Elfriede Abbe (1919-2012): A Short Appreciation of an Amazing VT Artist | Live Culture

Elfriede Abbe (1919-2012): A Short Appreciation of an Amazing VT Artist

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Editor's note: This guest post comes from Robert Resnik, a librarian at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, host of Vermont Public Radio's "All the Traditions" and, according to his VPR bio, a well-known "wild mushroom hunter and chef." — M.H.

My acquaintance with Elfriede Abbe (1919-2012) began with one book about ferns and too many about mushrooms.

In the winter of 1998 I was dealing with what might be described as a “mushroom book problem.” What had started as one bookshelf full of field guides and beautifully illustrated, antique tomes had blossomed into a crazy collection of hundreds of books, from the potentially psychedelic kid’s classic The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet to arcane British textbooks about fungi. I had no room left in the house and no time to read. And, honestly, most of the books were of no use to me or anyone else.  

It was about the same time that a friend, University of Vermont botanist David Barrington, showed me his copy of The Fern Herbal, a hand-printed book full of vibrant, alluring woodblock prints. Barrington had helped Elfriede Martha Abbe, the author and illustrator, with some of the information in the book, and as thanks had received one of 150 signed, handmade copies.

The prints that illustrated Abbe’s book were exquisite: various shades of green printed on handmade paper; lovely, handset type; and details that seemed impossible with only hand-carved woodblocks and ink. I wanted one, badly.

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Some research disclosed that Elfriede Abbe (at the time in her eighties and still producing prints in her home in Manchester Center) had created fewer than 20 handmade book titles, all limited editions. The subjects ranged widely, from illustrated versions of The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale by Chaucer and Rip van Winkle, to a work based on a guidebook to the city of Carcassonne, France, that Abbe had brought home as a girl.

The small number of titles, the impressive illustrations and bookmaking, and the wide variety of styles and subjects made collecting her books a tantalizing, tangible goal. For me, it didn’t hurt that some of the illustrations included mushrooms and other beautiful botanical images. 

So that’s how I came to discover Elfriede Abbe’s work. There was much more to learn. Her sculpture “The Hunter” was one of the trademark images of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, created while she was a student at the Cornell College of Architecture. After graduating with a degree in fine arts in 1940, Abbe worked as an illustrator for Cornell until her retirement in 1974. That’s when she moved her home and printing press to Manchester Center.

Abbe was the only exhibiting artist to have continuously shown with Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center in Middlebury since its founding in 1971, and later in the Burlington shop. She was still driving to Burlington to hand-deliver her prints when she was 90 years old.

Abbe created art in many forms. Her sculptures are at Cornell, McGill University in Montréal, the Herzog August Bibliothek in Germany, the New York Botanical Garden Library and the Vermont Statehouse. Her graphic works are in many prestigious, international collections, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens Library in London to the National Library of Australia.

After I finally met her, about 12 years ago, Abbe told me that she had personally designed her house in Manchester Center, and proudly pointed out the thick lintels over the doors and windows in the style of Gothic architecture, one of her favorites. 

Some of Abbe’s early prints contain large swaths of dark ink and muscular subjects that recall the work of renowned Adirondack painter and printmaker Rockwell Kent. In her books Rip Van Winkle (1951) and Seven Irish Tales (1957), the prints have more detail and contrast than in earlier works.

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By the time she published one of her masterworks, The Fern Herbal: Including the Ferns, the Horsetails and the Club Mosses, in 1981, Abbe’s woodblock printing had acquired a delicate grace and realism that made the flora in the book seem real. It was almost as if the ferns had been pressed flat on the pages.

Abbe’s last book, The Wind’s Tale — a version of a Hans Christian Andersen story — was published in 1996. From that point she continued to produce limited-edition prints from her wood engravings. Intrepid internet searching can still turn up some of these images of landscapes, birds and flowers for reasonable prices.

Harder to find, and much more expensive, are Abbe’s handmade books. Many of them are housed at the UVM special-collections department. It’s worth a trip to see them.

Elfriede Abbe died on December 31, 2012, at the age of 93.

I did finally collect what I believe to be all of her book titles. It seems fitting that the last set of her woodblock prints I found was a set of mushrooms, printed on different types of luscious, handmade paper, their colors matched to the actual hues of the fungi.  Abbe’s graphic art lives on.

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