Dale Vanden Houten defines his artwork strictly as printing. That does describe the framed images on the walls of Two Bridges, the studio gallery at 24 S. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay that he shares with abstract painter Julia Redwine. But that description falls short of explaining the colorful sculptures sitting on a display table, or the prints wrapped around blocks of wood.
“I have always loved sculpture,” Vanden Houten said, “and it just seemed to be a logical progression that you take an idea that is 2D and then expand it into the third dimension and see where that works.”
Vanden Houten grew up on a dairy farm in Kewaunee County, lived in Minneapolis for 40-odd years and has been a regular visitor to Door County. After years of computer work, he became a graphic designer and took a course in silk-screen printing as a cost-effective way to create posters for clients.
“That one class, and I was caught,” Vanden Houten said. “I had really found my voice.”
He joined a co-op, the High Point Center for Printing, which had equipment and courses, and after a few years of silk-screen work, he decided to try other printmaking. Now Vanden Houten mixes and matches the forms of printmaking, depending on the image he’s looking for. And as he produced more and more fine art, he eventually gave up graphic design.
“I decided that [printing] was really where my heart was,” Vanden Houten said, “but in my earlier work, you can see that it was done by a graphic designer from the way the eye flows through a piece of work.”
His early work was largely representational, though close up. Now it’s so close up that it’s completely abstracted, he said.
Vanden Houten’s creations generally start with a photograph that he manipulates, usually with Photoshop. Then he creates a photopolymer gravure using an inkjet print exposed to UV light. Where once prints required copper plates and acid, Vanden Houten works with a plastic plate that’s etched by light.
“It’s creating low areas in a plate,” he said. “I can ink those and then wipe it off everywhere else. It’s a lot cheaper and better for the environment than doing that with copper. Not only is the plate-making process safe, but water-soluble inks are now available.”
Vanden Houten’s 850-pound etching press sits near the front of the studio gallery opposite Redwine’s painting tables and easels for her cold-wax works. The closest he gets to painting is encaustic, a combination of wax and damar resin with his prints.
“Printed papers will absorb the encaustic wax just beautifully,” he said. “It gives a more atmospheric quality to a print.”
Vanden Houten usually works with Western papers made from cotton rag, which produce sharp, clean images without a lot of pressure. But Asian papers such as mulberry – with longer fibers – are his choice for wrapping the wood pieces that he uses to make 3D sculptures from his printing.
“Asian paper is a very, very tough paper,” Vanden Houten said. “When it comes to laminating a piece of wood with a print, it is easier to work with the Asian paper because it is not going to tear.”
He wraps his prints around solid wood cores and seals them with shellac. His sculptures range from tapered boards to solid rectangles, and from a foot high to one piece that’s seven feet tall, called “Stand Tall Aurora.” It’s the largest piece he’s ever done.
Many of Vanden Houten’s pieces are long and narrow. He finds they appeal to buyers who don’t have the wall space for large pieces but can find a narrow space between doors or in the turn of a wall.
Though he’s been dividing his time between Minneapolis and Door County, he plans to sell his Minnesota home and spend more time here in the home that he and his husband built on the bluff outside Carlsville. In the meantime, Vanden Houten said the studio gallery will be open by appointment and “by chance.”