Blanche P. Wilson . . . from page 1
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.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Seeking Out the Wonder
Harry Taylor at Phillips Gallery
The works of the late Harry Taylor, now on exhibit at Phillips Gallery, teem with energetic life and vitality. With his unique sense of brevity, playful sense of humor and dynamic skills as a woodcarver (he managed to keep working even after he was diagnosed with ALS), Taylor created fantastical creatures and playful narratives that in his lifetime ambitiously added to his field.
Taylor’s was a unique ability to adapt obscure realities with visionary states of mood and atmosphere within the confined limitations of the woodcut print. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and art director for Meridian Publishing Co. for 30 years, Taylor had a style driven by a strong sense of design, and a quiver of subjects influenced by the aboriginal art he came across in the South Pacific during World War II. Whether exploring iconic figures or the symbolic qualities of the landscape, Taylor was able to transport the viewer by mood, wonderment and humor.
The influence of aboriginal art can be seen in Taylor’s thick use of dark line, and in his patterned surfaces that often have the appearance of stitching or beadwork. Like totems, his figures stand front and center, mesmerizing the viewer. In “Cat Mask” the image of the cat, much like traditional icons, rouses the sensibilities of the viewer. The artist uses pattern, abstracted symmetry, linear form and basic structure, and color, to compel the viewer to a connectivity with this amusing feline: the viewer is drawn into a state of bewilderment by this exotic animal with its elongated and white, horn-like ears; its teal, disk-like cheeks, from which whiskers protrude like daggers; its small mouth filled with razor teeth; and its comical eyes, pools of lemon yellow pierced by black almond ovals that express something between hilarity and quizzicality. The viewer feels in on the joke, drawn to this jocose creature, pulled into the hypnotic patterns and overall playfulness of the creature.
Taylor’s landscapes have an equally symbolic quality, appearing in the vertical rather than the traditional horizontal format, and eschewing Western perspective and verisimilitude. A work like “Dead Sea” full of color and form, is anything but dead, yet it is not quite alive. It is not quite easy to interpret but entirely beautiful, with a powerful color presence, held together by shimmering shades of gold. There are four planes of sea here, rendered in a holistic flatness, one plane on top of the other. The frontal plane is a range of golden-beaded chevrons, that holds up a band of abstractly interpreted waves, in shards of gold; above this is the most realistic rendering of waves, in small beads of sea-foam green with peaks and troughs. The final great space rises up in a linear and lucid orange like a great wave at its crest and contains a lobster, a mysterious ray, and an octopus.
As colorful and dynamic and heavily decorated as a work like “Dead Sea” can be, Taylor could also make landscapes with a minimalist power, where the viewer must come to a synergy with the artist and find the great heights with him. The two peaks of “My Hill,” are, physically, rather dull, painted with cuts to allow for the dismal gray of the mountain and the same dismal gray of the sky to blend together. But the viewer must allow Taylor to be the entertainer, to not always be obvious, and in this reticent landscape they must find the magic in the miniscule houses placed alongside and giving life to the flat mountainscape: two charming yellow structures toward the center, one red one below, and a green high up in one of the peaks. And as if all of this might be seen through a mesh screen or window, a bug-like creature climbs across the top right corner of the image.
Insects appear in two other works: in “I Hate Ants,” in which a stylized figure bends away from the ants descending from the top of the frame; and more happily in “Butterfly Lady,” in which a similarly sinuous, though much less sinister form, delights in the surrounding blue and yellow and red butterflies. The animal kingdom makes appearances in almost all of these works, forming comical and entrancing connections for the viewer: a companion to “Cat Mask” features an equally engaging rhino figure; in “Family Tree” human figures are joined by mammals and birds; and the latter appear by themselves in “3 Birds.” The figure in “Flasher #2” is quite ambiguous, but the bird-like head and bat-like wings suggest some type of fauna.
By contrast, “Peter” is a sole human figure, showing the artist’s versatility in subject and tone. Here we have entered the realms of pure existential being with a bulbous-headed ‘Peter’ taking up almost the entire frame, his sagging and disproportionately large head leaving little negative space. It is an image reminiscent of the early 20th century, of Kafka, Klee, and of the German Expressionists. Peter is all expression, neither happy nor sad but a representation of a state of being in the manner of Kafka and Klee without much left to meaning and a purely existential creature to reconcile his own pathetic state of being.
There are many more degrees and levels of fantasy and color, imagination and whimsy to discover in these woodcut adventures, making a visit to the Dibble Gallery in Phillips' basement well worth the trip. It is an opportunity to discover journeys of bewilderment and wonder and tongue-in-cheek humor, by a wonderful artist who posthumously leaves so much waiting to be explored.