The Art of Rachelle Puryear ’69
From Trinity to the Royal College of Art in Sweden
By Kathy DeVoto Shuman ’69
An active printmaker living in Sweden since 1974, Rachelle Puryear ’69 has taught at the Swedish Royal College of Art, served on the board of the Swedish General Art Society, and continues her career as artist and printmaker. As described in Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African-American Women Artists, Puryear “…connects natural forms with abstract elements to build the thematic character of her spellbinding images.”
Puryear’s artistic roots reach back to Trinity in the mid-1960s and Washington, DC – her hometown. “Unsure of what major to choose, I chose art history because art was something that I always enjoyed. In retrospect, this choice – and meeting Dr. Ilona Ellinger who was Trinity’s art department back then – was to have a profound impact on my life.”
While at Trinity, Puryear worked part-time and summers at the Museum of African Art in Washington, DC (now part of the Smithsonian), and after graduating in 1969, went on to graduate school at Indiana University at Bloomington where she studied both art history and printmaking.
There she earned her master of arts in African art history – and met her future husband, Håkan Lövgren, whose homeland was Sweden. Puryear decided to take a break after getting her master’s degree, and she and Lövgren moved to Boston where they lived for three years. She worked as an art teacher and museum curator and continued with printmaking. On the advice of her father-in-law, the Swedish art historian Sven Lövgren, she applied to the Royal College of Art in Stockholm and was admitted as a special student. So Puryear traveled to Sweden, planning to stay for one year, so that she could work full time with printmaking and get to know Lövgren’s country better. In addition, Puryear was following in the footsteps of her brother Martin – the acclaimed American artist and sculptor – who went to the Royal College of Art in Stockholm and told Puryear about the school.
Puryear began her studies in 1974 at the Royal College of Art where she worked with different printmaking techniques but was particularly attracted to screen printing. Her skill in this area resulted in her teaching silkscreen first as assistant professor at the College of Arts, Crafts and Design and later as associate professor in the Printmaking Department at the Royal College of Art where she also served as vice rector. She also was co-developer of water-based silkscreen ink used in art schools throughout Scandinavia.
In addition, Puryear has exhibited in solo and group exhibits in different parts of the world. Her work can be found in collections like Nationalmuseum and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, The British Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum and many municipalities throughout Sweden. The Dolan/Maxwell gallery in Philadelphia (www.dolanmaxwell.com) represents Puryear in the United States.
A Conversation with Rachelle Puryear ’69
Tell us about your early interest in art at Trinity.
When I was at Trinity I thought that I would probably become an art historian. The courses in applied art that I took – printmaking, drawing, design and the like – were special since they attracted only a small group of students. The teachers, especially Dr. Liliana Gramberg who began offering the printmaking courses, were our mentors and role models in many respects. I felt they really took a personal interest in us and gave us the incentive to follow our own intuition in our work.
What is your work process like – do you go to a studio?
My work process varies depending on what I’m trying to do. I have always taken lots of photographs that I use as notes or sketches for my ideas. I use photography to capture a mood, colors, shapes that interest me. When I work with printmaking, I often make a series of prints on a particular theme, for example the Pompeii Fragment series. They were inspired by the remnants of mural paintings that you can find as you wander around Pompeii looking at all of the walls that are still standing.
My studio is in the same building where I live, next door to my apartment. I have an etching press there and facilities for silkscreen printing along with a tiny darkroom.
What has it been like to have a career in art?
Working as an artist can be a very uncertain occupation, but it’s very satisfying because you can follow your intuition and work with whatever inspires you, which means you’re always in the process of learning and discovering new things. And you’re always taking chances, hoping your ideas will work. Being an artist is something you can keep doing as long as you like; there’s no pressure to retire or stop at a given age. I have also enjoyed being a teacher. It’s extremely rewarding and provides you with the economic security to be able to make the art that you want to make and not just what you know you can sell.
What obstacles are involved in being a female artist?
