The Autobiography of a Garden: Andrew Raftery in Conversation with Mary Jones
“Autobiography of a Garden in Twelve Engraved Plates” is Andrew Raftery’s first show at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York and the culmination of an eight-year project. An accomplished and recognized painter and engraver, Raftery lives in Providence, RI, and Brooklyn, NY and has been Professor of Printmaking at RISD since 1991. I met with him in Providence in late July, in his 4th-floor studio inside the historic Grace Church, a gothic landmark dating from 1846.
The church bells chime on the hour and Raftery is pressed for time. At completion, the show will consist of 12 16-inch tondo paintings and a portfolio of 12 earthenware plates with transfer prints from Raftery’s engravings. Each plate depicts a solitary, middle-aged man, (the artist) working with great determination in an ornamental garden, chronicling every month of the year and his corresponding duties in the garden from inception to fruition, decline to dormancy. In January we see him in his bed reading seed catalogs, in March he is watering, in April digging out the lettuce bed. Cut to November and he’s taking out the dahlia tubers. Lastly, in December, he’s standing in the snow contemplating the next year’s planting.
The depth and wit of the narrative are conveyed with concise lines on luminous glazed and dynamically shaped plates. These will be displayed against thematically-coordinated wallpaper so that a complete world is presented through mastery of narrative detail and marvelous skill. There is both satire and profundity, and the lone gardener’s Promethean toil in his small but precious plot reminds us of our own struggle against time and the elements. But while contemplating the smallness and beauty of our single lives, the appreciative viewer might not fully grasp the extensive process behind this artistry; the number of people and inventions cultivated for this project: that ink was formulated, ceramic glazes invented, original plate shapes created and named, and wallpaper designed and printed. And then, of course, there’s the work of tending the garden, and it’s most important collaborator, the artist’s mother.
MARY JONES: You’ve said your title, “The Autobiography of a Garden” refers to Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, because in that work Stein uses Toklas’s voice to describe their shared lives. To me, there many Alices in this project, including the garden itself, which belongs to your mother. Unlike the garden, she remains unseen throughout the project. What’s the relationship?
ANDREW RAFTERY: I started the garden for her, as a subject for her work. She’s a wonderful artist and she makes expressionist paintings of the flowers. At first, I just planted things I knew she would like to paint. She’s done so many paintings year after year of the garden, and it’s through her work that I remember and see it, more vivid than any photograph could ever be. In a way, her work completes the project and that’s always in the background. Even though she doesn’t appear in the work, she’s always there, and the sweetness of the time we’ve we’ve had together really comes through, because it’s her garden, too, and she absolutely adores it.
I hear she’s not alone in her appreciation?
Sometimes my mother wakes up in the morning to see people touring the back yard. Providence is a very friendly place and doing a garden in a neighborhood like this becomes a very public practice, something you do as much for your neighbors as for yourself. People change their route from work so they can see what’s going on in the garden. They’re always calling out to me from their cars and making comments to me as they drive by. When they see me out there with the easel it’s especially fascinating to them.
Your earlier work always took place indoors, in upscale malls where strangers evaluate each other and interact during commerce. In “Suit Shopping” and “Open House,” you critiqued social status through invented narratives transpiring in these semi-public spaces; the prurient curiosity of potential buyers at an open house, or the sly flirtations and homoeroticism of a man measured while suit shopping. But in “The Autobiography of a Garden,” you’ve moved outside, to a personal place of your own design, and you’re the only person depicted.
I think for the first time I wanted to put the lens of critique entirely on myself, and what’s emerged from this new work is a different kind of emotional tone. I’ve always thought of my work as satirical, but I don’t know if this project is anymore, it takes the risk of having a charge that’s a little bit deeper, a different kind of theme to it, that’s surprised me. I’ve always appeared in my pieces as a kind of witness, to show that this is a world that I know and whatever critique is in that world can be directed at me, too. I think the way I do it is fairly eccentric and relates very much to the way I make my art, the kind of planning and imagination that I bring to the garden overlaps with what goes into planning a print or any of my work, and it’s unlike anything else I’ve done before.
One of the most striking things upon entering your studio are all these models that you create for observational painting, part of your classical approach. Do you consider them artworks?
I don’t know yet, they’re so personal, after all, it’s me naked. I’ve shown the models that I made for “Open House,” but I’m not sure about these yet. Actually, the thing about them is compared to my other work they’re a bit provisional, I only take them as far as I need for the drawings.
I enjoy how they’re so loose and have so much vitality.
That’s what makes them so much fun to draw. The great thing about the models is they give me distance both from myself as a subject, but also the physical distance that I need to take from the figure, which is very different from anything I could do otherwise. It really helps.
