With Ceramics and Wallpaper, an Engraver Straddles Centuries


This article is part of our Design Specials section on new interpretations of ancient design styles.

When Andrew Raftery, a master engraver and professor of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, decided to create wallpaper, he chose an 18th-century French format called dominoes—small sheets printed on a letterpress, originally made by stationers as shelves. Paper and box liners.

The process is complex and labor intensive, which appeals Mr. Raftery, an artist who uses ancient methods and crafts, like engraving, explores contemporary life, often his own. But unlike many artists who work with traditional techniques, he doesn’t outsource any part of the process. In fact, he usually adds more layers of preparation and investigation, as he calls it. This is a man who makes his quill pens from crow and goose feathers and his ink from oak gall and vitriol – the same type of ink used to sign. Declaration of Independence. He likes to take his time.

He spent two years making a copperplate engraving of a man buying a suit (the prints are a story told in five scenes that have the feel of a 1940s film). “Suit Shopping: An Inscribed Narrative” Completed in 2002 and received industry-world acclaim. He spent another six years on a series of engravings called “Open House” about the modern practice of house buying. Its contemporary objects and images – a kitchen Saarinen tulip chair and Alessi teapot, a piece of exercise equipment in a bedroom and a mingling crowd of strangers – are rendered in parallel cross-hatching, a subtle and vivid technique that makes them both recognizable and strange. They thrum with cues. “Open House” earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

His next project was eight years in the making. “Autobiography of a Garden” It is a series of 12 plates depicting Mr. Raftery, a serious gardener, over the course of a year, reading seed catalogs in beds, watering cold frames and deadheading. Each monthly activity is described in astonishing detail in the details he used to create the ceramics known as transferware – for example, the shadows and folds of the winter coat he wears to dig up dahlia tubers. Each has the ability to tell a John Cheever story, said Cary Leibovitz, co-head of the print department at Phillips de Pury auction house, in a telephone interview.

Engraving is a marathon, not a sprint. “The main thing is practice,” said Mr. Raftery, now 61, who picked up a burin, the engraver’s tool, in his third year of art school and stuck with it. “It’s about learning new ways to make dots and new ways to get in and out of a line. Looking at historical engravings you can see every stroke. It’s not like a painting that has all those layers. We will never understand how Vermeer did his paintings, but in the engraving you can see where the tool entered and where it exited and how much pressure the artist applied.

“Slow food in the age of Andrew McDonald,” says Benedict Leka, its executive director Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI, who commissioned Mr. Raftery to design a wallpaper for a room in the library as part of Mr. Lake. Mission to install contemporary art In an institution nearly 300 years old. “I don’t know if there is another person in the world who can create a ‘great method.’ [traditional old master] Carve burin like he can. His stuff is off the charts.”

And so, the wallpaper. When Mr. Raftery finished his transferware plates, exhibited at the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City in 2016, he created a wallpaper as the backdrop for the installation, an intricate design of leaves that he calls a “spring salad” that leaves him. Want to explore the medium more fully. Researching the history of wallpaper, he learned about the French tradition of making it in small sheets. He again turned to his garden for inspiration. The designs he created reflect the four seasons: irises and rosemary for spring, bicolor coleus for summer, amaranths and coxcombs for autumn. Skeletons of native plants — asters, goldenrods and thistles — break through the snow in winter.

If these images persist, think again. They are printed in saturated, psychedelic colors that blend and pop, thanks to a complex process that relies on the help of local printers and artists. Dan Woodwho runs a letterpress shop in Providence.

In the early days of the Covid crisis, Mr Raftery installed the paper himself in his 250-year-old house in Providence — one season for each of the four bedrooms, using about 300 sheets per room. He followed instructions from a wallpaper trade school manual from the 1920s. He learned to mix wheat starch for glue and how to set each sheet in place, stretching it so that the patterns lined up. It was a perfect method, he says, for the ornate plaster walls of his home. Now, on top of that is an art installation.

On a steamy summer afternoon, he walked me through it. He and his partner, Ned Lochaya, a health organization administrator, bought the place in 2018. It was built in 1765 and was used to store gunpowder during the Revolutionary War; In the mid-19th century, it was moved a few hundred yards from its original location and became a coachman’s house and bits were added. An architect and artist renovated it in the 1970s, but not completely. There is a modern kitchen and a studio for Mr. Raftery. When he and Mr. Lochaya bid on the house, there wasn’t much competition. (They paid $635,000, about 25 percent less than the original asking price.) Others remember the small rooms, steeply angled floors, low ceilings (and low door headers; Mr. Raftery, who is 6-foot-3, doesn’t want) ducks. ) and walls that are away from the plumbing.

“When I saw the house,” Mr Raftery said, “I couldn’t believe it. I think I’ve been waiting for a house like this all my life.”

For 27 years, he has lived like a graduate student, he said, in a small apartment in Providence. She had no furniture to speak of, but her apartment housed thousands of pieces of transferware, an astonishing collection that both she and Mr. Lochaya had amassed over decades. Mr. Lochier owns a brownstone in Brooklyn, and the couple, who have been together for more than 30 years, commute To see each other before the pandemic.

When they bought the house, they gradually filled it with period pieces and reproductions found at auction. It was not difficult. There was not much of a market for so-called brown furniture. They bought Windsor chairs, a Sheraton sofa, a grandfather clock and many (electric) oil lamps. They hung their collection of engraved prints, which date back to the 16th century. Mr. Raftery rotates the works each year. When I visited there were portraits — Alexander the Great advancing on Babylon; A cunning looking Louis XIV; and Madame Recamier, 18th-century socialite, on his deathbed.

In the dining room, the walls swirl with transferware, while a seasonal curation Mr. Raftery switches out through color. Other pieces are in the basement, including the couple’s collection of American pressed glass.

“The era of our collection was before 1851,” Mr. Raftery said, “before the era of design reform, and accepted the concept of ‘good’ design. That’s when we lost interest.”

In his studio were studies of his current work, delicate watercolors of historic rooms with natural wallpaper, which he had sketched over the past two years. Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library in Delaware and other historic Eastern houses. (See these works Ryan Lee Gallery at Chelsea from October 16 to November 24.) Popular 19th-century wallpapers, exquisitely block printed (now often wince-inducing themes) were transporting the “nature” of their age to their viewers. Themes include tiger hunting in India; Chinese motifs; scenes from works of the Western canon, such as “The Odyssey”; and colonialism and apartheid, at home and abroad.

Mr. Raftery is deeply committed to historical art-making practice and illustration.

“We are all surrounded by remnants of the past, these eclectic experiences and objects accumulated over time,” he said. “That’s what defines contemporary for me. It’s not about things that are brand new products, or the image created by advertising We live in history. “


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