The same obstacles you find everywhere. Maybe the biggest obstacle that you meet as a woman is the phrase, “You can’t do that!” That’s certainly my red flag, and it usually motivates me to do what I want.
Which artists have inspired you and why?
I’m really an omnivore when it comes to art and I like to look at all kinds of styles and trends. Some favorites include Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn, but I could go on and on and on.
Talk about some of the themes in your work – nature especially. How has nature inspired you?
The themes that I work with are usually rather private and personal. I like to focus on what I see and emotions or sensations that are meaningful to me, although I don’t necessarily expect viewers to always be able to know or understand my own thoughts. In my work I often use impulses from nature as metaphors for human emotions. The natural world has always been a source of interest for learning about our environment and a source of solace as well.
Nature can be tricky as a subject, though. It’s quite a challenge to improve on something like a beautiful sunset or pretty flower. I think that God just does it better. But as an artist you can take what’s there and be free to do what you want with what you see instead of just imitating reality.
You have experimented with every printmaking technique – from silkscreen to copper plates to photopolymers. What appeals to you most about this medium?
The processes and materials used in printmaking have always attracted me – paper, inks and the mechanical procedures needed to produce an image. One of my brothers pointed out that this makes sense since I used to have a toy printing press that I enjoyed playing with as a child. Printmaking is special in the sense that the different techniques can create effects and illusions in so many different ways. Some are very flat and painterly like lithography and silkscreen while relief and intaglio printing can create depth by embossing the paper by pressing it down into the plate or block. Printmaking for me is a lot more open as a process than painting and it’s certainly a lot more unpredictable.
You have worked in other media, too – like photography – and even combined photography with printmaking. How has photography influenced your work?
When I was in graduate school at Indiana University, I took my first formal photography course and had a very special teacher, Professor Henry Holmes Smith, to my mind one of the great figures in American photography. He was an amazing photographer, theoretician and pedagogue, another key person who saw all of his students, even the beginners, as individuals and could talk about what we were trying to do. He taught us how to see so that we could create our images and verbalize our ideas. Photography has been more of a tool for me than an end in itself; however recently I’ve actually had several exhibitions of my photographs, a collection of portraits of trees.
You’ve also worked as a translator. Your portfolio “7” provided visual statements inspired by the poems of famous African-American poets.
I do enjoy working with words and images and I’ve made several print
portfolios over the years. When I made the portfolio “7,” I was probably just a little bit homesick after a number of years in Sweden. I wanted to include poems by African-American writers with a historical spread and there were a couple of givens like Paul Laurence Dunbar who was a favorite of my mother and my grandmother. It was quite interesting trying to find poems that I felt connected with my own ideas. It was also interesting to hear comments from Swedish viewers when I exhibited the portfolio. Many people there wondered why they’d never been taught that there were any African-American poets when they studied American literature.
How does your interest in African art show up in your work?
I’ve had a deep interest in African art for a very long time. I’m also very interested in African crafts like textile printing and basket weaving. Again, I was fortunate at Indiana University to have Dr. Roy Seiber as my teacher. He was one of the most knowledgeable scholars in the field and the department was one of the best in the country. My interest in African art is certainly a part of my art historical baggage so to speak, a part of my intellect and my mind’s eye that I can utilize more or less sub-consciously.
Talk about your perspective on African-American history and how it has affected your art.
African-American history is, of course, an essential part of the huge puzzle of the history of North and South America. The United States could not have developed into the nation it is today without the huge economic profits of the slave trade and the free labor of the millions of slaves whose lives were used to build this country.
However, I have a very inclusive sense of history, just as I have in art. American history does not begin with Columbus – it stretches back to the indigenous peoples who were here many centuries before. Perhaps the real trauma of North American history is that it tends be so exclusive, rejecting blood relationships and cultural affinities.
The history of African-American artists in the U.S. exemplifies this. There is a kind of cultural amnesia that excludes artists and writers beginning with people like Joshua Johnston, Edward M. Bannister, Robert S. Duncanson, Phyllis Wheatley already in the 1700s, as well as scores of others through the centuries until today.
