Beth Weintraub brings the bizarre beauty of nature to life in her prints and metal etchings. Beth originally did costume and stage prop design for dance theater and opera companies, experience that honed her ability to create on her feet and also spurred her to pursue her own art. Unlike most printmakers, she develops and arranges multiple layers of pattern and color that make each work unique. Inspired by mid-century modern furniture, Beth creates modular pieces designed to make art attainable and to make people happy.
Pluma print by Beth Weintraub (2010)
The common element across your work is your subject of botanicals. Is your inspiration for these designs coming from a love of flowers or more from the decorative Art Nouveau shapes you like?
Oh, that’s a good question. You know, a little bit of both and sometimes neither! I think what I’m really drawn to is sort of the bizarro, organic shapes that appear in nature. And flowers being so appealing and lovely and readily available, it’s something I started looking at when I was trying to make my work sort of open up to the larger public. I was interested in wasps initially, paper wasps. I did a lot of research and many, many years of drawings and etchings and creative explorations about these wasps which I think are really beautiful and interesting — and a lot like people! — but they are frightening to a lot of people. So people liked my work, they liked the colors and the shapes and everything, but I’d have people come up to me at a show and say, ‘I’m allergic to wasps!’ And I’d be like, ‘But these aren’t real!’ But that happened so many times.
The gentleman down in Florida who was taking a lot of close-up photos for me worked for Busch Gardens. I found him just because he had a really cool website, and he was mostly photographing flowers, and occasionally they had these bugs in them. And they were unbelievable, high quality close-up photos. So I sent him an email, and I asked him if he had any others, and he was particularly interested in these wasps too. And he also said, ‘People don’t like it, so I don’t post them as much,’ but he started sending me photos that he was happy to let me draw from for inspiration. So I was getting both flowers and wasps in the picture, and I was starting to learn about flowers and how the little pollen bits grow and how they’re attached and just the strangeness of what was going on in these images. The bugs were harvesting the ingredients of the flower, and it was pushing me in a new direction quite naturally. And eventually the flowers became so popular and interesting to me, so I started doing more and more of that.
I like the really weird flowers — my flowers are not girly. They’re not very realistic, they’re highly stylized. And since my work is mostly in silhouette — I don’t do a lot of shading and they’re not highly detailed — I really was looking for the most unusual flowers. I like flowers that are droopy or maybe a little wilted or totally bizarre and unfamiliar. I mean, you can get flowers from just about anywhere in artwork, so I still try to set it apart as much as I can.
Thalissa print by Beth Weintraub
Triton metal piece by Beth Weintraub
Pai Gao print by Beth Weintraub (2006)
So it’s the shape or architectural aspect that is attracting you?
Yes, and I have to sometimes find a way to show parts of a flower that would ordinarily be hidden behind a translucent petal. You know, if you look straight on at a flower and you just take the silhouette, you don’t get what’s inside, so I contrive ways to bring the negative space in so you can see those elements. And I can do it with the brush work, but I have to give it room, because if everything is overlapped, you just have a muddy shape and it doesn’t make any sense. So I’m always making my plants more artificial looking. So the medium has a lot to do with how the visuals look and how I guide it. Over time I’ve learned how to take advantage of that a little bit better.
Thunderbird print by Beth Weintraub
Elvis print by Beth Weintraub
It’s interesting that you also cite the mass-production of modular furniture of the ’50s and ’60s as an inspiration for the way customers can group your pieces. Did your work start out with this modular concept in mind? And do you sort of bounce back and forth between Art Nouveau and mid-century modern inspirations?
Not necessarily. Art Nouveau is something I’m looking at specifically as a personal interest, and I really did use it to draw from for my current series. But I just was always fascinated by the kind of space-agey look of a lot of furniture which for me growing up was old! The plastic chairs that stack, the way chrome tables could be altered to fit different size pieces of glass. There was just a lot of furniture in my life growing up that was like that. We had a modern home, and I saw my mom putting crazy colors together. And furniture that, when you see one of them, they’re really beautiful. And some people realize, ‘Oh, well, they made 20,000 of them and they’re everywhere.’ And a lot of people dismiss that, but I found that really intriguing. Usually they’re designed to cut down on space, so you can stack them, you can put them away or they fold up.
