Monday, September 30, 2013

Willard Clark: Printer and Printmaker by David Farmer

Creating the look of Santa Fe
American artist Willard Clark was born in Massachusetts, raised in Buenos Aires, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1928. Educated in painting, he taught himself how to run a printing press and opened a small printing company in his new hometown. Unlike most other printers of his day, Clark incorporated original woodcut illustrations into his graphic design. The business cards, letterheads, menus, and catalogs he produced for local Santa Fe businesses all carried a distinctive look. His illustrations of a New Mexican landscape dotted with adobe houses, sombreroed farmers, and sleepy burros, executed in a style influenced by Latin American art, established a unique visual identity for the burgeoning city of Santa Fe. Even his favorite choice of typeface, Neuland, became a sort of de facto logotype for the businesses of the area. In addition to his job work, Clark also produced fine art prints in his spare time. He operated his commercial printing business for 13 years while acting as an integral participant in the Santa Fe arts scene.

Willard Clark: Printer and Printmaker, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2008, does a good job of capturing the entrepreneurial spirit and love of craft that flourished in this creative period in Santa Fe’s history. On the other hand, it also evokes some of the monotony and drudgery of the commercial printing industry. Author David Farmer admits that there’s not a whole lot of information available on Clark or his business. What does exist is about six months worth of records of his printing jobs. As a result, a good portion of the text reads like a list of clients and their projects. Those in the printing or graphic arts professions may be interested in the day-to-day operations of Clark’s company or the various printing presses he owned, but the casual art lover may find it rather boring. Farmer also has the tendency—unfortunately common in art history books—of minutely describe images that are pictured within the book, as if they were not right there for you to see.

Despite the flaws in the text, the book is beautifully illustrated with an abundant sampling of both Clark’s commercial work and his fine art prints. A wide range of styles is included, from small cartoony woodcuts to richly detailed wood engravings. His black and white prints call to mind the early work of Mexican printmakers like Leopoldo Méndez or the artists of the Taller Gráfica Popular (without the political subject matter). His color woodcuts bear some resemblance to another well-known Santa Fe printmaker, Gustave Baumann. The two were associates and sometimes collaborators. In general, Clark’s imagery is simpler and more stylized than Baumann’s more realistic color woodcuts. If all you’re looking for is a book of beautiful New Mexican landscapes, you’d be better off seeking out a volume of Baumann’s work, like Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art, but if you also want a historical glimpse into the formative years of Santa Fe, its arts scene, and its tourism industry, then this illustrated biography of Clark is the book for you.

Clark closed his print shop in 1942 and went to work as a machinist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When he retired from LANL, he returned to printmaking from 1981 until his death in 1992. Clark’s story will be inspirational to artists and graphics professionals alike. He charted his own course, created the art he wanted to make, made a living doing it, and left an enduring artistic legacy to his community. This impressive book is a celebration of his devotion to his craft.

Willard Clark, Catalog cover for the Old Mexico Shop, 1939

Willard Clark, Engraving in boxwood, mid-1930s

Willard Clark, Oldest Church—San Miguel, five-color woodcut in basswood, ca. 1930
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