Summit County couple Bonnie Norling Wakeman and Joe Wakeman meld artistry and architecture
Bas-relief, as an art form, has been around for centuries. Yet only more recently is it starting to take off in modern, residential homes and commercial spaces. For 25 years local artists Bonnie Norling Wakeman and Joe Wakeman have taken their craft around the region, state and country.
Joe started with construction painting, wallpapering and faux painting while Bonnie’s illustration background had her doing various art jobs before the two began their relief work. The reason? The historic doors of the Baptistery of St. John, which the pair saw on vacation to Florence, Italy, in the mid ’90s.
“It’s kind of been an evolution from large brushes to small brushes, drywall knives to palette knives,” Joe said, in reference to the tools needed to sculpt images from a custom plaster mix on large walls.
In the High Country their work can be publically seen at the Uptown on Main in Frisco, Springs Lodge in Keystone, Grand Lodge on Peak 7 in Breckenridge and Antlers at Vail. Most of their work is residential however, and usually happens when a homeowner wants to capture the outdoors by bringing the moose, elk, deer, foxes and aspens indoors.
“We don’t get many calls for baptistery doors,” Joe said, laughing.
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Bonnie and Joe knew each other in high school in Minnesota, but they didn’t reconnect until she went back for her art degree after a brief stint out west. She knew she wanted a career rather than seasonal ski industry work and figured college would be the solution.
“I got a job offer in Minneapolis, but I did not want to live in the city and be an illustrator,” Bonnie said. “That wasn’t where my heart was.” Instead, the mountains were still calling to her, so Joe followed along and moved to Summit County in the mid ’80s. The couple currently lives in Silverthorne.
“It’s just such a visually stunning area,” Joe said. “The skiing and the outdoor life is just a bonus.”
“We’re pretty inspired here and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else,” Bonnie added. “So much of what is here is in our work. No matter if it’s abstract or representational, it’s in our art. We have to be here, we’re a part of this place.”
Though Bonnie and Joe are business and life partners, they can keep their careers distinct enough to not step on each other’s toes and keep the unsolicited advice to a minimum. The majority of Joe’s work is still faux painting, but he also makes his own abstract art when not assisting Bonnie on relief projects.
Joe finds it less competitive to stretch his creative muscles to make multidimensional pieces that weave color, texture and light. Made mostly from paper and electronic lights, he uses his faux painting skills to turn the material into an illusion of metal and stone. It was a natural evolution from his construction work, and both artists don’t discount the skills they’ve picked up from the other media or industries they’ve worked in. Nevertheless, Bonnie is much happier focusing on the reliefs rather than the fine art she’s sold at galleries.
“It was great fun, but I didn’t meet the people who bought my work,” she said. “That was the biggest let down for me, to just be called for my check. Who bought my art? What did they like? Why did they like it? Now I get to work personally with people and it’s a collaboration. They are a part of the process from the very first meeting.”
What the client wants
That client customization and passion for area-specific work is what makes the Wakeman’s art so unique and personal. Rocky Mountain imagery may be suitable for Colorado homes, but less so in Wisconsin or Florida where dolphins and egrets are more common. That’s why Bonnie sculpted scenes of Africa with elephants and lions when she was working on houses for members of the Cabela family in Texas and Nebraska.
“We really are about the client, what the client wants, being of service to them,” Bonne said. “That’s No. 1 for us.”
With projects costing tens of thousands and taking at least a week, customers expect to get what they pay for. The Wakemans use a detailed, multistep service to allay any fears. Their experience and preparation lends to their confidence in dealing with the permanence of the art.
“There’s nothing worse than a bad mural that’s permanently adhered to your wall,” Joe said.
Along with the standard entryway and stair walls, the Wakemans are seeing more scaled-down work in powder rooms, dining rooms, niches and other concentrated spaces. The two are happy to work with a client’s budget in those smaller areas.
Their art is also becoming more contemporary as the desire shifts away from as much realism as possible. They blend in the piece with surrounding art with more white or neutral tones to match the surrounding paint, along with doing less tinting.
“It should fit in and not compete with the décor,” Joe said. “That’s important.”
Not only is it gorgeous to look at, but the relief is tactile as well.
“I want to make touchable art,” Bonnie said. “I love that people can touch it, but they’re always afraid because when you grow up everyone is like ‘Don’t touch that.’ Now you can just run your hand over and feel it. It’s really cool.”
They’ve dealt with the feast and famine of commissions and the ups and downs of the economy, but the biggest challenge the Wakemans find is awareness of the art. To help, they’ve brought panels that mimic walls of their work to the Denver Home Show, though that occasionally leads to people believe the panels are the entirety of the piece, and not a demonstration of what can be done on a wall.
Another step the Wakemans have taken is starting an apprenticeship because the medium has such a small field of practitioners. Their work will hopefully outlive them so they want to pass along their knowledge as much as possible so the medium flourishes.
“It’s something you have that you could gift to another person to help them make a living,” Joe said. “That’s part of what drove the desire to take on an apprentice.”
In turn, Bonnie and Joe hope anyone they train gives it their own style and voice, and takes it in a new direction.
“Every artist is going to come up with something different with the idea of relief,” Bonnie said. “I push them for that. Don’t do what I’m doing. Make it your own. That’s the uniqueness of being an artist.”
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