Valerie Wallace has been making art (mostly printmaking) for the last 20 years. She received her BFA from Washington University (St. Louis), her MFA from Northern Illinois University, and taught printmaking and design at Portland State University for six years. Wallace has exhibited widely across the United States and her prints are included in numerous private and public collections. Valerie lives outside of Portland, Oregon with her husband, kids, and a well-worn etching press.
She is currently in progress on three discrete print series:
Wallace’s PRESIDENTS as well as her AMERICAN MONUMENTS series, use a variety of drawing and printmaking techniques to reflect on historical and current events in an American context with satire and criticism. Each piece depicts, in a largely symbolic manner, individuals in a consequential moment of time. With her PORTRAIT series, Wallace draws individuals of historic significance that are lauded, or that should be, by our society. Affordability of handmade art is an important aspect of this series as it is meant to make accessible works featuring icons of our time (whether it’s a print that you hang in your home or wear on a t-shirt).
Q & A questions asked by Jamie Berger for PUSH PRINT: 30+ ARTISTS EXPLORE THE BOUNDARIES OF PRINTMAKING
I’m working out a couple of concepts at the moment, the first a series of selected US presidents. The idea behind this work was borne of my interest in the current political climate, the modern concept of war and the desire to understand the “Imperial Presidency.” I seek to provoke the viewer by asking questions and offering perspectives. The second series consists of linoleum cut relief prints with black ink on Arches cream paper. In these works I look at people throughout history that I respect and am fascinated by. One notion I’m exploring is to make art that is affordable. I want to bring these cultural icons into people’s homes. It really is emulating those generations of African-Americans and Irish-Americans that celebrated the lives of JFK and MLK with their portraits hanging prominently in their living rooms.
My first exposure to art of any kind was a fourth grade trip to the Missouri state capital building in Jefferson City. The capital is full of very large murals by Thomas Hart Benton. Benton created these wonderful paintings in 1935 and 1936, and they are a great example of New Deal art. The murals are filled with political and historical commentary and mostly depict the heroism of everyday life. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the impact of Benton’s work on my own.
How did you get into printmaking?
At eighteen I went off to college at the University of Chicago intending to study medicine. I had facility for math, science, abstract concepts and great hand/eye coordination, but no interest. Since I associated the University of Chicago with a career in medicine, I came to see it as a waste of time and money. As a result, I moved home to work on art at the University of Missouri. My first class, Intro to Printmaking, was taught by Tom Huck. Tom’s enthusiasm for process and teaching was a good fit for my interest in matching concept with detail. A year after taking Tom’s class, under his suggestion, I transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, and started the BFA program in printmaking.
What responses do you get to your work?
It varies quite a bit. In my early twenties, my work dealt a lot with sexual politics and shock and had a polarizing effect. People were embarrassed, even offended (which is fine by me) or they took up the challenge and found something to identify with. Currently, the work is often (but not always) more subtle. There are still moments of satire and hopefully offense in my prints, but the overall tone is more layered. For instance, I created a linocut depicting Ronald and Nancy Reagan riding leisurely on horseback through a barren desert. In this piece it’s not immediately evident what my point of view is. The viewer has to spend more time with the piece, bringing their own opinions and biases about Ron and Nancy to bear.
How has your technique developed?
My mark making over the years has gotten more simple and deliberate. The portrait series has really helped me refine how I use line within my prints. I think I edit more now. Glitter, money, resin, stickers, gold leaf, beads, actual baby bottle nipples all found their way into my work. As I’ve been at this longer, I’ve become more confident in my images. The more I work, the better I become at creating and communicating my narratives through simple mark making and composition.
What does printmaking mean to you?
History and community.
When you carve a mark in wood or linoleum or draw a line in a piece of zinc, that image becomes a part of the long and rich history of printmaking. The marks of a relief print have an inherent sadness to them; because of the depiction of social commentary, war, poverty, and political satire that has dominated the history of the process. I can’t make a print without seeing the direct influence and tenor of works by Albrecht Durer, Kathe Kollwitz, or Otto Dix. You could create a relief print of a teddy bear holding a dozen roses and probably still seem dark. It’s this baggage that I love about printmaking and something that is wholly unique to the process.
