When Lynda Cole hit Manhattan after graduating from Michigan State in 1970, she dreamt of making it as a clothing designer. She got a few jobs but was glad to return to Michigan after two years. “New York is no place for a shy person,” she says.

Today, considerably more confident, Cole is a successful multimedia artist and the longtime leader of WSG Gallery, one of the city’s most trafficked art venues. As president of the artists’ cooperative, she encouraged WSG’s move three years ago from Liberty Street to Main–a “scary” decision, she says, because the rent jumped 60 percent.

It got even scarier, because soon afterward the economy tanked. Cole and the other artists expected the worst–but despite the recession, WSG’s sales soared. Though a busier location gets much of the credit, Cole also thinks that customers, forced to cut down on travel, “decided to dress up” their homes with pieces of art.

“She’s a super good leader,” says Martha Keller, who until recently was one of the sixteen artists in the WSG cooperative (the initials are a holdover from its original name, the Washington Street Gallery). While Cole’s work has an “ethereal” element, Keller says, she herself is “very levelheaded. She keeps us on track.”

Cole’s career as an artist is also on track. In the last three years, she’s been getting institutional commissions for larger, pricier pieces–though even those haven’t been immune to the economy. In 2008, the Beaumont Hospitals ordered a major piece for a new building in Troy, paid her half the cost–and then, responding to the financial crash, put the project on hold. Six months later, the organization reversed itself–and gave Cole a three-month deadline to finish the 20-by-14-foot installation. “I worked every day, no weekends off,” recalls the artist. “It was exhausting.” But she did it, and her piece now hangs in the new hospital.

Such tenacity helped Cole, who became an artist later in life, reach the point where she can support herself from selling her work. “Just barely,” she says, with her characteristic lack of hype. “But I’m doing it.”

Cole stands in her small studio, in a woodsy area not far from Wagner Road, and smiles as she looks at a large wax ball about the size of a classroom’s globe of the world. With splotches of blue and green intended to suggest water and pond life, it will appear in Cole’s one-woman show, “Silver Liquid: a Tribute to Water,” later this month at WSG. Cole works frequently in wax, but on flat surfaces; this is her first try in 3-D. “I just love looking at it,” she says, adding, “I might just price it so high it will be impossible to sell!”

A Southfield native and the oldest of seven children, Cole loved sewing as a girl and was fascinated by the feel of cloth. Married as a sophomore at Michigan State, she moved to the Ann Arbor area after her disappointing years in New York. Newly divorced, she studied biology at the U-M for a time, then quit to open a one-woman landscaping company called Wildwood Flower, whose customers were mostly middle-class Ann Arborites with relaxed gardening styles. She married Ford marketing guy Paul Malboeuf (whom she’d met years earlier at an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C.), and they raised their son, Joe, now an architect in Seattle.

Cole’s career path changed in 1995, when Paul was transferred to London for a five-year stint. Finding it difficult to establish herself in landscaping overseas, she became a regular at the city’s many museums. That experience inspired her to experiment with multimedia designs combining silk and Japanese paper. When the couple returned to Ann Arbor, she abandoned landscaping to immerse herself in art.

Slim, with bluntly cut white hair, often dressed in black, Cole projects calm and focus. That’s made her popular at WSG, where she has been president for eight years. “It’s an amazing thing, to get sixteen people to come to an agreement,” says co-op member Alvey Jones.

The member artists (thirteen women and three men) share in the rent and take turns gallery sitting. Each artist has space to display her or his work, and the gallery takes a percentage of their sales.

Her calmness is no mask, but Cole is driven. “I would love to have my work appear in a national [art] magazine,” she says. Seeking greater exposure, she enters competitions, and contacts galleries that might carry her work.

Looking back on her life with her artist’s eye, she discerns order in what might seem a random sequence of pursuits. “I had responded to the various things I felt strongly about,” she says. “When I was doing clothing design, I seriously wanted to do clothing design. When I went into the plant world, I wholeheartedly wanted to go into it.

“I didn’t plan it. I followed my muse, I guess.”

Praised by AnnArbor.com art critic John Carlos Cantu as “one of Ann Arbor’s most innovative mixed-media artists,” Cole prefers abstraction to representational works. She loved geometry as a student, and she sees splendor in intersecting lines and circles.

Over the years, Cole has experimented with everything from photography to paper and metal mobiles. In the past decade she has been part of a mini-revival of artists embracing encaustic, an ancient technique that uses melted wax as a medium–a more sophisticated version of kids playing with melted crayons. For Beaumont Hospital, she used a wax-based, bluish medium painted on foot-square pieces of Plexiglas that she linked together with stainless steel.

The propane torch she uses to melt the wax sits on her studio table. At first, the formerly shy Cole admits, she was afraid to use it. Now she teaches occasional encaustic classes and reassures her students that they, too, can master the dangerous tool, which lights with a scary rush of explosive gas. “I tell them after the first two hundred times, it’s easy!”