Pictures are proverbially worth a thousand words, but it's unusual to hear even half that many on how artworks are actually made -- outside the classroom, anyway. To the casual viewer, the often-complicated steps from blank paper to finished product are a mystery. Printmakers in particular are notoriously "protective of the little things they think they've invented," says Bill Davison.
He should know. Even as one of the founding instructors in the University of Vermont's fledgling art department in the late 1960s, Davison was already known as a gifted screenprinter -- specifically in stone lithography. Since then his works have been characterized by experimentation that was always ahead of its time, especially during the years in which Burlington's George Little Press gave him virtual free rein to improvise. A current retrospective at the Fleming Museum, titled simply "Bill Davison: Thirty-Five Years of Prints," is small but illuminating.
Davison has hundreds of prints to his credit -- including some that have won international awards and been collected by renowned museums. Fleming director Janie Cohen selected a modest 14 for this exhibit, representing the major phases of Davison's career. She was drawn to his ongoing interest in the grid motif -- a reflection of his coming-of-age in art's Minimalist period, influenced by adherents such as Barnet Newman and Ad Reinhart. Indeed, every work involves straight lines and geometric shapes, a seeming paean to order.
There is, however, a more subtle demarcation in this show, its dramatic cause invisible to the observer. Davison's works before 1999 reveal him to be an exacting, patient, obsessively methodical artist. The prints are masterful, multi-layered pieces employing difficult, cutting-edge techniques and unorthodox textures such as flocking, dirt and a powdery black mineral. In the last couple years, though, Davison has loosened up; the four most recent works in the exhibit are monoprints -- the least demanding process this side of the potato print. It's a method he once disdained as too simplistic.
One stark life event divides the surgically precise screenprints from the more freewheeling monoprints: In 1999 Davison was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. Today he is recovered, but the disease, and its treatment, took a toll: Chemotherapy and radiation diminished his salivary function and left him with permanent tinnitus. He wears a medical-alert bracelet indicating that a vascular port is embedded in his chest -- in case he ever needs more chemo.
Bottles of spring water are Davison's constant companions, but even so he worries that his speech is occasionally incomprehensible. "If your mouth is always drying out and you can't hear yourself talk..." he says, letting the sentence trail off with a slight shrug. These physical challenges have made teaching difficult; that and UVM's early buyout option led Davison to wind up his academic career after 36 years. He'll be 62 when he retires in May.
He is not, however, going out with a whimper, as his retrospective shows. In addition, Davison will have a solo exhibit of recent monoprints at the newly renovated Firehouse Gallery in downtown Burlington next spring. Curator Pascal Spengemann describes these as "regimented but quite pleasing arrangements of colored squares, which are produced by inking individual pieces of scratched Plexiglas and printing them to paper. The result," he adds, "is a patchwork of interlocking, rectilinear forms that are surprisingly powerful. Bill's subconscious, freeform approach to creation allows for accidental combinations of color."
The hours Davison now spends rolling out these "hit or miss" monoprints at Print Studio 250 seem to constantly recharge both his artistic vision and his outlook on life.
"I see in his work a very compelling contrast of emotion and restraint, formalism and a more painterly approach," says Cohen, suggesting Davison's monoprints reveal a more intuitive process even as they employ a rigorous grid. "The tension in them is compelling. Bill is this gruff, duck-hunting Vermonter who makes these beautiful artworks."
Bill Davison's office at Williams Hall, conveniently located next to the print studio, says a lot about the man who occupies it. Not surprising for someone enamored of grids, it's tidy and orderly -- even his notes are on graph paper, their memos printed neatly and centered on the page. Paint-splattered floors and Davison's own sculpture-painting assemblages on the walls say "artist," but his primary oeuvre is hidden away in several hulking flat-file cabinets.
A battered, overstuffed chair and a fleece-covered wooden one, arranged beside a small table in the middle of the room, invite casual conversation. It is here that Davison chooses to talk about his life, plopping his lanky frame into the armchair with a couple bottles of water at the ready.
