but never really talked to. These interviewers, however, did, and then pulled themselves out of the final equation completely, letting their subjects' words shine.✧
John Center. Yeah, C-E-N-T-E-R. And the Facebook page is John P. Center.
'Block cutter.' It was what the guy – in, in 1500 this was a job like printer is today. The guy who makes the plates for the old letterpress printer, you know, a photo etcher or before that it was a wood engraver who made the blocks. Well the guy that carved the blocks was, was a craftsman of – it was his job. ‘Cause art, art printing and commercial printing of that time was not two separate things, it was one thing too. It was part of the process. So the best ones we call 'art' nowadays, but there were plenty of other ones that were just commercial printing, you know, handbills, posters, uh, books.
You know, some people understand what printmaking is but, they’re – the quality of level that they’ve seen isn’t the same. And some of mine are, I think, one of the better people I know. Uh, at least on the craftsmanship end, sometimes – some people are more original. I’m not shooting for directly to try and be original completely. Oh, I did my first printmaking in – when I was in high school in 1967 or so. '66, '67. It wasn’t that I was really interested in art, but I was doing it ‘cause we had a class. I was a painter before, but you can’t do paint. You have to have a studio for paint. And I like it, but it’s – I don’t wanna sit around the house, and this I can do anywhere. And I think the carving part is my favorite, anyway. Uh, and lately, maybe 10 percent of them have become carvings as carving’s sake.
I rarely make art for art’s sake. Bad art is easy to do. The problem is, is how to make art on certain subjects where you can get beyond the cliché, especially if you didn’t personally experience it. Sometimes it’s just explaining the process. The other day, a woman came by, saw this, figured out immediately what the subject was on the other side and she said it was 'well played.' If I get somebody that seems really interested … I mean, sometimes people say cliched comments. Most common one is, “Oh, I love the colors!” Which doesn’t really mean anything and it’s not about the piece at all. But once in a while I get somebody that understands what I’m doing process-wise. I mean, I know that, and you can tell by the questions they ask. “Well, uh, how’d you do it?”
It’s pretty easy to do now. So I mean, if I, I wanna put words that fit just this space, or if I wanna fit something right in here, and if it’s a little bit too long or little too wide, I can just thin it or stretch it to make it fit. Basically each board acts a little bit differently, and so I have to figure out how the wood’s gonna operate. Uh, and sometimes the wood operates – behaves differently – on a dry day versus a humid day. Today’s humid. I – I have to decide what I’m gonna do. When it’s humid, I can’t make cuts like this. So trying to make lines across grain, it doesn’t look as well. It wants to tear.
Well, the act of this carving process? I enjoy it. It’s an obsession. It’s a compulsive behavior. If I don’t do it, I get depressed. Especially for, uh, a longer period of time. There’s days when I couldn’t do it, or whatever. I was in the hospital for a couple a days this summer, and the first couple days they knocked me out with, um, painkillers. Then I just laid there. So the next couple of days I was gone, they were weaning me off the hard stuff. And then I sort of missed it.
Like, I do it everyday, practically. You only learn by doing, and carving I can do anywhere.
I mean, there was this one that went pretty well and I was doing it on the bus. Yeah, you know, a regular bus, you know. I’ve been known to do it on the bus, on the El … enough distraction. I spend so much time on it. Once in a while, when you’re doing like this kind of subject, like when I do money, it attracts a good amount of attention. Which is why I started doing the money. To me, well it’s one, and the other reason is that it’s hard, it’s a challenge for me. And I like a challenge.
Sometimes if it’s going really well, I almost get into a kind of a Zen thing? Although I don’t think of it in that way. I can’t try – it’s not something that I can intentionally do. I mean, I don’t sit – sit – sit down and say, “How am I gonna do that today?” It happens. Now it’s really not like part of my control. Well, I mean, you get – you get into a flow. The wood cooperates and I get a lot done. Now when it does happen, it happens maybe only 10 percent of the time. Once in a while it happens here, because, I don’t know. And when I get really good work done – it happened just now with this one. I got most of this done in one day. The tools were working right. I mean, it’s not the most complicated – you’ll see more complicated. But, I actually got this to look pretty much like the original. I had one or two mistakes and can live with it. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. And it frustrates me. Sometimes it’s this in-between and, okay. Once in a while, it doesn’t wanna work at all. I feel like, I feel like crap. Uh, the wood’s too moist when it absorbs moisture in the air. Uh, or I just have a crappy day and I don’t – can’t get into it. Or there are other kinds of distractions.
If I do it at home, I always get yelled at. 'You and your fornicating wood chips again!' My wife, my wife is jealous of it, and only one of my three sons even appreciates it. Well, my wife is jealous. It’s a – I ask – 'It’s an inanimate object!' She says, 'Well, yeah, if ya had a girlfriend, then I’d at least understand! You know, I wouldn’t like it, but I’d understand it. You spend more time with it, you caress it, you hold it, you …' And I says, 'Yeah, it doesn’t give a headache,' and she threw something at me. She actually, you know … (laughs) that statement actually happened. I didn’t understand it, but yeah.