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Medieval imagery inspires Portland artist

Medieval bestiaries cataloging animals and their characteristics often contained oddly incorrect information — reflecting people's lack of scientific knowledge at the time.

The pelican was often portrayed with a small, sharp beak, ripping apart its own breast.

"People thought it was feeding its young with its own blood," says Portland artist Liv Rainey-Smith. "Probably someone witnessed one regurgitating food for its young."

Pelicans were considered great mothers, and the perception of their sacrificial nature also made them religious symbols of the sacrifice of Christ, Rainey-Smith says.

Her woodcut print of a pelican tearing its chest to reveal a cross dripping with blood is just one of the pieces from "Beasts of Lore: Woodcut Art of Liv Rainey-Smith," to be displayed through Nov. 21 at Rogue Gallery & Art Center, 40 S. Bartlett St., Medford.

The bold, skillful prints reveal Rainey-Smith's fascination with medieval bestiaries and the way cultures from around the world have viewed animals.

Rainey-Smith says she tries to respect the stylized way animals were represented in the past, while making them more scientifically accurate. Her pelican has a long beak with the species' signature pouch.

Another misunderstood animal featured in her art is the bat. A print at Rogue Gallery depicts a bat hanging upside down from a hangman's scaffolding, with a broom beneath.

"Bats were considered ignoble. It was a flying creature, but it had teeth instead of a beak and didn't lay eggs. It was considered bad because it was not acting like other birds," Rainey-Smith says of beliefs about bats. "It was an odd part of not understanding nature."

She included a broom in the print because bats were associated with witches. The hangman's scaffolding refers to the belief that witches used the fat of criminals as an ingredient in flying spells.

Her print of a peacock battling a cobra was inspired by the art of India, where birds are often portrayed fighting snakes.

"It's a natural behavior of peacocks to kill cobras because cobras eat eggs and little chicks. Peacocks are not an animal to be trifled with," Rainey-Smith says, adding that peacocks — with their resplendent tails — were also considered divine.

While drawing on the cultures of the world for her imagery, Rainey-Smith uses European and Japanese printmaking techniques to create her work.

She said carving blocks of wood requires thinking in reverse.

"A pencil or pen makes a mark on paper. With a woodcut, you are cutting into the wood to make the white part of the print. You have to reverse your thinking. For example, to make a line, you carve around a line rather than carving a line," she says.

The wood also has to be carved in mirror image, because the image will flip once the wood is inked and pressed against paper.

Rainey-Smith says she sketches out her designs but leaves many details to the carving process itself. With the peacock, she transferred lines outlining the head and basic body shape to the block of wood, then carved intricate feather details without the aid of preliminary drawings.

"For me, it makes a livelier image, and the print will be a little more loose and energetic if I leave it up to how the wood wants to be carved," she says.

Call 541-772-8118 or see www.roguegallery.org for information about "Beasts of Lore: Woodcut Art of Liv Rainey-Smith."

The pelican is often portrayed with a small, sharp beak, ripping apart its own breast in medieval catalogs. Liv Rainey-Smith's pelican has a long beak with the species' signature pouch.