I'm not interested in strict rules. I can't abide by them.

Joel Shapiro

The Prince of Pulp

The Inspired Work of Joe Wilfer

Joe Wilfer at Tandem Press, 1993. Photo courtesy of Miriam Hill.

Considered one of the preeminent paper makers and a visionary in contemporary printmaking, Joe Wilfer never stopped learning and doing. 

Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1943, Joe grew up understanding the importance of dedication and self-sufficiency while at the same time developing an appreciation for art. He was dedicated to scouting, becoming an Eagle Scout at the incredibly young age of 11, while in school he was being introduced to printmaking, an interest that stemmed in part from the hand-painted signs he saw in the town’s shop windows. Upon his graduation from high school, Joe attempted to join the army but when that failed, he instead enrolled at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee while simultaneously pursuing his undergraduate, and later master’s degree, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

It was during his graduate studies in Art Education with an emphasis on printmaking that Joe began to turn his fascination toward the paper that was used as the support in printmaking and its untapped possibilities. He immersed himself in the subject, learning all he could about paper. He visited mills throughout Wisconsin and eventually set up his own studio in the basement of the Madison Art Center, where he had at this point worked his way up from janitor to director. He took an old washing machine and adapted it to be used as a “beater” for making pulp from 100% cotton rag scraps. Once he was satisfied with the surface, he sent samples of his sheets to various artists that he admired and asked that they try them out. Among the recipients were H.C. Westermann, Ed Paschke and Ed Ruscha. He had originally intended to exhibit the works the three artists made on his paper for his final graduate thesis but after the review committee insisted his show must include his own work, he made large, colorful “quilts” with scraps of his handmade paper sewn together. After the show, the quilts were beaten back into paper pulp and reused in subsequent projects. 

In 1974, Joe established the Upper U.S. Papermill in nearby Oregon, Wisconsin. He continued to augment the experience he had gained in Madison with trips to commercial handmade paper mills in England while also organizing the first handmade papermakers conference in the U.S. in order to create a network for professionals. At the mill, artists such as Ellen Lanyon, Alan Shields and Sam Gilliam were invited to experiment and collaborate on projects while staying at Joe’s house. Shields’ visits were always memorable. As recounted by one of Joe’s daughters, “He always brought an old leather doctor’s bag filled with assorted nail polish and painted a small work of art on each of our fingernails. He also sewed, embroidered and made beautiful beaded jewelry.” The unconventional materials were a welcome sight at the Papermill. New techniques were constantly being explored, especially while the pulp was wet, to incorporate seeds, glitter, string and other collage elements. At other times sheets were formed in irregular shapes and sizes and then layered together. Many times, the finished sheets were then taken to Jones Road Printshop, run by Joe’s best friend and former professor Bill Weege, for the final printing. 

Joe’s work in the studio as well as his various teaching positions in printmaking, papermaking and book-binding, mainly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had earned him both an outstanding reputation and the catchy moniker “Prince of Pulp”. In 1980, he accepted the position of director at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, relocating with his family out of Wisconsin, first to Maine and then to New York, where Skowhegan’s headquarters were located. While the job only lasted one year, it provided him access to a new group of artists, which included Chuck Close, who he began collaborating with on editioned works. Close, impressed by Joe’s ingenuity, encouraged Pace Gallery owners, Arne Glimcher and Dick Solomon, to hire Joe to run the gallery’s print shop. Joe readily took on the opportunity and began extending his collaborations to projects with Pace artists Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg as well as other artists outside of the gallery, whose projects were then published under the name Spring Street Workshop. 

Joe remained at Pace throughout the 80s and 90s and though he continued to live and work in New York, he kept strong ties to Wisconsin and was a founder and board member of Tandem Press in Madison. He often brought artists from New York to Madison to work at the studio and after his death in 1995, Tandem Press established the Joseph Wilfer Visiting Artist Endowment Fund in his memory. 

Known and well-liked by all for his charisma, enthusiasm and innovation, Joe was an unparalleled individual, encouraging the artists and artisans he collaborated with to achieve new heights in their work. His workshops were always welcoming, creative environments that allowed for experimentation and happy accidents, conversation and laughter, and of course, his annual Tom and Jerry Christmas Party. Fondly remembered by many, he facilitated the work of some of contemporary art’s most famous creatives and always provided unsurpassed expertise and optimism in everything he did.  

Joe Wilfer with Chuck Close at Pace workshop. Photo courtesy of Pace Prints.