Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Artist Profile: Blanche P. Wilson

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Blanche Wilson may be the oldest working artist in Utah. As she prepares to celebrate her 92nd birthday this month, she’s busy taking down a show at Weber State and moving into a new home in Orem where she’s setting up a printmaking studio. And since she suffers from macular degeneration, she’s also struggling with what it means to be a “working” artist.

Wilson’s first artistic struggle, at least the first she can recall, was how to depict a croquet wicket. The Salt Lake native, born Blanche Petersen, was sitting in the lawn of the home in Pocatello, Idaho, her family had moved to when she was 2. With her favorite medium of the time, crayon, the pre-schooler had scribbled a large expanse of green on a sheet of paper. But her emerging talents were stymied when she looked at the white plastic hoops embedded across the lawn. She went to her mother for help, and then her father, but neither had the answer. “So I just drew some squiggle things. To me it looked just fine. That was the first time I can remember really trying to create something.”

What her mother and father might have lacked as art instructors they made up for as supportive parents. “They paid for lessons [Wilson also plays the violin] and bought materials and were always encouraging me to keep working,” she says of them. When her father had one of her early pieces professionally framed and hung it in the living room, it was a very encouraging sign, if also somewhat daunting due to its prominent place.

First in Pocatello and later in Portland, where the family moved when Wilson was 8, the budding artist spent all the time she could drawing and painting. At a time when public education provided art classes through elementary, middle and secondary school, she had plenty of opportunity to practice and develop her skills. “I learned early that it’s like anything else, like the violin. You had to practice to get better.” She always had a sense that she would be a professional artist. While the friends she had grown up drawing with chose more practical studies in college, Wilson studied art, first at Marylhurst College, a Catholic women’s school in Oregon, and then at Brigham Young University.

World War II was driving the economy when Wilson graduated from college, so her later artistic pursuits took a practical turn. She began drafting for the military in Portland, then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Navy’s dazzle program. First developed in World War I, “razzle dazzle painting” as it was known, was a camouflage system designed to make targeting ships more difficult (it looks like a mix of cubism and op-art, and Picasso claimed cubism was its inspiration). Wilson’s task was to draw the various craft and then turn the drawings over to commercial-artists-turned-commisisoned-officers, who would experiment with different designs. “They were done in colors of the sea,” she says. “They had blues you couldn’t believe.”

In D.C. she married David Jay Wilson, an Ogden native who had served in the Marines, and after the war they returned to Utah. When they started having children, Wilson’s pursuits, like many women of the era, became more domestic than professional. Pencils and paints never left her hands, however. “I drew pictures of the house across the street, and of the ironing board with an iron on it. If I saw a plate with a fork on it, I would draw that. I would just draw anything.” This included anyone she could get to sit still long enough for a portrait: her children, unknowing sitters in the pews on Sunday, and friends coming for a visit. She recalls one neighbor boy, about 11 at the time, who came to the back door and asked Wilson if she would paint his portrait so he could give it to his mother as a birthday present. The boy’s confident offer to pay her — “I have 12 dollars,” he said — won her over. He eventually became her son-in-law, so both the portrait and the money have remained in the family.

While she was still raising her children (five girls, one boy), Wilson returned to school and earned a teaching degree from Weber College (now Weber State University) in 1966. Soon after, she was asked by the superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind to substitute at the School for the Blind for the spring term. She enjoyed the experience so much she took classes all summer at BYU to learn how to work with blind students and returned to the school in the fall. She remained for 21 years, working with small groups of grade-school kids who were either blind or visually impaired. Because an advanced degree meant a better salary, she also enrolled in a master’s degree program at BYU. Her choice to study art might seem ironic, considering her pupils, but she was able to bring her training into the classroom (she also taught swimming, cooking and other non-academic subjects). The students would work with clay, wire, wax and other 3-D materials. “There were two or three kids that got pretty good at making heads,” she recalls. “The interesting thing was their ears were usually huge . . . I guess, you know, their learning is mostly vocal, so the ears become very important.”

For part of her master’s curriculum, Wilson enrolled in a printmaking class at the University of Utah. With the help of Bob Kleinschmidt and other professors, she became enamored of woodblock prints. “I never felt competent with my painting,” she says. “My woodbocks always won prizes but my paintings never did. So it made me like woodblocks better.”

In the ’70s, after completing her degree, things began to take off. She found representation with Phillips Gallery and her work became known to a larger audience. “I had some shows and people started buying my work and I thought, ‘This is what I always wanted.’”