Also at that time there was a lot of new technology and new plastics being developed, so the type of furniture we started seeing in that time period was more and more interesting. I am terribly interested in furniture in general, but I just don’t have any idea how I would pursue a career in that! Somehow art was easier — can you believe it?!
So for a long time I worked for the San Francisco Opera, and before that I was working for a Broadway costume shop in New York. So I was a craft artisan making other people’s images come to life, right? I worked off of their renderings, their sketches and direction, little swatches of fabric, and we had to make everything come to life that way. And I didn’t want to do that forever — I didn’t like creating other people’s visions as my primary creative outlet. But some people do, and that’s perfectly fine! But I wanted to kind of go back to printmaking, which was something that I loved, loved, loved in college. And I was kind of doing it on the side after work as my own pursuit, and I wanted people to take my work home and enjoy it.
Girl 70s wall metal by Beth Weintraub (2008)
How did you make the transition to doing art full-time?
There are ways in San Francisco for people to participate in open studios and things that bring a lot of the general public in, and I was just starting to experience that — this was probably ’95 or ’96. I started selling my work, and people liked it. It was not a body of work that was very cohesive — I had flowers, I had wasps, I had abstracts, whatever I was making. And people would come to me a year or two later and say, ‘Oh, my god, I love your work, but it is still under the bed unframed.’ And I started thinking to myself, ‘That pains me terribly! I don’t want that to happen.’ And I can’t make a living doing it this way. Because it’s printmaking, right? You could conceivably make a series of 100 prints, all looking the same, and sell them for a price. And I could see that that was logical and had potential to it, but the value’s quite a bit lower when people think about prints. And the digital age having grown quite a lot, especially in the end of the ’90s, I didn’t want to be confused with that. People don’t think of prints anymore as being a fine art, because they’re often not made by hand anymore.
So combined with this idea of wanting people to be able to take my work home and not have to deal with framing, I started experimenting with mounting it so that when they bought it, it was already done. And I don’t really like standard framing, aside from the massive expense and high level of skill and detail work involved in doing good framing, I couldn’t approach it that way. So I started asking carpenters that I knew who had workshops in my building, ‘Could you build me a box this size?’ And it started out in a really different format where I still had plexiglass and these tiny little pins holding it away from the print. It was kind of like mounting — or edgeless framing, I guess you could call it. It started getting people to walk away with a piece that they were going to hang up the minute they got home. So I started seeing something happening there.
And then I wanted to quit my job at the opera and do it full time, and I really had to think, ‘What can work here?’ I started to consolidate, so my shapes turned into squares, and everything was the same size so that everything that I stocked matched and every box was able to be the same size. It really made storage easy, it sort of lent itself to my material, and I designed it so that it used the most of my material without creating any waste. And the modular idea was starting to take shape because everything sort of fit together. And then I had this idea: it was so hard to get people to buy one piece of art sometimes, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, what if the one piece isn’t really super interesting, but if the group of six is really interesting and they buy all six?’ I went to a home design tradeshow, and I showed this — and it worked! People ordered that set ten times over, I couldn’t believe it! So it became a more marketable idea, really looking at my artwork as product. Some people totally reject that, but I didn’t want to be waiting for a gallery to come along and find me and do it for me. I wasn’t even sure if I was gallery-quality — or I wasn’t at the time! And the galleries have 150 artists in their stable and they’re not necessarily pushing my stuff and it’s not necessarily out all the time, so that was a weak approach to running a business. So the idea of offering artwork that sold in sets made people really go for it. A shop could buy six, and sell two, sell three, or all six! And then they’d have a really big sale, which made them excited. And they would call and order another six from me, and then they liked me a lot because the artwork was really a concept! And that got me a lot of reorders and clientele that worked with me over and over again, and they knew what to expect too. And they also could store it just like I could — everything was very similar and matched up and wasn’t a jumble of mixed-up things.
6-piece Charon wall metals by Beth Weintraub (2009)
Beth with grouping of her prints
I can see how your metal plates are mounted, but how are your prints mounted?
Well, it’s kind of a hand-laminated process where I seal the wood and I seal the back of the print and then I use a neutral glue and I press it down onto the panel. So it’s no longer a loose piece of paper — it becomes one with the wooden panel that I mount it on. And then I can seal it in the front with either a flat or satin finish ultraviolet varnish, or I can pour resin over it if people want a high shine. So it’s totally sealed, it’s really great against light and moisture and quite durable.