Do you undergo the same process for every single image? Did you have to make a model for the painting of you in bed?
There are nine images with models. Actually, for an image in bed, I stuffed the bed with a dummy of myself which is the creepiest photo, but that’s how I did the drapery on the bed.
So you work from a photograph to make the models? Who takes the photos?
I do it myself. The photos in the garden are very specific to establish the scale.
Working from the photograph to the model, then from the model to painting allows a lot of slippage and infusion of expression, a facture that’s outside the photographic, or realism. Are you purposely creating a character for yourself?
The issue of self-consciousness is really central for me, to try to create figures that are not seemIngly conscious of being watched or posing. It’s very important to the tone of the narrative itself. If I can achieve that, the work becomes less theatrical.
Is the characterization revealing for you?
That’s why I do it. Here’s’ a project that’s so super-crafted, so super planned, and then there’s this by-product that surprises me.
What is important to you about your extensive process?
I’m inventing these images, they haven’t existed before, and as I go through each step the image becomes more believable to me, and more memorable. When I think about visual narrative, I think about what’s possible to show in a handmade still image that’s separate from a film or novel, and depicting very particular external details to reveal character and content is something I’ve always been interested in, and what led me to Stein’s writing. One of the things about engraving is that there’s no fudging allowed, you have to know where every single mark is going to be, so I need to know my subject thoroughly. I begin with the form of the body in sculpture, insert that into a grisaille painting of the landscape done from life to get the tonal structure and detail, and then I trace that onto acetate for the engraving.
Is the particular time of day relevant to each piece?
Yes. Each one tries to use the particular light of that time of year. For example, In February I’m using the kind of light that comes into my kitchen from a particular angle that is the never the same in other months. There’s a washed out light in August, the dog days of an overcast day. These things are very important to me.
It’s significant that you’ve returned to painting after such a long hiatus. What brought it back?
I can clearly remember when I stopped painting. It was during on my first sabbatical in 2001, I was working on a self-portrait my kitchen amongst the transferware. It was an oil painting and I was detailing the images on the plates. And I just thought, “I’m so sick of this.” That painting remains unfinished. At that point I turned to the engravings for “Suit Shopping,” I was so happy to be working with engraving because it had a natural simplicity to it, a necessary stylization that didn’t allow for all that detail. So, it was with trepidation that I turned to painting again. It was through the back door, in a way because it’s in black and white Flashe, and very close to what I do in drawing. I thought that this would actually help, as there’s a limitation to the kind of modeling I could do, and I wouldn’t be tempted to go as far as I would in oil painting. But the funny thing is that it’s come full circle. Just in June, I finished the kitchen painting, and as I sat there working on it, I thought this was the same painting I was doing when I decided to quit painting because there I am doing a self-portrait of myself in my bathrobe surrounded by all this transferware. I think it’s exciting that I picked up where I left off and found a new way to make it satisfying. When I quit painting, it was because I felt the drive towards a greater and greater verisimilitude and realism, a kind of smoothing out, which felt like a conservative impulse. I need to make it clear that my images are constructed fictions.
The transferware has made a transition from the background of your kitchen to the actual ground for the engraving. You and your partner, Ned Lochaya, are avid collectors. What’s your attraction?
Transferware for me has been a lifelong thing. As a child, my family had a set of Johnson Brothers pink transferware and I really loved it. I loved setting the table with it because there’s nothing like eating dinner and looking at a picture. I remember I took that set with me to graduate school, that’s how much I liked it. Then, once while admiring the big 19th-century brown transferware on the dinner table of print historian Richard S. Field, he said, “You know these are really prints.” That was a revelation to me. I started to think of transferware differently. Shortly thereafter, Ned started accumulating a collection that is now at about 1,500 pieces. That’s a lot of anything, but we live with it and use it all the time, and I also look at it as a print collection. Our collection goes to about 1850, but there are other artists who’ve done printed pottery in my collection, like Claire Leighton, who’s been very important to me.
Can you talk about the shapes and designs of your plates?
Of course, the big question for someone who’s never designed ceramics before, is what are you going to use? At first, I explored the idea of finding a potter who would design the shapes for me or use things that already existed. But then I saw that I could use paper, which I know really well, to invent my designs. So I started to play with tag board, and by using something that straightforward I could come up with many different solutions. It was so generative, I could refer to Victorian forms, which like mine are also often based on 6, 12, or 24 parts, or I could just use geometry to develop brand new shapes.
And once you had the design, how did you make the plates?