An exhibition that certainly brought home this sense of history was the show “Bearing Witness” at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1996, which presented 25 women artists of African-American descent. It was truly moving to be celebrated by the young women of Spelman College together with other noteworthy women artists like Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Lois Malou Jones (1905-1998) and Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1919), all Washingtonians by the way, with long, productive careers as artists, and all of whom should rightly have a given place in the history of American art.
Jasper Johns said, “I knew to be an artist I had to live somewhere else.” What’s it like to be an artist living outside the country of your birth?
There’s definitely a sense of freedom in the fact that you don’t necessarily have to follow conventions the way you might feel more bound to do in your own country. There is so much subconscious behavior that’s steered by convention, and when you find yourself in another culture you can’t always decipher the social codes.
The exhibition “By Their Choice” at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York in 1994 was a very special experience for me. The other artists were Herbert Gentry who had lived in Paris, Denmark and Sweden, Clifford Jackson who lived in Stockholm and Ronald Burns who lives in Copenhagen. All three were originally from the New York area and they had all been ex-pats much longer than I. As artists we each worked very differently but there was a common bond and much warmth in our mutual understanding of the experience of having lived and worked abroad.
What do you see as the differences in the art scenes between Sweden and the US?
The Swedish art scene is much smaller, more concentrated and local if you will. I sometimes joke that artists can be “world-famous” in Sweden, but when you go to Copenhagen or Helsinki no one knows who they are. It has become much more international during the time I’ve lived there and there are many Swedish artists who go to places like NY, Berlin or Amsterdam to make a name for themselves.
You’ve said you feel half Swedish and half American – what’s it like to be part of both countries? What are the main similarities and differences?
It’s a lot like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. It would be great to find a place that had the best of both worlds, but…. In some senses, Sweden and the U.S. are very much alike – things work in similar ways, lifestyles can be similar, but there are many subtle differences. Even though things have changed a lot since I came here in the ’70s there are still some very real differences in the social setup. For example, everyone with a job gets at least six weeks paid vacation per year, maternity leave is something like 15 months (of which fathers can take half if they choose), parents get an annual government allowance for every child they have, health care and medicines are subsidized and higher education is free for all students. On the other hand I feel there’s more age discrimination in Sweden than in the U.S. Looking at the way society works when the system works at its best, it does seem like a good investment, both socially and economically, for the members of a society to help take care of the entire population, young and old.
What do you think is different about being a young artist today versus when you began your career?
Today there’s a lot more focus on being a star. For me art was, and still is, a way to learn about myself and the world around me, a process of discovery.
What about people of all ages who may be discovering their dormant creative interests?
That’s great. I always used Kandinsky as an example to my students. He was 40 years old when he began painting seriously. Especially in today’s world it’s important to be able to be flexible and move from one field of interest to another. I also feel that it’s really a shame that we don’t routinely teach the tools of art and music to all children, the same way we teach reading, counting and telling time. It’s not about making everyone into artists and musicians, but rather learning to see and to hear so that you are conscious of what you are seeing and hearing. This opens doors and allows you to grow.
What advice do you have for Trinity students who want to make art their career?
To try to pursue their ideas and to give themselves time to develop, to try find their inner voice.
What’s next on your agenda?
Right now I’m working on trying to finish a long term project that I started in 2001. It’s based on a memory from 1951 when I was four years old. The sensation of coming into our house in Washington, D.C. for the first time and seeing the empty rooms overwhelmed me. I had always wanted to see the house empty again as an adult to try to connect my memory to reality. So after my father died in 2001, I photographed the rooms as they were and did so again when everything was moved out in 2002. At that point I also experienced a sense of homelessness because the house had been a kind of anchor for me for 51 years, somewhere I could always call home.
About the author:Kathy DeVoto Shuman ’69 has been in high tech public relations and communications for more than 20 years, and currently works as a marketing communications consultant for IBM.