Many of the scenes depicted in Don Gorvett’s artwork are familiar to Seacoast residents. But even if it’s a sight you’ve witnessed a thousand times, Gorvett hopes his art will encourage you to see it in a new light.
“That’s what happens to me when I go places and I see a really good artist who has interpreted them,” he said. “It’s amazing, because it’s like you’re walking through a threshold, opening a new door to a place that you’ve been before, but it takes you a minute.”
In celebration of 25 years of work in Portsmouth, Gorvett is featured in a new exhibit at Strawbery Banke Museum. On display through Oct. 11, “Portrait of a New England Port” features drawings, paintings, and Gorvett’s signature woodcut prints, all depicting scenes from Portsmouth.
“I live here in Portsmouth because it’s a beautiful place to be,” Gorvett said, standing among colorful prints and carved wooden blocks at Piscataqua Fine Arts, his downtown studio and gallery.
Gorvett has spent the last quarter-century capturing images of Portsmouth and other New England port cities in his artwork. In addition to Piscataqua Fine Arts, he maintains Black Bear Fine Art in Ogunquit, Maine. He said he is inspired not only by the Seacoast scenery, but also by the history of the area and the act of discovery.
“I’m kind of an amateur historian, too, and what I love about New England seaport cities and towns is that I love their history,” he said. “I love actually trying to find foundations of places, where things were at one time but aren’t anymore, but you can find vestiges of them.”
Gorvett, who lives above his gallery on Market Street, said he doesn’t have any one favorite place in Portsmouth to capture. Instead, different images strike him all the time.
“It’s a matter of seeking and searching,” he said. “Everything is interesting. The whole place, the river, the architecture.”
The feeling of discovery that Gorvett associates with old, New England port cities is reflected in the medium he most often uses: woodcut prints.
“One reason I like the woodcut is that, as a medium, as a vehicle of expression, you’re really collaborating with the medium itself,” he said. “You think you know what you have when you’re doing the work, but you don’t really know, when you’re cutting the block, what the impressions might look like when you print it, so the mystery of it is fabulous.”
The printing process involves several stages of carving a wooden block, overlaying different colored ink prints of the surface between each carving. The end results, which can take months to reach, are intricate, brightly colored prints. The original wood carving is also a piece of art in itself.
“It’s very constructivist,” Gorvett said. “You’re combining a number of arts into one endeavor. You’re drawing, you’re cutting the block like sculpture, you’re using color. … I like that combination.”
Unlike a painting or drawing, which can often be reworked, every time Gorvett carves into one of his wooden blocks, he is making a final decision.
“It’s a little bit like a tightrope walk with no net beneath you,” he said. “Toward the end, you have to make major decisions that can make or break the print.”
Still, in Gorvett’s eyes, even “mistakes” are a part of the journey.
“There’s no such thing as mistakes,” said Gorvett. “But life is largely a mistake. All you’re trying to do is have more things work in your favor than less, so it’s a percentage thing, and the more things that work in the way you hoped, or that you approve of, the happier you are at the end.”
While the journey is important, Gorvett’s finished products are the reward. The vibrant, complex images capture the city of Portsmouth in a thought-provoking way, leading viewers to make interesting and unique interpretations.
“It’s funny,” said Gorvett, looking at a woodcut print of the Portsmouth waterfront hanging in the gallery. “Some people look at the woodcuts and they say, ‘These are sort of scary.’ And then other people say, ‘I love these works because they’re very happy.’”
This kind of openness to interpretation is something Gorvett values in his work.
“They’re not just pictures,” he said. “They should, in some way, shape, or form, inform you, and it’s best when they inform you about things you didn’t know about before.”
“Portrait of a New England Port” can be viewed seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 11, in the Tyco Visitor Center at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. The exhibit is free and open to the public. More of Gorvett’s work can be viewed at his two gallery locations, Piscataqua Fine Arts in Portsmouth and Black Bear Fine Art in Ogunquit, Maine.