He was born in Burlington in 1941, just a few hundred yards from this office, and grew up in Essex Junction. Davison's grandparents had "the largest dairy farm in Rutland County," he says, recalling Sunday visits to the rural retreat in Wallingford in the family's Buick Electra. Though Davison was the only artist in the family, he praises his homemaker mother's "incredible knitting and crocheting," and notes that her father had been an engraver for Tiffany's.
Davison's own father, Robert Davison, Sr., was the head of the UVM Extension Service for 40 years. His only sibling, a brother, is now a retired attorney in Stowe.
Wanting to get out of New England -- if just for a while -- Davison left Vermont for Albion College in Michigan. He had originally considered becoming an architect, until a teacher told him math and engineering were involved -- "and that was that," Davison says with a rueful grin. He pursued his MFA at the University of Michigan. A first marriage produced two children, both of whom live in California: His daughter Karin is an artist, his son Tristan a commercial photographer whose latest favorite "subject" is Davison's first grandchild, Maxine Estelle.
In 1967, Davison chose to return home and join the nascent art department at UVM. Michael Patterson, who graduated in 1969 as one of the school's first art majors, vividly recalls those heady years. "That early art department was a really interesting time and place and thing, and Bill was part of that," he says. "It was really small, and there was a lot of camaraderie." Patterson, who has owned an ad agency in downtown Burlington for 20 years, remembers Davison as a bright and highly talented artist: "He was young, right out of grad school, and he was an interesting and good teacher. He got together litho presses and stones and taught stone lithography there for the first time."
For his part, Davison believes he was a pretty mean prof. "I got hammered in grad school, so I guess I was harsh and thought that made me a good teacher," he says. He recalls grueling, four-hour critiques that involved a lot of alcohol and cigarettes -- not to mention tough reviews of students' work.
Davison believes he's a gentler instructor since the cancer. "When you get this kind of diagnosis, it kind of stops you in your tracks," he says. He's also quick to praise the students he's admired -- especially Gerrit Gollner, a mid-'90s graduate whose work was well-received outside the classroom, in art exhibits around Burlington. She now lives in Cologne, Germany, but keeps in touch with her former mentor. "Gerrit was doing graduate- or professional-level work by the time she finished here," Davison marvels. "It was clear she was going to be a star."
"Bill taught with rigor, and with the discipline that printmaking demands -- that was not so popular with some students," Gollner recalls. "Though beyond the technicalities of making prints, his method made possible the tools for the impossible... He taught me the methods of teaching myself, which only the best teachers are able to do."
Davison claims many good -- but only 10 or so "really great" -- students over the years. One of the latter, Kathleen Schneider, was exceptional for another reason: She married him. A sculptor, Schneider later joined her husband on the art faculty. The couple has been together 22 years. Davison fondly calls her "my muse." Indeed, photographs of Schneider, and some of her drawings, appear frequently in his screenprints.
"A muse is just something you have as an artist," demurs Schneider. "I don't really think about it when I see his work... It's like the materials he uses over and over again, and I've become this form he can use in juxtaposition with other shapes and forms. I'm part of his lexicon."
Schneider acknowledges her husband's role in her own work as well. "He was my teacher and the person who helped me the most in my career when I started out as an artist. I couldn't have grown as much as I have without Bill's belief in my work."
Despite their personal and professional closeness, even Schneider took a back seat when it came to Davison's favorite pastime. And he doesn't let a conversation about his life get too far without bringing it up: "I suppose you're going to ask me about the duck hunting," he encourages. "One of the traditions in Vermont is father-son bonding through hunting and fishing. Dad went deer hunting, though I don't think he ever killed anything. I got involved with duck hunting," Davison continues, "and it consumed my life for 30 years." Even though he describes himself as "an average shot," Davison talks about hunting as if it were a second career. Or more than that: salvation, maybe.
