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With the Grain

The Las Cruces Museum of Art celebrates the woodcuts of Mesilla artist Anthony Lazorko, which use the character of the wood to capture the unique character of America.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

 

In his big, bright and chock-full studio in Mesilla, woodcut artist Anthony Lazorko fishes through large plastic file boxes, pulling out clippings from his newspaper days. Fresh out of art school in the late 1950s, he jumped into a successful commercial art career.

Anthony Lazorko demonstrates how he achieves the all-important consistent registration when printing from his carved wood blocks. (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

"My family came along," he says with a smile and slight shake of his head, "and I had to make a living, as they say."

Overlapping with a 14-year stint as art director for Blavat Advertising, Lazorko served as staff artist and art director at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin for 26 years, up until the newspaper closed in 1982. "My job was to make information visual," he says, "and this was in the days well before USA Today."

The Bulletin was America's largest evening newspaper for decades, serving Philadelphia for 134 years. Lazorko speaks in a hushed, respectful tone of his publisher, who found all his outgoing employees new jobs.

Though Lazorko at first balked at his publisher's suggestion he move to St. Louis—"I said, 'Hey, I'm a Philly guy!'" he recalls with a laugh—he took the opportunity and went on to work as staff artist and art director at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the next 18 years, retiring in 2000.

All along, he also made fine art—as evidenced by the cover of this month's Desert Exposure. Numerous framed prints of his woodcuts decorate the walls, and dozens of fresh prints hang to dry on several clotheslines down the center of the cathedral-ceilinged room.

The artist who long ago left his beloved Philadelphia to then thrive in St. Louis, settled into a new home in Mesilla four years ago. Here, he's once again finding and conveying the spirit of America, a theme throughout his work and his life. And with the kids grown, he's free to focus on solely creative endeavors, making woodcut prints, his artistic passion for some 50 years now.

The Las Cruces Museum of Art is currently celebrating Lazorko's long fine-art career with a show of his woodcuts, "Against the Grain," which continues in its Director's Gallery through April 28.

 

Lazorko says he probably got his eye for things distinctly American back in art school. He studied for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia—"America's oldest art school," he points out. "At that time, it was a small, inexpensive school, subsidized by Philly's 'high society.'" There, Lazorko studied drawing, oil painting and printmaking under such notable teachers as the impressionist landscape painter Morris Blackburn, oil painter Walter Stumpfig and famed portrait painter Franklin Watkins.

The students' teachers and mentors, he says, clearly gave their charges a mission:. "To become good American artists," he says, pausing between words to add emphasis. "We understood that that was our obligation."

This was the late 1950s. "The thinking those days was that you had to go abroad to find yourself as an artist," Lazorko says with a laugh. "But that's nonsense. Yes, you can go to Europe and see different things, have that experience. But regardless of what Thomas Wolfe says—you know, 'you can't go home again'—you have to come home to find yourself."

Being "at home" in America is what draws him to create the art he does, Lazorko says. He says his goal is to convey "America, that's it." He credits Edward Hopper with being his inspiration for the content of his work—simple scenes and still life images from the everyday. "I think I'm a pop artist at heart," Lazorko says. "My themes are pop themes."

His work abounds with images of greasy-spoon diners and groceries, big semi-rigs rumbling down the highway, and gas stations lit at night. His portraits capture a pensive mood, poignant moment or perhaps a telling, noteworthy gesture.

He feels his medium, woodcut prints, not only lends itself to common images, but by nature is approachable in other ways. "Woodcut is everyman's art form. It's a one-of-a-kind original," he says, noting prints' comparative affordability versus other types of art.

Lazorko is a member of numerous printmaking societies, including the American Graphic Artists, as well as the Boston Printmakers Society and others from Maryland to California. His work has been shown in juried exhibitions from Los Angeles to Boston to New York City, as well as abroad, including several turns in a traveling international exhibit out of Wrexham, England. Locally, his work is shown at the JW Fine Art Gallery in Hurley.

 

One favorite print,"I Dreamed I Went to the A&P in My BVDs," captures the, well, flavor of America, for sure. In it, a small pile of homey, retro-looking groceries—a box of Kellogg's corn flakes, some jars of Gerber brand baby food, a box of Tide detergent and a jug of Clorox bleach, Carnation instant dry milk, Jell-O, matzos and canned goods—is clustered before an old-style grocery store register. The whole lot is crowned with an S&H Green Stamp sign.

Another piece, "Eat-Rite at Nite," features a humble diner. The square, almost featureless white building sends a welcome nonetheless, the glow from within contrasting with the darkness all around. Lazorko has done several versions of the Eat-Rite diner theme, showing it in warm daylight and in different seasons.

"That place is a beacon," he says. "It's a simple place, but when people see it, it gives them a certain feeling."

He's also done woodcuts featuring other simple food joints—the "Super Sandwich Shop," "Sunset at Lotaburger" and "Eat and Drink"—all capturing the feel of a bygone era or perhaps a quaint small-town-ness.