I have a guy who makes these panels. He works with Baltic Birch and this high quality American grown ply called Apple Ply, and he cuts them all for me and assembles the large ones. He can deliver to me like a hundred in a small series of boxes and we assemble them all right here in my studio. It’s easy to store, it’s easy to ship, and then I really was able to start ordering more pieces because they were even smaller.
You studied writing, theater production, and Intaglio etching and printmaking in college. Did you plan on a career as an artist? Where did you think your studies were going to take you?
I certainly did not plan on a career as an artist. I did not know the path or have any idea about what it would be like to be a business owner or even pursue galleries and so forth. As a student, I worried about getting a job, so my first jobs outside of school were in New York. I worked for DTW, which is a really high-quality dance theatre workshop in New York. I was working for the lighting designers, hanging the lighting instruments, running cable, and then at night during the performances I operated the electronic board and executed all the light cues that were programmed in during the rehearsals. So I was like a lighting technician in the beginning. It was something that I’d studied in my theater classes. And I got jobs as a scenic painter, I’m really good with the faux finishes, and I had some jobs that really were fantastic for learning on your feet. They taught me how to do upholstery and special effects like blood packs, I learned how to make blanks for different types of guns that they’d use onstage, and I started getting into props. I really learned about how to use my hands and how to make something really durable, because onstage anything can happen and the actors can be rough with stuff.
So I was just building things constantly and learning all kinds of skills with my hands, but I didn’t want to stay in theater. You know, the pay is ok when you’re 22, but the 45 year old working next to me was making the same thing! And there was no insurance, and if you wanted to join the union all of a sudden you’re just the backstage guy with a flashlight and a clipboard, and that’s not what I’m in it for either. So I knew that I eventually had to get back into printmaking, even just as a hobby after work, which is what I did. It was about seven years after I graduated before I made another etching. I was making water-based silkscreens and trying my hand at painting a little bit in my home apartment, but it didn’t really get me going. So I found a cooperative where I was able to join really affordably a really well-appointed printmaking studio and start making prints on my own without being in a classroom setting. So one thing led to another.
I had been working in this cooperative studio for maybe a year or two, and there was a woman who had a similar schedule. I really liked her work, but I noticed her materials were always causing her to complain. She was never getting the aquatints that she liked, and she just didn’t understand what she was doing wrong. And I would look over at her, and her plates looked black with dirt — they had old ink in them or something. I didn’t know her very well, so it took me well over a year to get the guts up to say to her, ‘Maybe you’re not cleaning the plates all the way?’ And she says to me, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a funny thing — I totally clean the plates as much as I can, but I’m not sure what is going on. Sometimes they just turn black in the acid.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my god, where did you get that?’ She was using this weird kind of metal that I’d never seen any other artist use — she told me it was a building material. And it was like a lightbulb went off, and that was it! And I was gone from my job in like a month or two after that — I just quit! I knew that was the key! And I asked her would she mind if I started using this, and I started making functional objects like lamps and bowls and trays and hanging pendants and countertop materials — and I figured out a way to control the patina forming on the metal. So she doesn’t use it that way, but I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get into furniture design that way!’
So the first year was pretty rough after I started my business. People liked it and they ordered it, but I couldn’t really get quite enough money for it. It’s not great for lampshades because it’s not see-through — so they were a little off. But the architects and designers who were coming over to visit my studio would look up on the wall and say, ‘Well, what is that?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s a print that comes off a plate like this.’ And it just totally cross-promoted without me doing anything. And people would say, ‘We want that!’ So they didn’t want my lamps and crappy trays — they wanted the artwork on the wall. And within just a year or two, I’d phased out all that other stuff and was just doing 2D wall art. And I thought, ‘Well, this is it — I’m gonna go for it.’
Trappistine print by Beth Weintraub (2010)
Meuse wall metal by Beth Weintraub (2010)
I understand you developed your own methods of Intaglio for your etching process on metal. Can you describe this and what experimentation you did to get there?
Well, the material is a big factor because artist grade printing plates are very, very thick, sturdy, super-expensive. They use either copper or zinc, and they require a lot of polishing and scraping of edges. It’s a very difficult thing to work with, and you can’t hardly turn it into anything. Plus, they’re perfectly clean and shiny and you can see the relief but there’s no tone on it — it remains the color of the metal all the time. But once I went and bought a sheet of the metal this women was using and cut it up into little pieces and started trying it, it wasn’t that hard to kind of figure out what was happening and why she wasn’t getting the results she wanted all the time. So I went out and bought some acid and adjusted the mix and found some ways to alter it enough to get it to work. It’s one of my little proprietary techniques, so I can’t say what the secret ingredient is.