Wilson says she is attracted to the complex nature of woodcuts, to the need for planning and attention to detail. Black-and-white prints are fairly easy to compose, but prints with five or six colors require planning and multiple blocks. First she’ll create small sketches to try out compositions, experimenting with shapes, darks, lights, thick and thin lines. Then she chooses the colors, buys the pine blocks and begins the process of separating colors into individual blocks.  “The drawing and painting talent is not in your hands,” she says “it is in your brain. Our brains take in the information, and we use the information to guide our hands. When I am in the process of designing a new print, I have mental images that seem to insist on being chosen.”

“Usually what I do is just out of my head,” she says. She might collect source material with a camera or sketch pad, but then arranges things the way she wants them. She likes strong contrasts, and is attracted to buildings because one plane of the structure is always in stronger light than the other. In her work you’ll also find strong verticals, like lampposts and trees, silhouetted against a brighter background.
She has completed over 100 prints (which means she’s stored up hundreds of blocks). Many of the scenes are from around Ogden, which she has called home for half a century. Whether it’s a scene of the local canyons or mountains, the old buildings on 25th Street, or nearby Willard Bay, these prints have garnered her a loyal following in Ogden.

Traveling abroad has also inspired her work, and she’s completed scenes from Iceland, New Zealand and Greece. “It’s surprising what you’ll see when your mind is saying, ‘Now what will make a good woodblock?’”

In 1987, she illustrated a book, with Karen P. Jensen, titled Just Because I’m Blind, featuring 16 8″x8″ prints showing the joyful lives of blind children. Her prints have won several awards. In 2009, “I Remember” won a merit award at the LDS International Art Competition.

This image, of a graceful woman who was Wilson’s neighbor and a desired subject for years, is the last large work she completed. She’s still energetic and her hands, she says, are doing fine, but her eyesight has begun to degenerate. As colors faded and lines blurred, she trained a friends and fellow artists, Pam Kirch and Lynette Oberg, to help her pull her prints. She’s saved all of her blocks and only pulls a print when needed. So while an edition might be planned for a dozen or more, she’s only pulled a handful from most.

Wilson has survived two husbands (after her first husband died she married longtime friend, Dr. M. Paul Southwick), and has remained busy drawing countless portraits of her ever-expanding brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This fall she decided to leave Ogden, to rent a home next to one of her daughters in Orem. The home’s decorations, those of a couple that is currently in Mexico but plan to return, are slowly being replaced with her own prints. Another daughter, Anne, has moved in with her, and Wilson is training her as her studio assistant. They are working to match colors of a print done of a restaurant in New Mexico. It was used for the establishment’s menu, but now they want additional copies to offer for sale.   She was recently invited to teach her printmaking techniques to the students at Weber State, and exhibited her work alongside theirs in an exhibit at the student union that comes down this week.

So she may be slowing, but Blanche Wilson certainly hasn’t stopped. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. And I want to do it as long as I can,” she says. In her mind, she’s still composing. When she talks about a scene she saw, a flash of bright green vegetation against the blue-gray of sagebrush, and describes the composition and what she would do with colors, you get the sense that she can already see it completed in her mind.

World War II was driving the economy when Wilson graduated from college, so her later artistic pursuits took a practical turn. She began drafting for the military in Portland, then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Navy’s dazzle program. First developed in World War I, “razzle dazzle painting” as it was known, was a camouflage system designed to make targeting ships more difficult (it looks like a mix of cubism and op-art, and Picasso claimed cubism was its inspiration). Wilson’s task was to draw the various craft and then turn the drawings over to commercial-artists-turned-commisisoned-officers, who would experiment with different designs. “They were done in colors of the sea,” she says. “They had blues you couldn’t believe.”

In D.C. she married David Jay Wilson, an Ogden native who had served in the Marines, and after the war they returned to Utah. When they started having children, Wilson’s pursuits, like many women of the era, became more domestic than professional. Pencils and paints never left her hands, however. “I drew pictures of the house across the street, and of the ironing board with an iron on it. If I saw a plate with a fork on it, I would draw that. I would just draw anything.” This included anyone she could get to sit still long enough for a portrait: her children, unknowing sitters in the pews on Sunday, and friends coming for a visit. She recalls one neighbor boy, about 11 at the time, who came to the back door and asked Wilson if she would paint his portrait so he could give it to his mother as a birthday present. The boy’s confident offer to pay her — “I have 12 dollars,” he said — won her over. He eventually became her son-in-law, so both the portrait and the money have remained in the family.

