An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger
In the lull between summer classes and fall concentration, artist and author Audrey Niffenegger (she's best known for writing The Time Traveler's Wife) was in town to speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, and spent a week working in Penland’s printmaking studio.
This isn’t your first visit to Penland, right? You’ve taught here a couple of times…
The first time I came, it was 1998. I was teaching a printmaking class that was all about telling stories with prints. We were focusing mostly on making etchings. The idea was how to tell a story visually. It was a two-week class and several people got small books finished, and series of prints, which I was so blown away by. I had never been to Penland before, so I had not yet encountered the all-night, make-art-’til-you-fall-over way of life.
The second time, in 2005, I thought, let’s just pick some really specific aspect of technique and focus on it, so I came and did a class on aquatint. And again, people were amazingly productive, and I met some really stellar artists, some of whom I’m still in touch with.
It was loads of fun. The only problem with teaching here is that everyone else is being wildly productive, and my productivity is the students – I’m not making a thing, because every time I set foot in the studio, they’re like, “Audrey! How do I do this?” For me, it’s never about my own making. Everybody around me is making stuff, but it’s kind of hard for me to get anything done when I teach.
What makes Penland important is that it’s a place where…. it’s not like the real world doesn’t touch it, because obviously real people come and do important real things, but the petty garbage that seems to dominate regular life has mostly seemed to be put aside here. One of the great pleasures of this kind of place is that people are not here to get status, they’re not here to make some kind of fortune, they’re here because they like doing this, and it means something to them, and they’re interested in being part of a community that likes to do it. It’s a very pure endeavor.
How do you feel about the difference between workshop education and a more academic setting?
Workshop education and academic education fulfill very different needs for people at very different points in their education. I started teaching in community education, working at a small art center in Evanston, Illinois. It was a delightful way to learn to teach because there were no grades, and the students were all older and more experienced than me. The nice thing about printmaking is that you don’t get a lot of people who do it who are not hard core. In a photography class, you might get someone who just wants to learn how to use their new digital camera, whereas printmaking attracts people who are interested in something inherently more esoteric. The proportion of very serious students is high. Right off the bat, when I started teaching, I was very lucky because the people I was teaching were often much more experienced than I was.
One nice thing about community education is that it doesn’t really have to end. I started teaching in 1987, and a lot of my printmaking students have maintained an identifiable group and still print together as a class. A couple of years ago, because I was traveling so much, I gave up being the teacher and one of the students who had been in the class lo those many years took over being the teacher. So now Paula Campbell, who came with me as my assistant the first time I taught at Penland, is the instructor and I sign up for the class and go make my prints. The main attraction is this group of people who are so accomplished and know each other so well. You never graduate, so there’s really no need to leave. There is a certain amount of instruction happening, because we do get new students who need to be taught, but for the most part, people just do their thing. Not every printmaker wants to have a press, and the whole rigamarole that surrounds it, so it can be very beautifully communal.
The nice thing about the academic model is the intensity, the speed of it. The program that I developed at Columbia was a 3 year MFA, and it was really interesting to see the difference between a 2 year and 3 year MFA. That extra year really put people over the top; by the end of the third year they were usually quite ready to do a very exciting thesis show and then go do their thing as a self-propelling artist. For me, that’s also a very good model of education, but the main thing is for the students to know what they need. Some people are just there to get credentialed so they can teach, some want that kind of intense immersion, and some are not sure why they’re there, and in that case sometimes it’s a mistake to accept them, sometimes they should wait a little bit and see if they really want to spend 3 years and heaven knows how much money.
It’s been interesting over the years to see how different people react to different modes of instruction, to see what they make of things. Many people I’ve taught have gone on to teach. In fact, when we started the book and paper center, we thought if we could teach enough people, that we could expand the field. It’s a very tiny field, even now, but it’s blossomed in the time that I’ve been doing it, and you can now go to a comic book store and get all kinds of little handbound things that I would call artist’s books, so they’ve made their way out there.
What are your goals as a teacher? Do you have a philosophy of teaching?
My goal is to take the artist who comes to me as a student and help them become more so. I don’t want them to be like me, I don’t have any particular thing I want them to be. I’m interested in them becoming a more heightened version of themselves. So if you looked at all the work my students have ever done, I don’t know that it would necessarily constitute any consistent train of thought. I think it would be all over the place, but that is pleasing to me. I appreciate that.
Is this your first time in the new print studio?
Now that you’ve been in here for a couple of days, what do you think of it?
It’s fantastic. I can tell it would be an excellent studio to teach in, just because of the way things are laid out. Everybody’s obviously thought very carefully about how all the parts relate to each other. That’s exciting. It’s kind of a rare experience to be in a studio where everything is new. Obviously, the machines are old, but the layout is new, and everything works, and everything is very nicely planned. It’s a pleasure. I’m sort of scheming to teach here again.