Bill Laing, “Within the Landscape #1”, Etching, 1973
It is fitting that Bill Laing’s retrospective at the Nickle Arts Museum in 1997 was titled “A Journey”. Bill Laing’s work has always been personally narrative. Bill tells the story of his life’s journey through his imagery. Tim Mara, fellow printmaker and grad from the Royal College of Art wrote in the catalogue for “A Journey”, that “Bill Laing’s work is a journey – a journey on many levels. The physical journey from his native Scotland to Canada paralleled by the emotional journey from childhood to adulthood”. (1)
Born in Scotland in 1944, Bill Laing rarely discusses how his Mother passed away when he was only 10 years old. Raised by his Grandparents, the young Bill Laing grew up with longing and absence. Longing and absence have been common themes in Bill’s work. Shadows in the picture plane of a person who is no longer there, an empty chair, an empty clothes hanger.
Bill Laing, “A Chair from London”, Etching & Aquatint, 1981
Another important time in Bill’s life was his years at the Royal College of Art in London where he received his Master’s Degree. He studied etching under Michael Rand (Henry Moore’s printer) who taught Bill the importance of technique and precision as well as what it takes to be a great teacher.
Bill immigrated to Calgary in 1974 to teach at the Alberta College of Art and Design and in Calgary, began to build a life surrounded by fellow artists and friends. At the time, both the College and the University of Calgary were aggressively hiring up & coming artists including artists from abroad. In Calgary, Bill met a community of the artists that would become his lifelong friends such Paul Woodrow, Alexander Haeseker, Derek Besant, Barbara Milne, Ken Webb, John Will, Ken Esler, John and Joice Hall, Norobu Sawai, Stuart Parker, Peter Deacon, Don Mabie , Wendy Toogood and Ron Moppett. His work of this time, as in the etchings of the “Alberta Series” evoke the solitary but now within a panoramic landscape where big skies reach down to the foothills. This new landscape, vast and new and empty became another metaphor for solitude and longing in Bill’s work.
Bill Laing, “Night Lights # 3”, Etching & Aquatint, 1981
In 1977, Bill was hired by Harry Kiyooka to set up the silkscreen department at the University of Calgary and he taught at the University for 39 years, leaving an indelible mark on the young artists that would go through that program. His students include Glen Semple, Ken Webb, Marjan Eggermont, Laurel Johannesson, Brad Harms, Jason Frizzell, Marigold Santos and many more. As a Professor, he was known for being demanding. He wanted from his students the same perfection in technique that was in his own work. This perfection is clear to see in his etchings and silkscreens with their perfect registration and plate marks.
But the most important connection was with his wife, fellow artist, Barbara Milne. With her, Bill would have a complete family and finally find a sense of belonging. It is not just a kind of chivalry that Bill Laing thanks his wife and children for their support whenever the opportunity arises. They have provided him with secure roots – home. His work now, filled with images from his garden, fabric from his wife’s clothing, objects of the domestic. These are mature works filled still with longing but also with images of contentment. As seen in “Barbara” (1991), a mixed media construction which consists of a small shelf holding a bowl of fruit against a backdrop of textile pattern and the profile of his wife; the very essence of domestic bliss.
Bill Laing, “Barbara”, Mixed Media Construction, 1992
Bill Laing’s journey continues. Recently retired and about to become a Grandfather, his most recent etchings (Chord Series, 2015) have the same intimacy of his early etchings but now resonate with a classicism which comes from wisdom and experience. Moving forward, we the viewer, will be able to witness this ongoing life journey through future works but for now we can wonder what imagery will fill his later works?
- Tim Mara, “William Laing, A Journey”, The Nickle Arts Musuem, The University of Calgary, 1997, pg.9.