06 Apr 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

This posting is based on conversations and correspondence between Kathleen Walkup and Jeff Groves that have been edited for form, clarity, and concision. Kathy is Lovelace Family Professor Emerita at Mills College, now Northeastern University Oakland. While at Mills, Kathy inaugurated the first separate graduate degree in book art in the U.S. and later co-established the first MFA in Book Art & Creative Writing in the country. Jeff is the Louisa and Robert Miller Professor of Humanities at Harvey Mudd College, the founder of The First-Floor Press at the Claremont Colleges Library, and the inaugural faculty director of the Harvey Mudd College Makerspace.


Kathy: To get things started, let’s each give a little background information to establish our perspectives on our topic. Mills College, where I taught for over forty years, promoted innovation in the arts. The college did so by encouraging rigorous exploration of contemporary forms in the disciplines of music, dance, and studio art. It was in this environment that the fledgling field of book art—which didn’t have a name when I began teaching at Mills in the late 1970s—came into fruition. The program was grounded in letterpress and hand bookbinding, but intentionally moved students away from the outmoded master/apprentice approach of these traditional fields. Instead, students were encouraged to locate their own voices through self-generated projects while practicing and perfecting the craft practices of these two disciplines. 

Jeff: My background is quite different from yours. By training, my field is literature, although most of my research has been in the area of American book history. I didn’t start teaching letterpress until the last third of my career. Harvey Mudd College, where I’ve taught for thirty-five years, is a science and engineering school where students are required to take a quarter of their coursework in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Hands-on learning is common across the curriculum, including in the letterpress workshop I teach every semester and in the work that students do in the college’s new makerspace. While I see my studio and the makerspace as different in many ways, they both foster creativity in my students. Can you say a bit more about what makes a studio work well, in your experience?

Kathy: Good studio programs are built on a framework of conceptual practice. Students learn to build their art on the solid ground of a well-thought concept, and they learn to develop their craft so that those ideas can be realized in the strongest possible way. In the process, students learn good studio practice: how to use and, just as importantly, care for the equipment, how to evaluate materials for their projects, how to function in a shared studio space, how to respect that space and the people who use it with them.

Jeff: Yeah, good studio practice–learning how to use the equipment, thinking about materials, leaving the space in good working order for the next user–is really important to me, and in my workshop I try to drill all those things into my students over the course of the semester. Good makerspace practice, however, tends to be more experimental, and I’d say it generally works the other way around–from learning the technology to developing an idea of what you might do with it. I’ve built a small letterpress facility into the makerspace, and students are very interested in learning how to work in it, but they tend to do so based on a training system that utilizes other already-trained students as instructors. The users seem less interested in the conceptual side of what they produce, at least initially, and more interested in seeing what the technology can do. In that sense, “makers” are not conceptual artists, really, but they still manage to unleash their own creativity. That they are not instructed in a class setting over the course of a semester does create some interesting challenges to maintaining the letterpress facility.

Kathy: What you are describing is much more in line with workshop teaching, at least in the sense that workshop students (and this is highly generalized) tend to be less interested in concept. In book art workshops, students are very often focused on the level of craft they can achieve, which can come at the expense of a developed idea. They want a product to take home. What I’m seeing now in academic programs is a tendency toward more workshop-type classes, either credit-bearing or extracurricular. These short-term classes might be instructor or institutionally driven, and can result in satisfying products, but often at the expense of process-driven work that takes time but can lead to serious exploration and innovation. For instance, I would give my grad students short-term proof-of-concept projects in their grad seminars. The idea wasn’t for them to come up with finished work; instead, they focused on the conceptual nature of the assignment and developed quick prototypes with little or no craft focus. By removing the pressure of perfected work, the students had space to explore purer forms of their ideas, based on the concepts I set forth. 

Jeff: One of the recent innovations I appreciate in my printing course is that students are now utilizing the technologies of the makerspace to supplement the technologies of the press room. They’re creating printable surfaces with laser cutters, water-jet cutters, and 3D printers, then using those contemporary products on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century presses in conjunction with hand-set type. There again, though, I’d say the impulse is somewhat counter to the studio practice you describe. They experiment with the technologies, and then come up with an idea they can develop over the course of the semester. Of course, there’s some sense of what they’d like to do that precedes the experimentation, but that idea is rarely fleshed out before learning the makerspace equipment.

This project-level merging of the press room and the makerspace, though, creates some challenges for the discipline of the medium, such as proper use of tools, learning practical methods with the equipment, estimating the difficulty of a project, or even efficiently moving through the routine distribution of type. I’m curious about whether there are similar problems in your studio experience, but perhaps that’s the conversation for our next installment!

Kathy: Letterpress is of course relief printmaking. One of the exciting developments is the increasing adaptation of various relief modes (think Legos, for example) to the medium. And students should experiment with expanding the technology when they have the opportunity and the tools. What you describe here does, however, also have some affinity with a very common mode of book art instruction, which is to teach a structure and then have students pour content into that structure. My own instruction in book art classes tended toward teaching basic structures as tools that students could use in the development of their ideas, while encouraging them to use these basic structures as armatures for further experimentation rather than as fixed practices. And yes, I agree we should next explore specific issues around workshop-type classes when it comes to the letterpress studio. As you say, next installment!

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