How an engraver straddles the centuries

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How an engraver straddles the centuries
A plate titled “June: Training a Passion Vine” from Andrew Raftery’s series of garden-theme transferware plates, at his home in the bedroom with his spring-inspired wallpaper design, in Providence, R.I., Aug. 7, 2023. The master engraver and professor of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design uses antique methods and crafts, energizing the laborious art of engraving to explore contemporary life. (Tony Luong/The New York Times)

by Penelope Green

PROVIDENCE, RI.- When Andrew Raftery, a master engraver and professor of printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design, decided to make wallpaper, he chose an 18th century French format called domino — small sheets printed on a letterpress, which were originally produced by stationers as shelf paper and box liners.

The process is intricate and labor intensive, which appeals to Raftery, an artist who uses antique methods and crafts, such as engraving, to explore 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 generally adds more layers of preparation and investigation, as he calls it. This is a man who makes his own quill pens, from crow and goose feathers, and his own ink, from oak galls and vitriol — the same kind of ink used to sign the Declaration of Independence. He likes to take his time.

He spent two years making an engraving on copperplate of a man shopping for a suit (the prints are a tale told in five scenes that have the feeling of a 1940s film). “Suit Shopping: An Engraved Narrative” was completed in 2002 and drew art-world acclaim. He spent six more years on a series of engravings called “Open House,” about the modern ritual of house shopping. Its contemporary objects and images — a kitchen’s Saarinen tulip chair and Alessi teapot, a bedroom’s piece of exercise equipment and a milling crowd of strangers — are rendered in parallel cross-hatching, a meticulous and vibrant technique that make them both recognizable and strange. They thrum with portent. “Open House” earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

His next project was eight years in the making. “The Autobiography of a Garden” is a series of 12 plates that depict Raftery, who is a serious gardener, over the course of a year, reading seed catalogs in bed, watering a cold frame and deadheading. Each monthly activity is wonderfully detailed in the applied engravings he used to create the ceramics known as transferware — for example, the shadows and folds of the winter coat he wears to dig dahlia tubers. Each has the narrative power of a John Cheever story, as artist Cary Leibowitz, co-head of the print department at the Phillips auction house, said in a telephone interview.

Engraving is a marathon, not a sprint. “The main thing is practice,” said Raftery, 61, who picked up a burin, the engraver’s tool, in his third year of art school and was hooked. “It’s all 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’ll never really understand how Vermeer did his paintings, but in engraving, you can absolutely see where the tool entered and where it exited and just how hard the artist pressed.”

“Andrew is slow food in an age of McDonald’s,” said Benedict Leca, executive director of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island, who has commissioned Raftery to design a wallpaper for a room in the library, as part of Leca’s mission to install contemporary art in the nearly 300-year-old institution. “I don’t know if there is another person in the world that can create a ‘grand manner’ [traditional old master] burin engraving like he can. His stuff is off the charts.”

And so, to wallpaper. When Raftery had finished his transferware plates, which were exhibited at the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City in 2016, he created a wallpaper as a backdrop for the installation, a complex design of leaves he called “Spring Salad” that left him wanting to more fully explore the medium. Researching the history of wallpaper, he learned about the French tradition of producing it on small sheets. He again turned to his garden for inspiration. The designs he made reflect the four seasons: irises and rosemary for spring; bicolor coleus for summer; amaranths and coxcombs for fall; and skeletons of native plants — asters, goldenrods and thistles — poke through the snow in winter.

If these images sound staid, think again. They are printed in saturated, psychedelic colors that blend and pop, thanks to a complicated process that relied on the assistance of a local printer and artist, Dan Wood, who runs a letterpress shop in Providence.

During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, 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 the directions of a wallpaper trade-school manual from the 1920s. He learned to mix wheat starch for the glue and how to set each sheet in place, stretching it this way and that so the patterns lined up. It was a perfect method, he said, for the bumpy plaster walls of his house. Now, his entire upstairs is an art installation.

On a steamy summer afternoon, he led me through it. He and his partner, Ned Lochaya, a health company administrator, bought the place in 2018. It was built in 1765 and 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 turned into a coachman’s house, and bits were added on. An architect and artist renovated it in the 1970s, but not completely. There’s a modern kitchen and a studio for Raftery. When he and Lochaya bid on the house, there wasn’t much competition. (They paid $635,000, nearly 25% less than the original asking price.) Nobody else seemed to want small rooms, steeply angled floors, low ceilings (and lower door headers; Raftery, who is 6-foot-3, has to remember to duck) and walls that are far from plumb.

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

For 27 years, he had been living like a graduate student, he said, in a small apartment in Providence. He had no furniture to speak of, but his apartment was crammed with thousands of pieces of transferware, a dizzying collection that he and Lochaya have assembled for decades. Lochaya has a brownstone in New York City’s Brooklyn, and the couple, who have been together for more than 30 years, used to commute to see each other before the pandemic.

When they bought the house, they slowly filled it with period pieces and reproductions found at auction. It wasn’t hard. There wasn’t much of a market for so-called brown furniture. They bought Windsor chairs, a Sheraton sofa, a grandfather clock and many (electrified) oil lamps. They hung their collection of engraved prints, which dates from the 16th century. Raftery rotates the works each year. Portraits were up when I visited — Alexander the Great marching into Babylon; a sly-looking Louis XIV; and Madame Récamier, an 18th century socialite, on her deathbed.

In the dining room, the walls swirled with transferware, another seasonal curation that Raftery switches out by color. Other pieces are in the basement, with the couple’s collection of American pressed glass.

“Our collecting era is before 1851,” Raftery said, “before the age of design reform, and the idea of ‘good’ design, took over. That’s when we lose interest.”

In his studio were studies of his current work, delicate watercolors of historic rooms with scenic wallpapers, which he sketched during the past two years at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware and in other historic Eastern houses. (These works will be on view at the Ryan Lee Gallery in Chelsea from Oct. 16 through Nov. 24.) Scenic wallpapers that were popular in the 19th century, exquisitely block printed (in what are now often wince-inducing themes), were transporting to their viewers, the “Nature” of their age. Themes included tiger hunting in India; Chinese motifs; scenes from works in the Western canon, such as “The Odyssey”; and colonialism and racism, at home and abroad.

Raftery is deeply committed to historical art-making practices and imagery.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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