by Nancy E. McCarthy
Many art lovers are familiar with Rochester printmaker Laura Wilder’s signature style. Wilder, a Roycroft Renaissance Artisan, creates colorful vintage-inspired block prints reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century. Her works are a striking mainstay on the art show circuit and she also does a brisk online business selling handmade color block prints, oil and gouache paintings plus reproductions, mini-prints, posters and a popular dog breed series.
“I always knew I would be an artist of some sort,” says Wilder. She enjoyed drawing from a young age, attained an art degree and worked as a graphic designer and commercial illustrator. Then she began exploring block printing and it changed the trajectory of her artistic, professional and personal life.
Wilder, born in 1958, grew up in West Irondequoit and still lives in Rochester. The Wilders were a creative family. Her physicist father was a pianist, her mother, a librarian, was also a musician, artist and crafter and her two brothers were jazz musicians. Pencil drawing was Wilder’s favorite childhood pastime. Her subject was often princesses. In her teen years Wilder considered fashion illustration. She loved watching the Sonny & Cher television show and drawing Cher’s elaborate costumes.
“Looking back at my work since early childhood, I realize that my art has always been about beauty,” says Wilder.
When Wilder attended Hamilton College, graduating with a B.A. in Studio Art in 1980, the concept of beauty in art and representational fine art was eschewed. Abstract, gestural and brashly raw contemporary works were the rage then. “College really messed me up,” Wilder says. “Beauty was not just undervalued; it seemed to be thought shallow, and wrong.”
She didn’t discover the Arts & Crafts style or even start taking block printing classes until the 1990’s. Wilder began her art career as a graphic designer and commercial illustrator. It was not inspiring work. “It seemed the cheesier the project, the better the money,” says Wilder. One of her most lucrative commissions was designing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle microwave pizza ad. Any meaningful connection to her work was rare, but there was one poignant exception: Wilder was hired to do individual portraits of the thirty-five Syracuse University students who perished in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. “I loved that my art was used to honor people rather than products,” Wilder explains.
In 1985 Wilder married David Cowles, a newspaper staff artist and freelance illustrator. They had Clayton in 1987 and Alison in 1992. “Dave and I are both mild-mannered artistic introverts, and so are our kids, so even as toddlers they were exceptionally easy,” says Wilder. Both children are now working artists.
After Alison was born, Wilder was in a professional rut but would soon discover a way to climb out. It began in 1993 when she attended an Arts & Crafts show and was moved by the designs of the prints, paintings, pottery and textiles there. Then she went to a Memorial Art Gallery Roycrofters exhibition. The Roycrofters’ shops in East Aurora were established in the 1890s by Elbert Hubbard as part of the Arts & Crafts Movement: a rebellion against factory-made goods. Artisans made things by hand with traditional tools with spare, clean lines and simplicity of design.
Today, the East Aurora campus operates as a non-profit organization and is a designated National Historic Landmark district open to visitors. Artisans certified by the Roycroft Renaissance jury still produce handcrafted items and decorative art.
Wilder loved the exhibit and was enthralled with the modern day artisans’ demonstrations. Inspired to do portraits of them, Wilder later visited the studios of a potter, cabinetmaker, bookbinder and silversmith and started sketches.
Then, while leafing through a home decorating book, some framed prints with a high-contrast, vintage poster look jumped off the page at her. She discovered these were William Nicholson block prints, circa 1890s. “I had to learn to do that,” Wilder said.
In 1995, Wilder and Cowles split amicably and that same year she started block printing classes with Ron Netsky at Nazareth College. She lauds Netsky as the best art teacher she ever had.
“Laura was already an accomplished artist when she came to Nazareth to study printmaking,” says Netsky. “She caught on to the color block printing technique right away and ran with it. It was a perfect marriage of artist and medium and Laura has done amazing things with it ever since.”
Color block printing is a complex process, requiring the artist to create multiple mirror image (backwards) carvings, each of which is imprinted in layers onto paper. Each carved block gets a different color and is placed precisely, one at a time, over the previous impression until the design is complete. Wilder carves in linoleum and uses a letterpress to smooth the paper evenly over each inked carving. The word “print” connotes “a copy” but block prints are original works, made individually in limited editions because the carvings eventually degrade.
Her first block print was a portrait of the Roycroft potter. Wilder showed the print to the potter who urged her to apply to become a Roycroft Renaissance (RR) artisan. Honored, she sent an application, along with four block prints (The Potter, The Cabinetmaker, The Bookbinder, and The Silversmith), to the RR jury.
Later, when she found out the portraits were of people on the jury, Wilder was mortified. “They would think I was totally trying to butter them up!”
In 1996, Wilder was accepted and certified to put the “RR” mark on her work. In 2001, she was elevated to Master Artisan. She started to show her work at arts festivals and it took off. Wilder’s ex-husband Dave built her a website and an onslaught of orders followed. She hired assistants for site maintenance, marketing, customer service and shipping.
In 2007, romance blossomed between Wilder and former high school friend Bob Thompson, a father of five. They married later that year. “It has been a wondrous journey,” says Wilder. Thompson, with career experience in printing, real estate and banking, became her business partner the following year. Her husband had skillsets to handle aspects of her business that she either disliked or wasn’t good at.
Today, Wilder’s main focus is online orders and art festivals. The 5,000 collectors on her e-mail list are wild about Wilder. One is Walter Jahnke of Rochester. He purchased his first Wilder original block print online more than a dozen years ago. He didn’t realize the esteemed artist lived around the corner until he received an e-mail suggesting he save postage costs and just pick the print up instead. “I found it very amusing,” says Jahnke, who has about 20 Wilder works now.
Laura Wilder found a way to create beauty in her art and carve out a beautiful life, too. “We have been so fortunate!” says Wilder. “While selling art has become more difficult for many in the past decade, our business continues to grow.”
Laura Wilder will be at the Clothesline Art Festival at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester September 8-9, 2018. View and purchase the artist’s work at laurawilder.com.