Willie Stokes, a Philadelphia original

Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

As I work my way through the print collection of the Free Library, I’ve found lots of wonderful prints by artists new to me. The first several weeks I’ve been working my way through the invitational portfolios sponsored by the Philadelphia Print Collaborative, now known as Philagrafika. These began in 2001 and serve as a record of the flowering of print culture in Philadelphia in recent years. Each portfolio unites a Philadelphia artist (not all of whom are printmakers) with a local print workshop to produce a new print for the portfolio. Each workshop produced a print in the same size and edition. The 2001 portfolio includes seven artists. The Free Library’s edition is 3/50, meaning they have the third portfolio assembled out of fifty.

My first find, from 2001, is Willie Stokes’ screenprint Animals and Two Dancing People produced at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Stokes was born in Philadelphia in 1955 and started making prints while in high school at Prints in Progress in the early 1970’s with Marion Boulton Stroud. He also studied with Allen Edmunds at the Brandywine Print Workshop, and has been working at The Fabric Workshop and Museum since Stroud founded it in 1977. His imagery is figurative and looks self-taught, but he has been around many sophisticated artists at the Fabric Workshop and in classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.

His work has an original view of the world, using a wobbly drawing style and a strong sense of color in a dreamy, surrealistic composition. It’s based on observing how the world works, but there are strange things going on, as in dreams.

Detail, Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Detail, Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

In this print, three figures fill the lower right corner. A woman in a blue dress dances with a man in yellow with a red hat and a pipe. They are floating more than dancing as their feet are bent backwards, the soles of their shoes facing up. His arm is strangely stretched, and her arm is a wobbly spring.  A third figure is next to them, not dancing, but bending over backwards. His neck is stretched as his head flops backward, perhaps too big and heavy for his neck to support. His three hands are also attached to his body by wobbly springs.

Detail, Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Detail, Animals and Two Dancing People. Willie Stokes. Screenprint. 2001. Courtesy, Free Library of Philadelphia Print & Picture Collection.

Then there are the animals, demonstrating the food chain for smaller animals each eaten in turn by larger ones. There is strong diagonal movement from the upper right to the lower left corner as the animals jump and swim over the dancers’ heads. Stokes seems to be telling us that it’s great to be human and alive, dancing our heads off, not worrying about killing or being killed, as the animals have to. Shall we dance?

For more on Willie Stokes:

bio at Fabric Workshop & Museum website

catalog essay by Judith Stein for the 2007 show Will Stokes at the Fabric Workshop & Museum

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