The pottery production has been an absolute saga in itself, and fortunately for me, Larry Bush, professor of ceramics here at RISD, has taken the project on. He really likes the plate shapes, which is a true compliment to me, and he figured out the production method, which is to use a hydraulic press with two part plaster molds. He also invented a special clay for the project, made entirely out of American materials. It’s a beautiful white earthenware, and people who know these things find it to be very close to a beautiful white 18th clay that Wedgwood once made, and he came up with the creamy clear glaze. He’s been super involved every step of the way.
And the engraving?
Just how to get an engraving onto the ceramic was also a dilemma. Millions and millions of pieces were produced in the 19th century in England, but that industry is really gone. I had really hard time finding any concrete factual information about the process.
I’m very surprised this information is lost, were you?
Wedgwood and Spode are closed, that industry is gone. There’s one factory left as a kind of heritage thing from what I understand. Industrial techniques are so vulnerable to loss.
Studio techniques are constantly being taught to new people through art schools and atelier practices, but when you’re dealing with assembly lines and everybody just knowing a little piece of the process, and with proprietary methods and materials, once it’s gone it’s very difficult to reconstruct. I called my friend in England, Paul Scott, author of “Ceramics and Print,” the first edition of his book has a list of resources, and from this list, I started calling people in England. They would say “Well, we don’t do that anymore,” or “We all just all got fired.” I did a lot of research on old patents and also on contemporary materials. We ended up making our own inks, and instead of printing on tissue paper like they did in the past, we used decal paper that’s used for digital transfers. The process brings together 19th-century technology and 21st-century technology.
When did you conceive of the wallpaper to put behind the plates?
When you do an 8-year project, you have many opportunities to talk about it as a work in progress. I knew I didn’t want ornamental borders on the plates, like traditional transferware, but I did understand that these borders function as an opportunity to comment on what’s in the interior. I started thinking about a way to extend the work and began making pattern motifs based on the garden. I looked at an old style of wallpaper, a French style called “Dominos” which allows a patterned ensemble to be created from nine-by-12-inch sheets. Mine is similar and done in letterpress. Doing the wallpaper is what encouraged me to also make the ornamental cartouche for the back stamps with the title and the month of each plate. I’ve always been so dedicated to representation, and working with patterns and geometry has opened up a new world for me.
How did the fanciful names for the plate shapes come about?
The thing I didn’t know about ceramics is that once we press a plate, we have to spend at least half an hour trimming, sanding, and refining each one. When you do 1,500 of them you have to have, first of all, a lot of people to help, and along with the labor and time involved, an intimacy with each shape develops, and all of the forms got names along the way. Larry called the October shape “Fox Points,” because it reminded him of the landscape of the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, but to me it suggested Chrysthanthemums. The May shape has this sort of lobed form, which is definitely our lettuce shape. I think the most poetic name is for the November shape. One of the assistants began to call it “Swan Wings,” and I think when you look at it just knowing that emphasizes the poignant quality of the waning light of November.
As in your earlier work, time is very specific in the garden, but your character is hard to place. Why?
One thing in my earlier prints that I was really trying to avoid was that sense of reflecting American regional arts and regionalism. That’s why I took on that extreme quotation of 17th-century engraving techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I love American regionalism, I grew up surrounded by it in Washington D.C., but I felt it might be dated, it’s a movement that went out by 1938, and it’s so discredited now, But in this new work, I wasn’t trying to mask it, I really went for it. With the house being from 1929, the way I dress and with the hats I wear it could conceivably be 1945, and then there’s something about the historical character of the neighborhood, and even the style of the garden, that taken all together implies this broad swath of periods. That kind of regionalism was brought into this project, and it’s very new.
Are there political or personal implications for this?
An artist I have been thinking about recently is Grant Wood, and the tragedy of Grant Wood is that he was in the closet. In some ways, Wood’s Daughters of Revolution or Parson Weems’ Fable, are very gay works with a pointed critique from an outsider’s perspective. Some unbelievably humorous things are carefully placed in the paintings, such as the transfer-printed Blue Willow teacup held by one of the aged daughters that is our key to understanding her pretensions. But in some cases, such as the weird interpretation of the George Washington cherry tree myth in the Parson Weems picture, Wood’s meaning remains ambiguous, as if there were some things he could not make explicit. As with Wood, you could see my work as “very gay” in its sensibilities and the avocations depicted, especially in the case of the extended self-portrait in “The Autobiography of a Garden.” But because I don’t have to take on the pressures and prejudices faced by Wood, and have the privilege of being open about who I am, I’m free to use the conventions of American Regionalism to create new subjects. Maybe I’m a little like Grant Wood if he’d been out.
September 10 to November 5, 2016 at 515 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, email@example.com