Printmaking also means community to me. It was the community of printmaking that I think, probably more than anything, fit my sensibility. It also led me to my graduate school mentor Michael Barnes. Michael really helped me become a more precise printmaker and taught me how to appreciate and use the characteristics of the medium. I think that without the relationships and affiliation of the print community, it would be difficult to develop in a way I would be satisfied with. It all stems from the need to work in a shop environment with shared equipment; printmakers are constantly around one another sharing information. It would be hard for me to have evolved into the artist I am today without the community that surrounds printmaking.
Walk me through a day in your studio.
Each day is a little bit different. I may have an idea for an image rolling around in my head for several months before I draw it on a piece of linoleum. Once I decide to commit an image to a block, I spend a couple weeks drawing it, and another month or so cutting the block. From there, I proof the block on my press in my studio, and then I tack the image to the wall and mull it over for a week or so. After that, if I need to make changes to the plate, I do, or I scrap it and start all over. The biggest mistake you can make is to want something to work when it just doesn’t. I drew and carved my JFK and the Moon linocut three times before I got Kennedy’s face right.
If it works, I then print the edition which can take a couple days. Because I tend to work in series, I usually have several pieces going at once.
How has your subject matter evolved?
My art has grown up with me. In the beginning, there was a lot of angst in my work, and a need to be more blatant. While everything I make is still personal, it’s all couched in a larger framework. I am no longer interested in simply embarrassing or shocking viewers. I am interested in seducing with the hope of a longer term dialogue.
What inspires you these days?
I think that having children has provoked in me an obsession with researching and recording my family’s history. Over the years you pick up the snippets of oft repeated lore all families have; taking a closer look I was able to find the real stories behind the myths.
My father’s side (the Wallace’s) have been involved in American politics and the military since before the Revolutionary War, and were active in the fight for abolition and woman’s suffrage. My great grandfather, John Milton Wallace (1844-1928) was General Lew Wallace’s first cousin, and was raised by Lew’s father and step mother, Governor David Wallace and Zerelda Wallace. John Milton Wallace was a drummer boy and surgeon’s assistant in the Union army for the duration of the Civil War, and was a part of both Sherman’s March to the Sea and The Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC. Hearing stories about the Civil War growing up has had a deep and lasting impact on my art.
On my mother’s side, after many years of searching, I found that my great, great, great grandfather (born 1713, Maryland) was the son of an indentured servant and a slave. I was only able to find this out because there was a miscegeny trial with court records. My great, great, great grandfather (a baby at the time, William Hunt Cambridge) was sentenced to 31 years of slavery to his mother’s master. His mother was sentenced to an additional 7 years of indentured servitude, and I have no idea what happened to his father. What happened to a slave convicted in court in 1713 in America? My great grandfather, Perry Commodore Perry Cambridge (1838 – 1908), moved to Indiana (free state) from Kentucky(slave state), when he was a child. It is not clear whether Perry or his parents were born into slavery, he was listed in the census as mixed race through 1890, and married my great grandmother (who was white), in 1897. My mother knew nothing about her grandfather Perry, or his family growing up. It’s unclear how much my grandfather Paul (he died in 1969) actually knew, he was only two when his father died.
There is still so much more for me to uncover about my family history, and it seems that as soon as I think I have it figured out, I find some new story and my whole perspective changes. My family history makes me very aware of the privilege that America can bestow on some and take away from others. My ancestors were a product of both, and while mine has been a mostly privileged journey, my awareness of the disparity among the people in my lineage deepens my empathy and helps me have a visceral understanding of the ongoing challenges faced by the marginalized and less fortunate.
I am a combination of many different stories. The things I have discovered about my genealogy make me want to delve even deeper into who and why I am, and what it means to be an American, a mother, and an artist. Creating art that contemplates many narratives; I’m able to see the pain, good fortune, tough luck and ingenuity that create the sum of many parts that culminates in me and provides the stuff of what my children will grow into.
What do you enjoy most about printmaking?
I have a love/hate relationship with each step that it takes to make a print. But more than anything, it lets me indulge and benefit from my obsessive nature. Nothing rewards hard work and practice like printmaking.