Are the metal pieces the ones you’ve used to make the prints or are you creating these for their own sake?
They’re each their own. When I create a set of images to be printed, I retain all of those plates forever and don’t need to do the same process to get the patina. That woman’s process leaves a little bit of particulate on the bitten part and it does sort of affect the metal and it’s hard to print from it reliably. So I do a different type of behavior with the pieces that are going to be used as a finished product for metal. People think sometimes that they’re buying a plate that I made their print off of — I don’t lead them to believe that but sometimes they think that. I keep all of my plates, and none of the plates I sell are printable in any way. And they’re not prints either — they’re all one-of-a-kind, hand-brushed images, singularly made.
Are they unique because each is done by hand, or are you just modifying colors?
Yes and no. So the term for this within the printmaking confines is variated edition, which means you’re not making a matched set. But in addition to just changing the color, I’m mostly making multiple-plate prints, so you don’t get the same image. The flower shape will be the same whenever I use it — so if I’ve made 15 flower designs for the season, I’ve also made 10-15 background plates, and I switch them around every time. And they’re squares, right? So I can rotate them, so not everything is facing up the same way. So literally each one can be really, really different. The composition is different, and I may mount it upside down.
Galatea print by Beth Weintraub (2009)
I see from the names of your prints that you seem to be taking a single inspiration and having fun with it — for example, the Las Vegas series and the iconic figures like Princess Leia and Elvis. Tell me about your creative process and how you create these collections.
Those were desert flowers that bloom in the night, and all I could think of is, ‘Well, it’s gotta be casino.’ So, yeah, that was kind of funny. It’s very hard to think of titles for work, because I don’t really have anything in mind when I’m making them — they’re named things like Oprah or named for real, historical or fictitious, heroic women. And the Princess Leia, Elvis, and Don King prints were from the ‘hair’ series — people with memorable hair. The titles come at the very end usually. Sometimes while I’m working or printing or developing, I might have a glimmer of ‘god, this reminds me of Don King’s hair.’ Or I’m trying to ask my assistant to hand me that plate, and I have to describe it to him because he’s got six in front of him, and I’m like, ‘Give me the one with the belly dancer thing on it.’
Princess Leia print by Beth Weintraub (2007)
Don King metal piece by Beth Weintraub (2007)
Sahara print by Beth Weintraub
Your work is so hand-crafted, so I think it’s interesting that you came to license your designs for the Flip cameras. Do you have to approach this work differently because of the customer or design constraints?
They came to me. They’re based in San Francisco, and I happen to know one of the founders. I didn’t know he did this type of work — he’s a neighbor and I’d see him at neighborhood meetings. He asked me several times if he could come to the studio, he does these images printed, blah blah blah, and he wanted to license them. And I totally don’t like to do that for the most part. It’s a really cheapening process, and most of the time I’m approached by people who want to turn my images into cheaper art forms. And I’m like ‘No, I don’t need a copycat out there that I’ve agreed to.’ But he said he had a camera, and he called me three or four times. I explained I don’t know anything about this, I don’t do digital design, I can’t use a computer, I’m not very good with photography, and I don’t know what you need. And he said, ‘Well, all the designers that we’ve got lined up to launch this product are digital designers. We have no one who really works in real-world materials, and we’re dying for something more organic.’ And I was like, ‘OK, but you have to do it.’ And they were like, ‘We’ll do it!’ He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So I just send them images that are already existing and that are generally older, something that I’m not currently hoping to show people. Then they send them back to me organized on the format of the camera, and I can say, ‘Increase the size’ or ‘Move it to the left’ or ‘Pick a different one.’ So they do that for me, and they actually have a lot of people who like that style! So it’s a pretty nice licensing deal. And since it doesn’t pretend to be art, I think it’s a great way for artists to license their stuff that’s not competing with themselves. And I meet people who are like, ‘You’re Beth Weintraub? I think I have your camera!’ They fish it out of their purse, and I’m like, ‘Nice!’
