Columbia - It was the 1950s, and Lawrence Rugolo was an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was good at making signs, and the school asked him to design the posters for homecoming one year.
He wasn’t studying serigraphy, also called silkscreening, but in learning the printmaking technique from a World War II veteran who learned it while serving in the military, Rugolo found what would become his principal artistic medium.
“You could use bright and bold colors, which I really liked about it,” he said.
Rugolo came to MU in 1960 and retired in 1996 after a career teaching in the art department. His art is the focus of “Lawrence Rugolo: Forty Years of Printmaking” at the State Historical Society of Missouri.
In silkscreening, Rugolo found he could incorporate two things he liked to draw: the human figure and geometric patterns.
“I have had a love of geometry, and this was a chance for me to express myself,” he said.
This love of geometry can clearly be seen in “War Flower,” one of his larger pieces. The brightly colored geometric rings bring to mind the explosive patterns found in a kaleidoscope.
Silkscreening demands patience and attention to detail. Think of layers: On the bottom, you have paper; above that, you have a fabric screen, usually made of nylon or polyester; between the paper and fabric, you have stencils in various shapes. These stencils can either be embedded in the fabric or movable. You then squeegee ink through the fabric, one color at a time. If you have a piece with 23 colors, you do this 23 times.
For his stencils, Rugolo usually uses photographs, which takes an already time-consuming process to the extreme.
“It takes about a month, working on and off, to complete an edition,” he said.
Greig Thompson, who designed the exhibit at the historical society and is a former student of Rugolo’s, recalled his teacher as someone who takes everything one step at a time.
“You want to be really sure about what you are embarking on before you start,” Thompson said. “Every time you lay another color down is another opportunity to screw up.”
In 2005, Rugolo donated 119 of his original prints to the historical society, which is showcasing 23 of them in the exhibit. Arranged in chronological order, they touch on three themes — the passage of time and moments in time, depictions of mid-Missouri and biographical images, said curator Joan Stack.
One work, “Happening with a Mime,” spotlights a significant point in art history. A “happening,” in which multiple artists in various disciplines perform unrelated pieces simultaneously, was a fad in the late 1950s and was one element that led to the pop art movement of artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. The main goal of these happenings was to inspire the audience with a barrage of stimuli. “Happening with a Mime” represents a happening that Rugolo saw and photographed in the 1960s.
Viewers can also see biographical images in works such as “CAT Scan Bug,” in which Rugolo likens images of his brain to bugs, and “Time Fragments,” which features portraits of Rugolo starting in childhood and ending with a CAT scan of his brain from the 1980s.
Rugolo no longer makes prints — the bending-and-inking process took a toll on his back — and he recently sold his equipment, which he found extremely hard to do.
At 75, he still creates art using different media — right now making collages and taking digital photographs.
“I look for those (scenes) which have that artistic appeal,” he said.