"Hunting was more important than art when fall came," confirms Schneider. "For about three months every fall, he would bond with his friend. Sometimes I thought it was more important than his relationship with me, but I don't think it was." On one of Davison's screenprints, anyway, photos of a duck decoy and his wife get equal billing.
Davison's hunting came to a poignant end when his hunting buddy, a friend since childhood, lay dying of cancer -- and he received his own chilling news. The same disease had also taken his father's life. "It was really devastating," says Schneider. "That was the saddest thing I've ever seen him go through. His friend told him to stop smoking and make some changes in his life."
Davison did. "The diagnosis re-arranged the way I was making art," he says. "There are 48 different chemicals... to make a picture from lithography. And I had a pretty cavalier attitude about using gloves or masks. I had to continue making art, but I couldn't do screenprinting anymore."
That's when Davison began working with printmaker Don Hanson. Though he's subsequently moved his studio to his home in Stowe, Hanson then had a space on Church Street, and he spearheaded a print project that raised funds for Burlington City Arts. In the second year of that project, Hanson invited Davison to make a monoprint. At first he resisted. "I was opposed to them," Davison says. "I thought printmaking had to be this labor-intensive thing, that [to be an artist] you had to have all this history, all these skills. I was suspicious of something so easy."
Recalling Davison's initial reluctance, and his transformation, makes Hanson chuckle. "He kind of blew it off and I was bummed, because I wanted to work with him," he says. Hanson believes that fellow artist and teacher Leslie Fry, who had already been making monoprints, influenced Davison to give it a try. "I think it kind of freed him up from screenprinting, in which everything has to be perfect," Hanson says. "Monoprint is a kind of roll-the-dice-and-see-what-you-get thing, filled with pleasant surprises. He really got into it."
That's an understatement. "In the experience with Don," says Davison, "I recognized I could do something very immediate, and it gave me the sense that I wasn't going to lose it as an artist."
Bill Davison still characterizes himself as "cantankerous," a reputation his wife believes he cultivates. He is strongly opinionated and can be abrupt, but he is also appealingly direct, open and, well, enthused. "Everything about Bill changed after the cancer," Schneider observes. "He's a different person, much lighter about everything."
Indeed, any pretense of crustiness falls away when Davison is at work in Print Studio 250. He's exceedingly methodical, even loving, with every process, from soaking the paper to turning the handle of the press. But when it comes to placing those 2-inch squares of plastic onto the paper, Davison is finally at play.
On a recent morning, he has decided to make seven prints and has penciled on each sheet of paper a large square that will require 25 little squares -- five by five. He has already painted these, in loose, slooshy strokes, with watercolors of various hues. This is a man who once took great pains to screenprint black on black. Though his palette is still often subtle, today it includes a striking Chinese red, a marine blue and a bright apricot. "My best friend [art prof] Ed Owre loves orange," Davison notes. "I used to just abhor it." It's his way of saying this new color in his life is surprisingly delightful.
Davison selects each square from a bowlful, as if they were Scrabble tiles, only he doesn't look at the side placed down on the paper. Though he's said he doesn't like to share his secrets, now he's doing just that. One of them is that the plastic squares are painted on both sides. After several passes over them -- each print paler and more mottled than the last -- he'll carefully pull up the squares to find out what image is left on the other side. He calls the anticipation "a luminous moment." The utterly idiosyncratic arrangement of colors and markings seems to please him most.
"I used to get so pissed off about people taking up monoprints," Davison reiterates. "I spent a lot of time learning how to make art." He recalls chiding his daughter for calling art fun. "I must admit making monoprints is enjoyable. I won't say fun, but it is enjoyable. Everything I'm doing now is the opposite of what I was doing three years ago. The randomness is exciting."
As exciting, perhaps, as duck hunting, which could also be called hit-or-miss.
"I'm so happy for him that he has this work and loves doing it, that he's retiring and has a whole new career as an artist," says Schneider. She attributes her husband's sixtysomething renaissance to his illness. "He still thinks the cancer's going to get him, but it doesn't get in his way of enjoying everything. He's not afraid to be who he is."