Asked about the prevalence of food in his work, the large man gives a deep laugh. "I love food!" he exclaims.

He also loves the challenges that come from printmaking, specifically working with the wood itself. In woodcuts, he must work with the grain, he explains, incorporating the unique lines the wood will render into his design, his image, his message.

"The grain gives a character of its own, and you have to take this into account and work with it, not against or around it," he says.

He points out his print of Condoleezza Rice. Her one hand is raised, her thumb and forefinger held just-so-far apart, as if she's showing how small something is. The title is ". . . Mushroom Cloud. . ."—two small words that evoke a rather large mental image in most people. Lazorko says he was watching the secretary of state on television, and was "absolutely captivated by the irony" of Rice's gesture.

"It just struck me. I couldn't believe it," he says. He points out how the grain in the wood adds a certain character to her face, adding a definite tone to the piece.

 

Lazorko says finding an image that inspires him—a scene on a street, a face, a piece of landscape—is just the first step. He takes photos, makes sketches, even Photoshops details and new elements into the composition of the image he wants to create. His prints are not literally what he's seen, in most cases, but rather a creation that tells the story he wants to convey.

He gives the example of "Temple Chevron," a print of a gas station at dusk. In it, the red lettering of the signs and small numbers on the pumps seem to glow neon. Lazorko pulls out pages that show his work on the image's composition, how he added people, cars and action to the original scene. In real life, the scene was just a gas station that struck his fancy, caught his eye.

"It's 'Temple Chevron' because it's a church in a sense," he says of the story he built from that simple start. "It's about the ritual of filling the car. It's something we all do. It connects us at a fundamental level."

Having found a satisfactory composition to convey his message, the next step is to carve. He uses a special semi-soft basswood, which he buys from a lumberyard in Trenton, NJ. The pieces come only in small blocks, smaller than the size he likes to use, so he has a local cabinetmaker glue them into larger blocks. Was it his connection to Philadelphia that led him to the East Coast wood supplier? "No, I just Googled it," he replies with a laugh and shrug.

Once he has the image carved into the block, Lazorko applies color to the wooden panel. He uses a custom blend of water-based oil paint and printer's ink, he says, to get richness of color. He describes the process of applying the pigment and swiping off just enough with a quick motion of the hand, a technique he learned from the noted Argentine-born American woodcut artist Antonio Frasconi.

One pass per color is printed from the carved woodblock; two colors on one block is the maximum, Lazorko says. He shows the carved block used to create "Temple Chevron," the wood still evidencing signs of the dusky hues of the night sky. He turns the block over and shows another, complementary image, stained with the red used to illuminate the sign letters and the numbers on the gas pumps.

"Registration is very important," he says of putting the images together and running several passes over the same sheet for different colors. "As a printmaker, you strive for consistency."

He demonstrates by putting the wooden block in a recessed area on his huge printing press. He covers it with a cushioned sheath, then cranks the machine's huge wheel to roll the barrel over the whole assemblage.

Lazorko prints on pricey Honsho paper, handmade in Japan. It runs $3.50 a sheet, he says, a bit costly when you're running test prints of your image to check registration, image composition and color tonal quality. But "wasting" a bit of expensive paper is a crucial part of the process.

"You don't really know what you have until you see it printed," he says. He pulls out some test sheets of "Temple Chevron." "See the sky? It just didn't have enough depth, so I had to add things." The final image shows more texture, added to the sky just above the slightly glowing horizon, and more color gradation, from an almost teal blue into dusky lavender.

Skies are something he pays more attention to now that he makes his home in the Southwest. Agreeing that the skies in the northeastern US, where he spent so many years, are decidedly overcast and monotonous, he says the brilliant and changeable heavens over New Mexico are a welcome change. "Oh, the skies here overwhelm me!"

And in fact, a number of his newer prints are New Mexico-inspired—landscapes and landmarks around his new hometown. "An Interstate Runs Through It" shows trucks on a highway, the Organ Mountains providing dramatic background. A cloud-filled sky portends a storm. Another work, "The Organs," showcases the Las Cruces mountain range, the blue sky above them holding just a wisp of clouds.

"Truckin' at Sunset" and "Truckin' at Nite" are two more homages to Interstate 10, romanticized images of two lone semis on the horizon. The difference between the two prints is solely in the treatment of the sky. In "Sunset," the sky warms with reddish hues, bringing a peaceful end-of-the-day feeling. In the "Nite" version, a full moon illuminates the remaining wisp of clouds in the dark sky. The quietude is palpable. As we sleep, the truckers still roll. How much longer before they stop for the night? Where do they call home?

As for Lazorko, he's home again, thank you very much—finding new inspiration in the New Mexican landscape, another colorful slice of the American scene.

 

The Las Cruces Museum of Art will show "Against the Grain," woodcuts by Anthony Lazorko, in the Director's Gallery through April 28. 491 N. Main St., Las Cruces, 541-2137, museums.las-cruces.org.

 

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