An Artist Turns His Attention to Wallpaper, Yielding Beautifully Floral Results
The work of artist and RISD printmaking professor Andrew Raftery focuses on the subject of domestic life. His Open House series of engravings from 2008, for example, depicts the inner lives of American families in their homes, while his more recent Autobiography of a Garden turns the lens on himself toiling away on the flower beds at his mother’s Providence house. But his most recent work explores the domestic space as an artistic medium, in the form of four colorful hand-printed wallpapers.
These first wallpaper designs were conceived to be shown in a gallery as a backdrop to the plates created for Autobiography of a Garden. “I thought, ‘How can I alleviate all this whiteness and create a more intimate viewing experience?’” recalls Raftery of the typical white cube gallery space. His first print, Spring Salad, took the form of a repeating pattern of leafy greens, but, as Raftery says to AD PRO: “Once you develop your first pattern, the first thing that pops into your mind is another one.”
Following the same autobiographical line of inquiry as his Garden series, Raftery designed each wallpaper to reflect a different season of his personal cultivations. Summer depicts a coleus leaf, chosen for its pigmented strata of green and magenta that echo the layered ink fields of letterpress prints. Spring is a shifting pattern of irises and rosemary atop an acid green and turquoise gradient, while Autumn resembles an Art Deco damask of amaranth and Love-Lies- Bleeding flowers swaying over a deep blue starry night. “All the plants in the Winter wallpaper are native plants of New England that I’ve grown in the garden at my mother’s house,” says Raftery, describing the comparatively sober pattern of creams and vegetal browns. “I have a special area that’s just native plants. I find them to be so wonderful and so resilient and also very distinctive in the way they look.”
Discussing his inspiration, Raftery says he plumbed the history of wallpaper production to settle on a format. “I found a French tradition from the 18th century called Domino, which is sheets of wallpaper printed in letterpress that you would get from your stationer to line closets and boxes. I thought this idea of working with smaller sheets in the brilliant jewel tones of letterpress inks would really be a fun way to do it,” he explains. To arrive at the patterns, Raftery hand-sketched the images, scanned them, and painted over them in watercolor, building up layers of detail and tone bit by bit before bringing the project to master printer Dan Woods to translate into letterpress on his Heidelberg printer. “He really helps me to figure out the layering and how the colors are going to add up, what’s going to give the impact and subtlety,” Raftery says of their collaboration.
Once the wallpapers were designed and printed, Raftery’s home in Providence became the perfect setting to bring the floral prints to life. He and his partner, Ned Lochaya had recently bought and restored an 18th-century property known as the Powder House—formerly an arsenal for gunpowder during the American Revolution—which Raftery describes as a piece of folk art itself. Each of the upper floor rooms was papered with a different pattern, creating a living gallery where “the installation in the house becomes its own work of art.” Though the home installation is not open to the public, an online viewing room of the in situ display is available on the artist’s website.