While she was still raising her children (five girls, one boy), Wilson returned to school and earned a teaching degree from Weber College (now Weber State University) in 1966. Soon after, she was asked by the superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind to substitute at the School for the Blind for the spring term. She enjoyed the experience so much she took classes all summer at BYU to learn how to work with blind students and returned to the school in the fall. She remained for 21 years, working with small groups of grade-school kids who were either blind or visually impaired. Because an advanced degree meant a better salary, she also enrolled in a master’s degree program at BYU. Her choice to study art might seem ironic, considering her pupils, but she was able to bring her training into the classroom (she also taught swimming, cooking and other non-academic subjects). The students would work with clay, wire, wax and other 3-D materials. “There were two or three kids that got pretty good at making heads,” she recalls. “The interesting thing was their ears were usually huge . . . I guess, you know, their learning is mostly vocal, so the ears become very important.”

For part of her master’s curriculum, Wilson enrolled in a printmaking class at the University of Utah. With the help of Bob Kleinschmidt and other professors, she became enamored of woodblock prints. “I never felt competent with my painting,” she says. “My woodbocks always won prizes but my paintings never did. So it made me like woodblocks better.”

In the ’70s, after completing her degree, things began to take off. She found representation with Phillips Gallery and her work became known to a larger audience. “I had some shows and people started buying my work and I thought, ‘This is what I always wanted.’”

Wilson says she is attracted to the complex nature of woodcuts, to the need for planning and attention to detail. Black-and-white prints are fairly easy to compose, but prints with five or six colors require planning and multiple blocks. First she’ll create small sketches to try out compositions, experimenting with shapes, darks, lights, thick and thin lines. Then she chooses the colors, buys the pine blocks and begins the process of separating colors into individual blocks.  “The drawing and painting talent is not in your hands,” she says “it is in your brain. Our brains take in the information, and we use the information to guide our hands. When I am in the process of designing a new print, I have mental images that seem to insist on being chosen.”

“Usually what I do is just out of my head,” she says. She might collect source material with a camera or sketch pad, but then arranges things the way she wants them. She likes strong contrasts, and is attracted to buildings because one plane of the structure is always in stronger light than the other. In her work you’ll also find strong verticals, like lampposts and trees, silhouetted against a brighter background.
She has completed over 100 prints (which means she’s stored up hundreds of blocks). Many of the scenes are from around Ogden, which she has called home for half a century. Whether it’s a scene of the local canyons or mountains, the old buildings on 25th Street, or nearby Willard Bay, these prints have garnered her a loyal following in Ogden.

Traveling abroad has also inspired her work, and she’s completed scenes from Iceland, New Zealand and Greece. “It’s surprising what you’ll see when your mind is saying, ‘Now what will make a good woodblock?’”

In 1987, she illustrated a book, with Karen P. Jensen, titled Just Because I’m Blind, featuring 16 8″x8″ prints showing the joyful lives of blind children. Her prints have won several awards. In 2009, “I Remember” won a merit award at the LDS International Art Competition.

This image, of a graceful woman who was Wilson’s neighbor and a desired subject for years, is the last large work she completed. She’s still energetic and her hands, she says, are doing fine, but her eyesight has begun to degenerate. As colors faded and lines blurred, she trained a friends and fellow artists, Pam Kirch and Lynette Oberg, to help her pull her prints. She’s saved all of her blocks and only pulls a print when needed. So while an edition might be planned for a dozen or more, she’s only pulled a handful from most.

Wilson has survived two husbands (after her first husband died she married longtime friend, Dr. M. Paul Southwick), and has remained busy drawing countless portraits of her ever-expanding brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This fall she decided to leave Ogden, to rent a home next to one of her daughters in Orem. The home’s decorations, those of a couple that is currently in Mexico but plan to return, are slowly being replaced with her own prints. Another daughter, Anne, has moved in with her, and Wilson is training her as her studio assistant. They are working to match colors of a print done of a restaurant in New Mexico. It was used for the establishment’s menu, but now they want additional copies to offer for sale.   She was recently invited to teach her printmaking techniques to the students at Weber State, and exhibited her work alongside theirs in an exhibit at the student union that comes down this week.

So she may be slowing, but Blanche Wilson certainly hasn’t stopped. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. And I want to do it as long as I can,” she says. In her mind, she’s still composing. When she talks about a scene she saw, a flash of bright green vegetation against the blue-gray of sagebrush, and describes the composition and what she would do with colors, you get the sense that she can already see it completed in her mind.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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