For those of us who’ve been cheering on the Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) since its founding in 1974 as a collective designed to give struggling women artists a safe place to learn, practice and thrive in a male-dominated field, the news this spring of the passing of one of its “foremothers” comes as an unthinkable blow. Anita Lynn Wetzel died at home in Rosendale on March 4 after a four-year battle with peritoneal cancer, and a memorial exhibition of her work opened at WSW on Saturday, May 22. The organization will soldier on, of course, already under new directorship; but contemplating WSW without all four of its founders feels as wrong as an attempt at a Beatles reunion, somehow.
Known to many as Nita, Wetzel first met WSW co-founder Ann Kalmbach in 1968, their first year as art majors at SUNY New Paltz. They became friends immediately, joining the college choir together and singing Bach’s St. John Passion. “She came from a musical family. They used to sing four-part harmony driving around,” Kalmbach recalls. Anita was born on May 27, 1949 in Sauquoit, New York, a tiny hamlet south of Utica, and is survived by her brother Gary Wetzel. She thought at first that she would become a writer, starting out her college career at SUNY Oswego before switching to visual art and transferring to New Paltz.
As Wetzel and Kalmbach pursued their BFAs, they encountered little institutional support for their shared interest in printmaking, but found a congenial and supportive mentor in art professor Kenneth Burge. He introduced them to his then-wife, Barbara “Babs” Leoff Burge, also a practicing artist, and the creative sparks really began to fly. “We were peers, even though she was 15 or 20 years older,” Kalmbach remembers.
Frustrated by the barriers to women in the art field that were already becoming evident, Nita, Ann and Babs jointly honed their dreams of an incubator specifically designed to nurture women aspiring to arts careers. Nita earned her degree in painting, though she subsequently worked more often in drawing, collage and mixed media. Ann went off to grad school at RIT, where she met a printmaker and lithographer who became her lifelong partner, Tatana “Tana” Kellner, and brought her back to complete the founding foursome.
What was originally called the Women’s Studio Collective was born in 1974, when Babs rented a house on James Street in downtown Rosendale. A small grant from the New York State Council on the Arts – the first of many proposals that Nita would come to write as WSW’s director of development – outfitted them with basic equipment. Etching went on in the living room, papermaking in the attic and screen-printing in the basement. “We wanted to break down barriers,” says Kalmbach. “We taught right from the beginning. One of the things we did that was a little different was that we provided a lot of technical help.”
The hands-on workshop atmosphere, where aspiring women artists didn’t have to worry about competing with male students to be taken seriously, soon began to entice applicants from across the country and eventually around the globe. WSW relocated in 1983 to the former Binnewater Post Office and General Store, near Williams Lake, and invested heavily in renovating the historic building. The organization’s extensive arts-in-education programs, bringing local schoolchildren to try their hands at various artmaking activities at the facility, launched in 1985.
Over time, paper arts became a WSW specialty, including making their own paper from locally harvested materials. It happened almost by accident, Kalmbach remembers: “Tana wanted to do a project that required cast paper, so the only way we could do it was by making our own paper. We did a lot of experimenting.” Before long, selling handmade notecards and journals at crafts fairs became a steady stream of income. “We used to have two crews of people making paper.” The group even grew their own fiber plants for a number of years, before the availability of cheap imported handmade paper drove down demand.
But in the process, the production of artist books had become an area in which WSW was the recognized torchbearer, pulling together the various threads of technique and materials that the four women and their many students had explored in depth. The organization is now known worldwide as a publisher of original artist books, and the place to go to learn the requisite skills, regardless of your sex or gender.
Nita, meanwhile, “funded everything,” in Kalmbach’s words. Over the years she took her self-taught grantwriting skills with her to sojourns at many other not-for-profits whose missions interested her, including the Creative Music Studio (CMS) in Woodstock and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Trust for Public Land and the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, where she lived from 1980 to 1995 before moving back to Rosendale to work at WSW full-time until her 2017 retirement.
Nita loved jazz and poetry and dance, and it shows in her art. She studied writing with writer/performer Steve Clorfeine and memoirist Ann Hutton, and Shambhala meditation at the Sky Lake Retreat in Rosendale. She traveled extensively, doing residencies in Spain, France, Costa Rica, the Blue Mountain Lake Center for the Arts, the Weir Farm Trust and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her artworks were exhibited at SUNY Ulster, the Donskoj Gallery, KMOCA and the Galería Nacionál in San José, Costa Rica, as well as WSW. Wherever she went, she networked and advocated on behalf of women artists, “friendraising” and weaving a web that drew new students to Binnewater from all over.
Nita’s travels, especially to Costa Rica, and her deep appreciation of nature reveal themselves in many of the works now on display at WSW. Whether representational or abstract or a combination of both, they often incorporate motifs that suggest tropical plants and other growing things. Her 2007 opus Untitled, for example, a mural-sized array of four tiers of acrylic, gouache and graphite on paper, evokes one of those arboretum exhibits where walkways carry the viewer through several levels of a rainforest to discover what lifeforms thrive near the canopy, at the forest floor or somewhere in between. Her earthenware sculpture series Language before Language (1996) and works on paper such as Untitled (1999) and Horn, Harp, Bone (2003) utilize symbols that could be a primitive form of writing, but also draw inspiration from natural patterns such as the veins in a leaf or feather or the bones of a fish. Committed to the concept of sustainability, she also experimented extensively with the use of repurposed materials, including a series of unfolded cardboard boxes as a medium for paint and collage.
Many of these images, plus several of Wetzel’s poems and excerpts from her travel journals, can be found in the full-color book that WSW has printed to accompany the exhibition, which is titled “Walking Lightly, with Intention” and will remain open to the public through July 2. The book ends with a photo of Nita as a young woman, full of life, her familiar lanky form perched in the branches of a tree above a field of phlox in full bloom, her radiant, slightly crooked smile beaming joy at the camera. “Everybody talks about her smile,” says Ann Kalmbach. “She was an amazing woman, and we’re all pretty much heartbroken.”
To learn more, visit https://wsworkshop.org. To donate to the Anita Wetzel Memorial Fund in support of WSW’s programs, visit www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=CFDR46FUQJJV2.