Labors of Love

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

People find themselves in careers for all sorts of reasons. Many study a specific thing and then work in that particular field, often choosing it because of a moderate interest in the subject and a belief that it is a viable way for them to earn a living. But many of us also find our way to endeavors that we didn’t set out to explore. Whether it’s our careers, the people we build relationships with, or the passions we cultivate in our spare time, the labor of love is a powerful commitment through which we can learn so much about ourselves and also pass on so much to other people.

In the arts, this impulse toward work that fills us spiritually, if not financially or practically, is perhaps a more common occurrence. We see it not only with artists who have left behind other more secure paths to pursue their creativity here, but also with gallerists who open difficult businesses for the love of art, paying no mind to the odds that are against them.  But there is nothing like throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool and relying on the skills you believe you have to either sink or swim.

Wenniger in her gallery

For Mary Ann Wenniger, printmaking came into her life many decades ago. Now on the cusp of her 90th birthday, Wenniger, who has had a long relationship with Provincetown, having owned several galleries here more than 30 years ago, is preparing for a show at Gallery 444, owned by her friend Wendy Cressey. The show, entitled Blissful Memories, includes a number of beautiful collagraph monoprints originally inked in Provincetown.

Wenniger specializes in collagraph printmaking, a unique art form that merges collage and printmaking to create monoprints that feature unique textural elements not possible to render any other way. The process begins with creating a plate that can be intricately layered with materials as diverse as lace, coins, leather strips, or any found object that is thin enough to work with. Modeling paste is used to fix the elements in place, and then there is an inking process and many of Wenniger’s prints are made onto handmade paper. The process can be more or less complicated and time-consuming depending upon the creator’s vision.

A week and a half before the show opened, Wenniger is in her home in the Gloucester, Mass., area, working still with collagraphs. “These are one of a kind mostly, almost all,” she says. “I have a plate downstairs right now, on the press, and I made the first pull of it and then I had to go do something else. And that was a week ago. But I’ve since then been reflecting on where I can go with it, and I saw the light change outside from the totally foggy day to sunlight in half of my back garden, just sunlight and the rest is fog,  and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to to do that and try to get the fog plus sunlight.’”

Old Provincetown, collagraph

The process is still thoroughly engaging to her, some 50 years after she began working with it. She remembers being a young mother living in Rockport, Mass., with her husband, where they opened their first gallery in 1971. Someone dropped off a flyer about etching classes at the Radcliffe Institute. She took those classes and was introduced to collagraphs at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., shortly thereafter. Although Wenniger paints and makes encaustics as well, her love of the collagraph has been the cornerstone of her work. In fact, she wrote the book Collagraph Printmaking: The Technique of Printing from Collage-Type Plates way back in 1975, one of the earliest books on the subject. The process is her passion.

“I use an original plate which I’ve created. Sometimes they take as long as a year to make them,” she explains. Then, using an image she’d made of the breakwater here in Provincetown some years back, she breaks down the process: “So I made a collage first of materials that I pretty much knew how to loosen. So the tops of the breakwater would be pieces of wallpaper massaged with these plastics that came on the market, like modeling paste—I hope this makes sense. Using a palette knife I made the rocks. But first, I had to draw the image on the plate, backwards, because I wanted it to be like it is, not photographic, my impression, but going from right to left. And then [I made] the bit of land and the waves to the left. And the lighthouse with a piece of, I don’t know what I used,  probably tinfoil or something, and the sky is another piece. So it’s all assemblage really. And then I decided this was really special, and it’s part of a series called La Laubate, it’s the Latin for ‘praise’. These are images that I love,” she explains,

But Wenniger has also spent her life as a gallery owner, with galleries in Rockport, on Newbury Street in Boston, printmaking galleries here in Provincetown that featured her own and other printmakers’ work, as well as her current Wenniger Cottage Gallery in Gloucester. Asked about the challenges of a life in the art world and how she has been able to meet them, Wenniger emphasizes the need to keep one’s ego in check and to keep in focus the things that matter, leaving behind that which is only about appearances.

“I mean we didn’t know what we were doing,” she explains, as she tells me how her late husband and she started in the gallery world, just on a hunch that it might be interesting to work with printmakers. “We were very naive, but that naivete paid off. But we were always very modest about it… I mean, gallery-keeping is a very tricky thing. And there’s ego, to have a fancy big gallery is, if you want to throw money away, go do it that way,” she laughs.

Likewise, understanding the art collectors who come in as equally invested in their own labor of love, is part of the ecology of the art world. Sometimes their love of a painting or a print defies the rational objectives of art collecting as a financial investment. Sometimes it’s as much for the love of art for them as it was for the artist who created it. To that end, Wenniger shares a story about a print that had become damaged in a previous show at Gallery 444, but which a man simply fell in love with. “He went immediately to the wall and a piece had fallen down, a very good piece of the shadows of [the Days’ cottages], a long piece, and it got torn along the way,” she recalls.”So this guy looked at that piece and said, ‘Oh, I love it.’ And he stood in front of it. I said, ‘Well that has a hole in it.’—I mean it looked like a monster took a bite. And I said, ‘I’ll have to see, I could probably get it together.’ He said, ‘No! I like it just the way it is. Just the way it is,’” she marvels. And he bought it, hole and all.

Mary Ann Wenniger’s show Blissful Memories is on view at Gallery 444, 444 Commercial St., Provincetown, through April 20. There is an opening reception on Friday, April 15, 5 – 8 p.m.

For more information visit gallery444ptown.com.