By Dee Dwyer
On a lovely July afternoon, I sit on the porch of the house of the artist and printmaker, Ralph Latham. With us is Ralph’s soon-to-be seven-year old daughter, Violet, swinging on a hammock, making comments as she listens to the conversation. We are surrounded by trees, and not far away is Ralph’s sawmill, and a steam engine that was shipped from India. Ralph is thankful for the woodland setting because he is inspired by his family history, family artifacts, the woods around him, and the environment.
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ralph came to London, Ontario in 1975 with his family when his father studied dentistry at Western University. Ralph grew up in London where his father practiced orthodontistry.
Ralph always drew. His high school, H. B. Beal, had a special art annex. At Beal, Ralph studied print-making. Ralph later attended a military school where he met a friend who encouraged him to make art, teaching him techniques like cross-hatching and stippling. He put together a portfolio and later was accepted back at the art annex, where he studied etching, making detailed etching and wood-block plates, majoring in intaglio--which means to incise--in his case into zinc plates. He also studied papermaking, matting, framing, and bookbinding. He made wood and linocuts.
He knew etching was his medium. “It’s tactile, textural, sculptural--and portable.” Ralph graduated in the spring of 1995, then came to NSCAD, bringing him to Nova Scotia. . He focused again on etching, and graduated with a BFA. He moved to the South Shore, working various jobs including stacking wood at a mill. He also dragged Christmas trees to market and piled wood, work that gave him money to pay for use of a studio.
He met his wife Lesley in Halifax, and together they travelled to Montevideo, Uruguay, where she taught English in 2000 and 2001. Later she worked in a women’s weaving association in Guatemala. In his etching studio, Ralph shows me his homemade sketchbook made of Guatemalan textiles—and dental floss for thread. He shows me landscapes with lakes, and mountains in the backgrounds, streetscapes with interesting buildings. and panoramic vistas that unfold as Ralph folds and unfolds pages.
Ralph bought a tractor and land in Three Fathom Harbour and built a house, a sawmill, a small studio with an etching press—all off-grid—and even a Hobbit Hole made from logs, branches, and tree roots. With his sawmill, Ralph is also making wooden benches for sale. His etchings are landscapes peopled with ploughman and farmers, characters from his family history, or roosters, horses, and oxen. You can find Ralph Latham with his etchings on alternate week at the Farmers’ Markets in Truro and Musquodoboit Harbour. Or visit his website for more of this etchings, his steam engine, and his work in wood.