Printmaker Blue Butterfield demonstrates the process of woodblock printmaking in her studio space at Peregrine Press in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A New Yorker magazine article about loss inspired Portland artist Blue Butterfield to find her voice.

Butterfield has been creating colorful, emotional scenes of Maine for cards and calendars for nearly two decades. She loves the level of craft involved in the labor-intensive process of reduction woodcuts, where she might carve and color a single block of wood some two dozen times to get the printed image she wants.

The article by Kathryn Schulz was about loss in all its forms, from losing one’s wallet to losing one’s father. The point of the piece was that people are significantly more impacted in life by what they find than by what they lose. It made Butterfield – who also works as a physician assistant at Maine Medical Center – want to put into words what she had found in her life and art.

An image of Amphitheatre Bridge on Mount Desert Island, near where Butterfield grew up. Image courtesy of Blue Butterfield

So with the same patience and persistence she displays as a woodcut printmaker, she spent more than two years working on her writing, taking workshops and working closely with Maine author Susan Conley. The result is an illustrated memoir called “Maine: A Love Story,” featuring more than two dozen essays and accompanying works of art. It went on sale in November.

“It’s not loss that defines us, because we’re all going to lose everything. It’s what we find that defines us. That idea blew me away, ” said Butterfield, 53, of the New Yorker piece.

Portland woodblock printmaker Blue Butterfield’s visual memoir, “Maine: A Love Story” went on sale in November. Book cover designed by Tom Morgan of Blue Design

Butterfield’s work over the years illustrated her life’s journey, including scenes from around her childhood home in coastal Maine, various hiking and outdoors adventures around the state, and the West End neighborhood she calls home now.


The essays in the book start with stories of her early life, about growing up on Mount Desert Island. In an essay titled “How to Make a Reduction Wood Cut,” Butterfield intersperses very specific technical directions on her art-making methods with a heart-wrenching story about her father being hit by a car while riding his bike when she was 5 years old.

He grew more and more distant afterward, and later left the family. She uses several images of a woodcut of the Fore River Trail in Portland – at various stages in the printmaking process – to illustrate the art method part of the essay. There is no art specifically dealing with her father or their estrangement and rare meetings over the years.

Near the end of the essay she brings its two subjects together, talking about “control” she feels when making a print, making choices for herself, a sharp contrast to the unpredictable messiness of human relationships.

“My father was a runaway train. When did his bright curious eyes turn foreign? How did his young body grow so stiff before its time? I imagine the accident, that one second of driver-error or inattention, like a stone dropped in the water. Each ripple outward coloring every moment of our lives.”

This image of the Fore River Trail in Portland helps illustrate a chapter in the book on how to make a reduction woodcut. Image courtesy of Blue Butterfield

Conley, who met Butterfield through a mutual friend, was impressed with how hard she worked on her writing. She took “a number” of eight-week writing workshops offered by Conley, who also teaches in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA creative writing program. Then she asked Conley to work with her one on one, as a writing coach.

“She was really hungry to do this. The stories just deepened and grew so much over time,” said Conley, whose most recent novel, “Landslide,” came out in 2021 and is set on the Maine coast. “Sometimes we’d just sit with a woodcut and talk about it. She gave herself the time to do this, which was important.”


Blue Butterfield uses an etching press as part of her woodblock printmaking process, at Peregrine Press in Portland.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Butterfield said she was named Blue, her mother told her, because she had simply appeared “out of the blue.” Her mother was an artist who created out of whatever was at hand. She painted paisley swirls on her car, made sculptures of babies out of bread dough and sewed cardboard pieces together to make life-size houses, among other things.

Butterfield says her household was “fairly disadvantaged” after her father left, and her mother grew much of the family’s food on their property.

One of the first essays in the book, “The Farm,” includes passages about how Butterfield’s mother “smashed potato bugs with her fingers” and “built slug traps with stale beer.” She wrote of the colors and aesthetics of various crops, and how Brussels sprouts were the most beautiful to her, “turquoise rosettes studding the beefy stems, partly hidden beneath the deep blue-green leaves on the crown of the plant.” Accompanying the essay is the reduction woodblock print “The Mighty Brussels Sprout,” from 2019.

This image of Long Pond on Mt. Desert Island appears in “Maine: A Love Story.” Image courtesy of Blue Butterfield

Butterfield herself was interested in art at an early age. She won an artist’s residency abroad from the Educational Foundation and spent her junior year in high school studying and painting in Germany. After graduating from MDI High School, she went to Bowdoin College. She learned the basics of woodblock carving and printmaking from a visiting professor and nationally acclaimed woodblock artist, Tom Killion.

“I found it deeply appealing. It’s very sculptural, and there’s a lot of craft to it. You have tools, and you have to sharpen them, like any craftsman,” said Butterfield of woodblock printmaking.


But because of the way she grew up, Butterfield didn’t want to rely on art to make a living and pay her bills. So after graduating from Bowdoin in 1992, she went to Northeastern University in Boston to earn a master’s degree that would allow her to work as a physician assistant. She worked in nursing homes and hospitals, sometimes as a cleaner. After getting her degree, she moved to Portland and has been working in the field ever since.

“City Magnolias, Portland,” a reduction woodblock print in “Maine: A Love Story.” Image courtesy of Blue Butterfield

She continued to do woodcuts over the years, including for note cards and an annual Maine scenes calendar that she sells in local stores and online. Her 2024 A Year in Maine calendar is on sale now.

She makes her prints at Peregrine Press, a printmaking cooperative in Portland. When her sons – now 18 and 21 – were little, she found carving a woodblock was something she could do easily in free moments with them. She’d take them to a playground and sit on a bench and begin a carving.

She carves and prints one color at a time, all from the same block of wood. Starting with the lightest or brightest color, she carves away whatever areas she desires to stay that color, printing the next darkest color on top of it, the wood transferring the color in mirror-image to the paper after being hand-cranked through an etching press. This is repeated, sometimes dozens of times, with the block of wood slowly being destroyed until the final darkest color is printed.

“I think her technical skills are off the charts, The way she does it, with just one block of wood, there’s no going back,” said Chris Beneman, a printmaker and painter from Scarborough who is also a member of Peregrine Press. “Her medium is unique, very graphic. In the book, we get to see the scenes she’s created in places that are important and meaningful to her.”

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