John Amoss puts in more work before the sun rises than many do while the sun is high in the sky.
For the past 18 months, his day has often started around 2 a.m. with the march into his basement studio — trying almost obsessively to complete a project that has roots in his boyhood adventure and a unique Japanese artform.
Japanese art and the Appalachian Trail don’t often find themselves in the same conversation. But each day, coffee in hand, he makes the journey to his studio in Gainesville to work on his woodblock printings of 14 scenes from the famous trail — a marriage of Western scenery and Eastern art that may be the first of its kind.
“I'm just enthralled with this stuff,” Amoss said while sifting through prints of his favorite woodblock artists.
Outfitted in a floral, short-sleeved button-down shirt, oversized khaki pants, no shoes and an ink-stained apron, Amoss climbs behind his lamp-lighted work desk each day and settles in.
The lights are low and a mix of music is playing behind him as he prepares to take on what he calls “The Appalachian Trail Print Collection.”
When his project is finished, three years will have passed and Amoss will have completed a book of illustrations from 14 scenes in states along the trail that — from the ink to the wood blocks and even the tools themselves — is almost entirely made by hand.
While hiking the Appalachian Trail as a 17-year-old in 1980, Amoss snapped photos along the way, preserving scenes on Kodak film.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his trip, and to help himself and others relive their journeys along the trail, he set out to combine the hard work of hiking with the hard work of woodblock printing.
“It's kind of interesting, because it ties in a little with the Appalachian Trail, too, because everything I've ever done that’s worth a damn, I didn't know what I was doing,” Amoss said. “Had I known, I probably wouldn't have started. So, ignorance is strength in a way.”
Woodblock printing takes a certain strength of its own. Dedication, concentration and a good bit of muscle make the art what it is. That’s also what makes it so valuable.
Unlike Kodak’s Ektachrome film in Amoss’ camera while on the trail — with colors dedicated to film with a snap of a shutter — each woodblock print is the result of hours of work in carving, coloring, printing and drying stages that must be repeated for just about every color on every print.
“I have some of these prints that have eight colors on top of each other,” Amoss said. “I find that to just be mind-blowingly fascinating. Most people, I think, would rather just tear their hair out.”
After climbing behind his desk with the block, he sprays water to dampen it so the pigment, which is a powder mixed with water and serves as the ink, prints properly. Then he dabs a little rice water onto the block, which helps the pigment transfer from the block to paper, which is dabbed in a few places next, not be absorbed by the wood. Then he brushes the rice water and pigment all over the piece of wood with a printing brush that’s not too coarse and not too soft.
He lines up a piece of mulberry paper, which has to be precisely placed with each print, and begins to rub it with a baren, a special printing pad. By pressing the paper to the block, he transfers the pigment to the paper to create a piece of his final scene.
“The next step is to use the same sheets, different block, different color pigment and it begins to build layers until the product is finished,” Amoss said.
He is making 100 full books, which means there will be 1,400 individual prints. Each one of those prints take about 12 colors, meaning Amoss will go through the process about 16,800 times. He’s almost halfway through the project and plans to have it done by September 2020.
The full books will cost $750. He’s also selling 100 versions that will include just the first and last scenes for $150.
“It's a ton of work, but it's fun,” Amoss said. “And the nice thing about that is that it kind of filters a lot of people out that they don't want to go through the trouble. And the folks that do know about this, they're willing to pay because they know how much work it is and how rare this kind of stuff is.”
Years ago, while living in Atlanta, Amoss was in a book store and picked up “The Complete Woodblock Prints of Yoshida Hiroshi.” Amazed at the works inside the book, the artist wanted to learn how to do it himself.
“I love the mystery of it,” Amoss said. “I love the exoticism of it and the history … other people inspired me and I want to inspire other folks that want to do this. It just takes a really, really long time.”
For Amoss, it’s been about 25 years.
“I think I'm getting pretty damn good,” Amoss said.
His expertise has come after years of work and investment. He’s traveled to Japan more than once to learn from printmakers.
While flipping through the pages of Hiroshi Yoshida’s book, he said he “found the atmosphere in some of the prints to be fantastic.” He remembers thinking, “Every one of these things is just enchanting.”
“I'm a very, very curious person,” said Amoss, who’s also a printmaking professor at The University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus. “If I've got some kind of juice or energy about something, I want to go to the source of it.”
His students feel that same passion while Amoss is teaching them. Magnum Brock, a junior studio art major at North Georgia, described Amoss as an “eclectic philosopher.”
“He really tries to take time and ensure that the deeper meanings and the deeper parts of the craft are really portrayed to you rather than just the result,” Brock said. “He really emphasizes the journey of art, which is something that I think really resonates with a lot of other students.”
Brock has taken two drawing classes and is about to take his third printmaking class with Amoss.
“He is that professor that you go to college to learn from,” Brock said. “He's the professor you want when you go to college even if you don't know it.”
Though the project is a lofty goal, Halle Castille, another one of Amoss’ students, said that’s just the type of person Amoss is.
“It doesn't surprise me,” said Castille, a senior studio art major. “I know that he thinks this could be his defining moment as an artist, and as artists we all are searching for that one goal, so I'm glad that he's found what he's passionate about.
“I know that this will definitely be that moment for him.”
When Amoss first saw those prints in the book that now sits on his shelf in the basement, he had no idea he’d be doing what he is today. Once he started practicing woodblock printing, though, he knew he couldn’t let it go.
“I just knew I was hooked and it was going to take me 20 or 30 years to get good at it,” Amoss said.
Watch John Amoss demonstrate woodblock printing
During those years, he continued his life. He worked as a package designer, then an illustrator for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He broke off from his day job and started his own illustration business, then went back to school to get his masters in printmaking so he could teach.
As he was learning, he reached out to others in the woodblock printing world. Calvin Carlisle lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and has never met Amoss in person. They’ve only talked through messages on Facebook and email — typical of artists buried in their basements and studios. That doesn’t mean Carlisle doesn’t see Amoss’ passion for the project, though.
“I think you chew on these ideas and you think to yourself, ‘This would be cool to do,’” Carlisle said. “There's just some things you can't let go of. There's just some things you have a love and admiration for that you say, ‘Yeah, I could spend the next 1,000 hours doing this and I'm not going to get sick of it and I'm going to love it.’”
They bounce ideas off each other, both getting better at what they do each and every time they communicate. And they support each other, which is what Carlisle plans to do more of when Amoss’ project is complete.
“I'm going to buy one of his books,” Carlisle said. “It's not cheap, but I think somebody like me who understands … I'm looking forward to him putting them on sale because I'll be one of the first ones in line to get one.”
And that’s Amoss’ hope with the project. He hopes, in the end, people see the work behind it and appreciate it each time they look through the book. No matter where the book ends up — on a shelf or on a coffee table — he hopes it helps all those who purchase it relive their time on the trail.
“It's going to last a lifetime, and if somebody has thru-hiked the whole Appalachian Trail, it's a lot of effort, and it means a lot to them, so I want to honor that,” Amoss said.