Weege: The Printmaker’s Printmaker

By Claire Johnston

Claire Johnston

It’s Sunday on a brisk spring morning in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area as we find ourselves driving to William Weege’s rural Arena studio. We exit our car and begin to ascend a long gravel driveway flanked with trees and rolling hills dotted with boulders. At the top of the driveway the studio looms ahead of us. The air is crisp on our faces as our hair blows side to side. Walking through the doors we find ourselves greeted by a large welcoming mass of blooming fuchsia orchids, pots of prickly cacti, brightly painted tangerine and sapphire walls trimmed in lime and adorned with the colorfully unique works we’d only seen in pictures thus far. An affectionate Springer Spaniel named Cupcake wags her tail at the entrance. Cupcake is as eager for the treat in my pocket as we are to finally see the studio we’d heard so much about.  

Artist William Weege, pictured with his 16-panel print “Long Live Life” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, is celebrated in a new exhibit that opens June 4 and runs through July 8 at Brewery Pottery in Mineral Point.

Jennifer and Frederick, two of Weege’s children, are there along with Tim Rooney, a friend and longtime work colleague. The three of them are bursting with pride and excitement as we all enter the studio together. It’s overwhelming in the best way. Printing presses are abundant, flat files bursting with artwork line the perimeter, framed pieces hang on the walls among bookshelves filled with books, bones and family photos. In the center of the room, wrapped in a single strand of twinkle lights, is a 12-foot handmade four-sided oak pyramid originally intended to be a compost bin. By the window, a pool table is used to prepare artwork for an upcoming exhibition at Brewery Pottery in Mineral Point. In the corner is a bookshelf we’ll soon discover is actually a secret door leading to another adjacent studio space. Above one table hangs a suspended conical light fixture decorated with Chiquita banana stickers. The sizable room feels like home in a strange yet oddly familiar way. 

The studio is a kind and boisterous creature: one large body with many adjoining appendages, each with its own purpose. All the rooms are brimming with artwork everywhere you look and teeming with tools, wood, scrap metal, boxes of raw materials waiting to be repurposed, jars with various paints and pigments, brushes, rollers, a large laser cutter, and even a sign propped up on the wall displaying a message, “Used Hip Hop Tapes.” Creativity is everywhere. It’s very clear — magic has happened here. 

William Weege founded the collaborative working printing studio Tandem Press at the UW-Madison in 1987 to foster creative opportunities for students to work alongside well-established artists.

William (Bill) Weege began his studies in engineering and city planning, but after creating a painting for his living room wall, he switched his major to art. Ultimately, as an artist, he became best known in the printmaking and papermaking fields in the United States and abroad. He pushed the boundaries and stretched the limits of what printmaking was and what it meant to be a printmaker. By using and exploring different techniques, he reinvented the printmaking process as he created his vibrant abstract visions using paints, pigments, strings and various collage elements on handmade paper.  

Although Weege is arguably most famous for his later-in-life abstract printing and mixed handmade paper collage creations, his long artistic career started to blossom in the 1960s. During those years he focused his art and energy on the many social and political issues plaguing the country. As a vocal voice of opposition to the Vietnam War, he began printing brightly colored eye-catching antiwar posters that he distributed widely. While on a trip to New York as a grad student, he sold his collection of antiwar posters to the Museum of Modern Art. The sale of that collection gave him the seed money to launch his next creative endeavors. 

During his early years as an artist, Weege set up Jones Road Print Shop and Stable in rural Barneveld where his young family had settled. At that studio he began exploring his passion for working collaboratively with other artists. It was there that he began to have a kernel of an idea for a collaborative press studio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the 1980s when he moved to Arena, Jones Road Print Shop and Stable was reimagined as Off Jones Road Prints. 

Weege received his MFA from the UW-Madison and in 1971 he joined the UW-Madison Art Department faculty where he became a distinguished professor. Several years later he brought forth his idea and plans for a collaborative working printing studio on campus. As he introduced the idea, he was met with a  response along the lines of, “Well … if you can gather the right funding … but without that … .” He came back three days later with a thoughtful, well-rounded business plan and $100,000 in funds raised. Later that year, he founded Tandem Press and became its first director. Since its inception in 1987, Tandem Press has become an immense success. It’s opened the doors of opportunity to many students and has created a long-standing tradition of fostering creative opportunities for them to work alongside many well-established and notable artists. 

Weege worked with and alongside many talented and noteworthy artists during his many years in the art world. At Tandem, Sam Gilliam, Alan Shields, Gregory Amenoff, Garo Antreasian, Alice Aycock, Lynda Benglis, Richard Bosman, Lesley Dill, Jim Dine, Al Held, Carmon Lomas Garza, Ed Paschke, Philip Pearlstein, Judy Pfaff, Alison Saar, Italo Scanga, Miriam Schapiro, Robert Stackhouse and William Wegman are just a few of the many. 

Sam Gilliam once shared a personal remark that summed up both Weege and himself over the course of their 48-year friendship: “Time has taught me that the goal is not becoming a great artist in the eyes of the world, but becoming a great human being.” Gilliam praised Bill’s character, his generosity and his upbeat nature. By the end of Weege’s life, his peers and comrades in the arts sought him out for their printmaking questions and conundrums. He was truly regarded as the printmaker’s printmaker.  

Weege had a very successful career in the arts. He exhibited widely, and his work is included in private collections and many museums throughout the world including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1970, he ran an experimental printmaking workshop in Venice, Italy, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution as part of the Venice Biennale. He was part of Japan’s World Fair, did art collaborations in Finland and South Korea, and has work in the British Museum in London.  

Bill could also be described as a renaissance man. Art was only one of his many loves. He was a fervent believer in a life filled with the vigorous wearing of many hats. He was an avid trout fisherman, a prairie enthusiast, world traveler and all-around innovator and inventor. He was a father, grandfather, husband and mentor to many. He was a believer in experimentation, approached life with great enthusiasm, and delighted in creative problem solving. William Weege passed away in 2020 at the age of 84.

Brewery Pottery is proud and excited to be hosting a retrospective showing of his body of one-of-a-kind work. “William Weege, A Look Back: 50 Years of Printmaking” will be on display at Brewery Pottery for one month beginning with an opening reception at 5-9 p.m. June 4 and closing July 8. There will be a wide selection of original framed and unframed pieces available in a variety of price points. All are welcome.  

Brewery Pottery is located at 276 Shake Rag St. in Mineral Point and open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (608) 987-3669, email info@brewerypottery.com or visit brewerypottery.com. 

Claire Johnston grew up and currently resides in Mineral Point. She works hand in hand with her parents in their family business, Brewery Pottery. She thoroughly enjoys a good creative project, has curly hair and dislikes cantaloupe. She lives in a historic 1840s cottage and considers herself lucky to see the occasional fox stroll through her yard.