When Deborah Maris Lader was preparing for her first undergrad critique, she entered the room early and spread her work out on the walls and tables. There was a lot of art—drawings, sculpture, paintings, prints. When the professor came in, he looked around and said to the entire class, “Which of you wants to go first,” assuming they had all put their work up at once for the critique.
This story is just one example of Lader’s character, not only an amazing artist in one medium, but gifted in many. As an artist, she has changed very little over the years other than honing her craft in many mediums. Born in Cleveland, Lader received her BFA at Cornell where she switched her major from sculpture to printmaking, studied printmaking for one year at St. Martins School of Art in London, and received her MFA from Cranbrook, also in printmaking. She says that she was always encouraged in her artmaking; she didn’t plan to be an artist, she was simply “tagged” for it.
Now an accomplished printmaker, Lader has been at the helm of Chicago Printmakers Collaborative since founding it in 1989. But it’s time to delve into her own work entirely and so she is stepping down. The future of the collaborative will now be someone else’s concern, and Lader says it could go in any number of directions. The first thing, though, will be the building of her new studio behind the current print shop. (She owns the space used by the collaborative, which will be staying put.) Making room, she says, for her to turn around, spread out and create the myriad work she is inspired to begin as a full-time artist. Although her band, Sons of the Never Wrong, which was founded in 2000 and is hugely successful, will continue, the majority of her time will be spent in the studio creating.
The pandemic was the catalyst and turning point for Lader’s shift—when CPC was forced to close its doors because classes couldn’t be held and the many member printers couldn’t come in to work, she simply “put a stone on the litho press and started to work.” And as she worked, alone in the usually buzzing print studio, the wheels of her mind were spinning, ultimately making the decision to leave the running of CPC to others and pursuing, purely and completely, her own work. She realized that she is “more interested in the process than in the product,” and that she simply loves materials and manipulating them. She set out to be a sculptor, and finally finds herself incorporating sculpture into the work that is no longer only two-dimensional.
In a recent show at Bert Green Gallery, Lader offered interactive light and shadow work that involved each viewer in the process. Etching into the lenses of vintage and antique eyeglasses and small pieces of previously broken glass, she rubs ink into the etched glass, rendering it like fine ink drawings so that a small flashlight moved around before it creates marvelous shadows on the wall. The objects are mounted with an odd assortment of cast-off hardware parts which, as Lader says, “come straight from the landfill.” Anything and everything is fair game for use in her fascinating work, nothing goes to waste, everything is recycled.
I had to ask, as many do, “What’s with the birds?” There are birds in much of Lader’s print work, and they are appearing in the three-dimensional work as well. The short version is that her older son Daniel, who is on the autism spectrum, grew up loving the zoo and animals. When he was a small boy in elementary school, he did a science fair project, “How Birds Fly and Why Boys Can’t.” It affected Lader deeply, and she began to use bird imagery in her work. She finds endless inspiration in her children. Her younger son by a year, Evan, whose pronouns are they/them, is an accomplished musician, actor, director, and performance artist in New York City. Eight years ago, they were diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular dystrophy in which the light-sensing cells in the macula die off, leaving blurry or dark areas in the central area of vision. It took time, but Evan adjusted to their condition, even writing performance pieces about it. Currently, they perform as “Tiresias, the Messenger of the Underworld” (the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed into a woman for seven years) in a show they created called “Cryptochrome,” in which they are able to address the condition. One would expect no less of a child of Lader, who, as in all things, takes life in stride. The interactive, performative aspect of her new work is a way for Lader to deal with Evan’s loss, and to explore the ephemeral quality of the senses or lack of them. Evan’s disease has made her even more intent on capturing that ethereal moment in time “before the light goes out.”
Etching, whether on metal or stone, is a long and arduous process, not for the faint of heart. And often, in Lader’s case, she creates layers of color or hand-paints the completed etchings, making the work even more time-intensive. When does she know that a piece is finished? She says she trusts it to tell her it’s complete. Intuitive in many ways, Lader is the ultimate artist, a slave to the creative force that bubbles up within her. She considers art, as well as being a “visual thing” to be an exercise in problem-solving.
In addition to having her work in several prestigious museums, Lader has won multiple awards. She’s shown in Toronto, Oslo and Paris as well as many galleries in the United States. She was presented in 2016 with the Outstanding Printmaker Award by the Mid America Print Council. All this while teaching and running Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. It boggles the mind to imagine the heights to which she’ll rise when her days are spent fully making art of her own.
Deborah Maris Lader opens a solo exhibition at Addington Gallery, 704 North Wells, on November 10 from5-8pm.