WLAA Profile: Laurie Wechter helps give Ann Arbor a colorful, peaceful and meaningful purpose

Ann Arbor is known for many things, starting with that famous pinnacle of higher learning – go Blue! The city also is known for many other “famous” features, from A (Art Fair) to Z (Zingerman’s), Ann Arbor has the heartbeat of a little town, the soul of a saint and the pulse of a big city.

But the locals will tell you that what makes Ann Arbor really, truly special are the people who have helped create such an amazing place to live, work, learn, create and play.

Laurie Wechter is one of those “special people.”

She now goes by the title of “Artist Provocateur,” but there are other deserving titles including volunteer, organizer, steward and friend. And if you consider “sweet” and “caring” titles, add them to the list.

Wechter is known for many things around town. Along with her husband, she published a monthly newspaper called AGENDA for 13 years from 1985 to 1998. The couple also both worked for Groundcover News for a year and she still volunteers there, pretty regularly.

Another familiar gig is “artist.”

She began drawing as a toddler and was known to take a crayon to the wall before she could even walk. “Despite the consequences, I learned I had a superpower that would carry me through everything,” she says with a smile. “I did not go to art school, but always made art.

“Lately,” says Laurie Wechter, “much of what I commit to paint or glaze, comes from the development of narratives derived from penciled doodles and searching them for faces and figures.”

She is also first in line to help others who are struggling. She has organized charitable events, volunteered with our local homeless population, spoken with and for the Poor People’s Campaign, organized rides to the polls for disabled and low-income persons, and been involved in campaigns and protests.

Until her late 30s, she worked part-time jobs in order to make space for her work as a political activist. She got her Masters in Social Work and began a career working with senior citizens, later switching to work with men in the prison system.

Her other great passion is her artwork and turning nothing into something.

“Over the years, I have spent significant time drawing, making linoleum prints, painting with acrylics, pastels and water colors, making papier-mâché pieces, fashioning hand-painted silk scarves, creating potato-print clothing, and designing t-shirts,” she says. “I am currently most committed to ceramics and painting in acrylics.

“Much of what I commit to paint or glaze comes from penciled doodles in which shapes suggest figures which I develop,” she says. “At other times, I draw from life or whatever comes out.”

Wechter says making art has always taken her to a quiet, focused place. “What flows out of me tends to be bright and colorful with an edge of darkness,” she says. “My identity is very attached to my art and if a piece comes from my gut, I feel like I’ve spoken my mind.”

Wechter recently answered some questions for WeLoveAnnArbor.

First, how are you handling/dealing with this incredible challenge we are facing in 2020?

I am taking Covid-19’s transmissibility very seriously. Given my self-righteous nature, I have been letting younger friends know that they are potential carriers and asking them to please think about us older folks!

The BLM movement makes me believe there is a chance for change and I thank this generation for taking action. It is so depressing that racism and police brutality, continue in this day and age.

How about a little background on yourself?

I was born in sunny Los Angeles, but my father forsook California for a job at the Upjohn Co. in Kalamazoo so my mother could be near family in Chicago. Goodbye sun!

When and why did you start getting involved in social issues?

I did my first organizing around age 13 when the concept of busing became a contentious topic in the Kalamazoo Public Schools and went with my parents to meetings in the schools. Our city was very segregated and I was angry about it.

My views, however, were developed much earlier. I watched the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights marches and the assassinations of John, Robert, Martin and Malcolm on television. Although I was just beyond toddling, the cause for human rights and justice lodged in my soul.

Years later, I went to an alternative high school that was funded by Juvenile Justice. Us bad kids had a great time listening to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, taking drugs and experimenting with sex at a tender age. When the school was shut down, I had to graduate a year early, so my best friend and I were told to go to college at Western Michigan University. Within a semester or so I switched over to Kalamazoo College. Suddenly gone were university-provided party buses and I had to study to get a good grade! I graduated in Psychology with a minor in English. As part of K’s program I got to go to France for foreign study and saw the cathedrals and great museums of Europe, which introduced me to great art.

What first got you interested in the arts?

I was always drawing and making stuff. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Pountain, complained to my mom in student conferences that I refused to put my things away when she announced that art class was over. In fourth grade, I was madly in love with Mrs. Kent and concocted some kind of homemade gift for her virtually every day. I came up with things like paper cards with lots of opening windows that held hearts and springing coils. I’m sure they were simply terrible.

In seventh grade, I had to wash all the desks after school because I drew on mine. One day, when I was actually drawing on paper, the teacher made me show my picture to the class. Talk about humiliation!

Let’s fast forward to today – what type of art do you like to create?

I make some ceramic bowls and cups, but mostly build trays and create slab forms and cut-outs in clay to use as tableaux. Most of my work in the past was in pastel and acrylic paint, but I have become addicted to glassy glazes and the surprise of seeing what comes out of the kiln after you have created your piece, had it bisque-fired and spent hours on glazing.

Sometimes, it is painful to see what firing and chemically unstable glazes do to what purely comes from your heart, but other times, you see a miracle and it is so overwhelming, so joyful!

What other art forms are you dabbling in?

I still draw and paint and pre-pandemic, was doing some printmaking at the Typesetting Lab at the public library. I taught a papier mache class at the Delonis Center and it was really fun. I completed a project that I started about 20 years ago when I got home!

In February, I did a class on making cards at FreshStart Clubhouse. That was so great! Many low-income people are artists and this builds community and self-esteem for them and for me.

Take us through your artistic process?

I’m not sure I have an artistic process. More than anything, I have deadlines with pottery because classes go only a certain amount of time and they’re over. I think my artistic process has a lot to do with overcoming the fear that I can’t do it or it won’t be good enough, that I have played my creativity out or there isn’t enough time to do what I want to do. In the end, I can’t stop myself from going forward. It can feel awful getting to the point where I have the paint on canvas, but once I’m there I lose myself. It is how some describe meditation. I become so focused that nothing else matters.

Who inspires you?

Picasso’s “Guernica” is probably my favorite piece of visual art. I am inspired by the art of Basquiat, Matisse, Modigliani, Kahlo, Braque, Van Gogh, Chagall, Kusama, Neely, Frankenthaler, Olyami Dabls, Justin Robert Cox, El Lissitsky, Murakami, O’Keefe, Rivera and most of all, children’s art.

Was there a moment where you said to yourself, I have the ability to help people or make a difference in people’s lives?

I think I always thought I could help people. I was always a good listener, had good insight into people’s motivations and pain, and had a rage in my heart over injustice, including the injustice between family members who don’t try to understand each other.

What makes Ann Arbor special in your world?

Ann Arbor is special because there are so many people here who care about the issues of our day. Our city also has an amazing brain trust. There is so much to do and learn. There’s always something to do and so much talent all around.

What makes Ann Arbor the place I love and why I stay is because of the wonderful friends I have made and continue to make because of the vibrancy and caring soul of this place.

Check out her Facebook art page – Laurie Wechter Art.