Undercover Artist: Loren Kantor, Noir Woodcutter

Lauren Bacall woodcut by artist Loren Kantor
Woodcut of Loren Bacall

Loren Kantor is a Los Angeles-based woodcut artist whose interest began in the mid-1980s.

He recalls: “I attended a German Expressionist art show at LA County Museum and I encountered the woodcut prints and paintings of George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. I was mesmerized. I loved the stark lines and bold imagery.

”I was also blown away by the dark subject matter. Characters expressed emotional angst and images focused on the shadowy and unpleasant aspects of society.“

Loren was hooked; ”I was writing screenplays in those days and I never envisioned attempting woodcut carving myself. But the images remained in my subconscious and whenever I saw a woodcut print I felt a sense of excitement.“

He became an Assistant Director and worked on films, commercials and television shows through the 1980s and 90s. And in the early 1990s, he made a move which once again brought woodcutting into his orbit.

He says: ”That's when I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I lived near the San Francisco Mission District, which housed small art galleries on every block. I came across a new generation of woodcut and linocut artists, most of whom were Latino. Again, I was enthralled.“

But once again, the idea was filed away for future reference after Loren moved back to Los Angeles, met his future wife and got married. ”Several years ago, my wife surprised me with a woodcutting set for my birthday. I checked out a few online tutorial videos and I dove in. The carving process was difficult at first. I cut myself often, the blocks were ragtag and I felt like a child with his first set of fingerpaints. Before long, I got the hang of it.“

Director Billy Wilder, woodcut by Loren Kantor
Woodcut of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard director Billy Wilder

Then, two of Loren's great loves came together: ”I've always been attracted to vintage Film Noir movies. During college, I took a film noir class and immersed myself in the classics: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Third Man. I fell in love with the black and white photography, the sinister shadows, the cynical heroes and enticing femme fatales. I realized the imagery of film noir was a perfect match for the carved lines of a woodcut.

“We needed art for our walls at home, so I decided to carve images of my favorite film noir personalities. I carved Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Peter Lorre and director Billy Wilder…”

Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, a woodcut by artist Loren Kantor
Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy
“Once I completed my first series of Classic Movie Woodcuts, I started showing the prints to friends. People starting asking for copies for themselves. I obliged—next thing I knew, I received a call from a vintage theater in Hollywood that wanted to exhibit the prints. This was my first art show and I was off and running.”

So where does Loren find his inspiration? “The process begins when I find an old photo or image that I like. From the photo, I make an initial pencil sketch which I then transfer to a wood or linoleum block. I use standard woodcutting blades and other odd tools (awls, dental implements, exacto blades).

”Once the image is carved, I clean the block, apply a thin layer of ink and hand press the image onto archival paper using a Japanese Baren (this is a bamboo tool that looks kind of like an air-hockey paddle). The entire process takes 40-60 hours depending on the size and complexity of the image. If I make a major mistake, I have to start over. Minor mistakes I live with; they add to the organic nature of each image.“

And a favorite piece of work? ”My favorite is the David Lynch Woodcut. He's always been an inspiration to me. Though I've never met the man, I mailed a print to Mr. Lynch via his agent. A few weeks later, he sent me an email saying, 'Too cool for school'. For me, this was the equivalent of an artistic knighthood!“

Artist Loren Kantor's woodcut of director David Lynch
Woodcut of David Lynch, director of The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive among other films.
So, what's next for Loren? ”In the past few months, I've begun carving more original images and fewer portraits. I love portraiture carving, but I find carving an image from my own imaginings to be far more challenging.

“The woodcutting process is slow and meditative. This is probably what I love most about carving – it can't be rushed. In these days when everything is moving so fast, it's nice to have an activity that forces me to relax. I guess woodcutting has become my personal yoga.”

You can see more of Loren's work, along with interesting background info about the characters and movie business, at woodcuttingfool.blogspot.com

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