Vela design for Flip camera, art by Beth Weintraub
Circus Circus design for Flip camera, art by Beth Weintraub
I see that new for your 2010 collection are your Metal Cubes. Tell me about this new work.
I’m really, really proud, and I’m super excited to premiere it in New York. I really wanted to get away from the look that I’ve been doing the last couple of years. It was getting a little complex, and it was pretty challenging for me to find ways to get it to be modular because they’d gotten much more detailed. The problem is there’s a lot of Chinese knock-offs out there, and they do knock off my designs quite often and almost without changing anything — it’s retarded! So I wanted to do something that is more complicated and that would bring the level of craftsmanship up and interest level up so that it would be something that is not only harder for somebody to copy. But if I was doing more elaborate stuff and wasn’t going to be able to pair them together as well, I wanted the single piece to be more interesting.
So after a while, going too modular can make it really bland, and I wanted to make something that could stand alone and be really powerful. So I started working with deeper depths, and I’m putting images on all five sides — obviously the wall-facing side is empty. And I’ve been experimenting with cubes for probably ten years — I started out making them really big, almost as big as an ottoman, but they were so much work and it was kind of hard to sell because people didn’t really know what to do with it. I mean, I hang them on the walls, but most people wanted to use them as a side table or something. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s an awfully fancy kind of side table.’ And then in the last year or two I’ve been just trying different dimensions, and I’ll show them to people. I started collecting preferences and settled on a shape and size that people seemed to gravitate towards the most. And then I started playing with putting flowers on all five sides — it’s a lot of metal work! The trim and glueing it down and getting the paint and brushwork to travel perfectly around the corner — oh, my god! I’m not sure I’ve done a good thing or not, but I’m pleased with the results so far, and it’ll only get better from here. It’s still young!
Zodiac metal cube by Beth Weintraub
You seem very grounded.
I think the thing that gets the most misconstrued, not only by the public but also by other artists, is what I’m doing. I mentioned my willingness to look at my work as a product, which makes me very happy. Not everybody finds that agreeable, but I have in my personality the ability to be both a really good salesperson, a marketer, the upfront person, as well as the person who hides out in the studio for three months sort of scurrying around and developing a new body of work that is, you know, uncopyable for at least 6 months! But I also intentionally seek out ways to promote the work so that people know where the real stuff comes from and why that has value and how your life is made better by putting these things in your home. Because if you don’t look at it as a product, then people feel like it’s unattainable and it’s hard to understand and there should be something mysterious or ugly about it. My work is very nice to look at, it’s agreeable and pretty even — which I think is ok!
I want people to feel happy when they go home with something that will enliven their home and not end up with a friggin’ IKEA poster that 10,000 other people in their town have. I meet a lot of artists who are like, ‘Well, aren’t you spoiling it for printmakers by selling your plates?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, no one said I had to play by the rules — and, in fact, isn’t that ok as an artist to literally ditch the rules and do it your way?’ That’s what I’m doing. I don’t want to be the poor, suffering person who has to get a message out. I’m really not that deep. I just want to make things with my hands all day and have people like them and buy them so that I can keep working and live a nice life and buy nice groceries to experiment with at night! You know, I’m not this tortured soul — I’m actually quite a perky and happy person. My art doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re not good enough or you don’t know enough about the scene or the artist or anything like that. You know when you like it right away. And men like it too — it’s not just flowers for women.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
I’m really, really into cooking. I like to eat too! I’m not so much the foodie as in trying all the new restaurants and knowing all the chefs and stuff, but I really like to experiment with exotic ingredients in my own kitchen. And I think when I made my hobby my livelihood, I really had a void. And I started cooking more and more, so that’s just my passionate hobby. And if I ever say to you, ‘I’m opening a restaurant,’ remind me that I will need to find another hobby, because that will be ruined! But it really relaxes me. It’s funny, because I do all this busy work on my feet all day, and then all I want to do as soon as I’m done working and I’m exhausted is do the same thing, just with food.
My other personal interests are science fiction, Hollywood-type movies, and cheesy murder mysteries! The type of reading that I do most often is that kind of done-in-two-hours murder mystery that’s virtually the same as the last ten that that writer put out, but I can’t get enough of it! Oh, and I have a particular genre — do you know how many sub-genres there are of murder mysteries? I like female detectives based in the countryside of England. But I do read all kinds, and I’m a huge Spencer fan.
Beth Weintraub and Sultan
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