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An interview with Audrey Niffenegger – Part II

The time-traveler's watch.
The time-traveler's watch: the top clock is set to whenever she is now, the bottom always to London time.

A few weeks ago, between summer classes and fall concentration, artist and author Audrey Niffenegger was in town to speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, and spent a week working in Penland’s printmaking studio. We’re big fans, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask our multi-talented guest a couple of questions (more than a couple, in fact – you can read Part I of the interview here.)

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.

You’re known as both a visual artist and a writer, and you teach. You taught in the visual arts department (at Columbia College Chicago) for quite a while, and recently moved to the writing department. Was that a matter of professional development or opportunity? Does it reflect a shift in your interests, or in what you wanted to help students with?
No, it was simply one of those academic things where the situation dictated that it would be better to go hang with the fiction department. Academia is a funny place for art to be taught, I think. Ben Shahn wrote a very interesting essay on the subject, it’s the first in his book, The Shape of Content. He was writing in the 1950’s, when the training of artists was just beginning to move into academia, and he predicted a kind of intellectualization and conceptualization of art making, that it would be less and less about making things with your hands and more and more about things that could be critiqued, and written about, and so on. And so it has come to pass.

When we created the book and paper program, the group of people that founded it were very interested in content, but also very interested in making. We sought a balance, and we were interested in having students who would also be interested in  an interdisciplinary approach, and a kind of wide open experimentation. The people who run the program now are, I would say, a more austere and intellectualized batch. They have different goals, and are attracting a different kind of student. I would probably be kind of useless for these new students, so I went off to the fiction department, where I get to play with students who are interested in narrative, and story, and all these other things. I happen to be teaching visual books there, so I’m taking all these people who are not connected to their hands at all, and making books with them, and that has been very exciting. For them, it’s a revelation, it’s blowing their minds, so it’s been good. I’ve been really happy.

By now, I’m pretty practiced at moving back and forth between the purely visual and the visual with language, and the language by itself, and I have different ideas that can be pursued in different combinations of these things. It’s useful to continue teaching to watch people who are not practiced take it on, and sort of see what they make of it, and if it’s useful for them, and see how it filters through the mind of someone who’s 19, rather than me, who’s 48. There’s nothing wrong with art becoming concerned with language, as long as there is room for the art that has no language. The thing that worries me all the time is that we’re supposed to be living in such a poly-media, poly-approach realm of art, where there’s supposed to be room for everybody to do everything, but in actual practice, at least in academia, certain kinds of students will be praised, and certain kinds of students will be given a hard time, and to me it does seem to be a lot about toeing the line. There’s a certain approach that is favored, and that approach is a very theory-driven way to do things, and the problem with theory is, as a grad student, you can take on boatloads of theory, but that theory will be out of style 5 years from now, so you will have to keep on moving or you will become very old-fashioned-looking when you’re about 30.

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.

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Time lapses when you’re having fun!

Penland Instructor’s Retreat Time Lapse from Dan Bailey on Vimeo.

One last bit of fun from the instructors’ retreat a few weeks back. Penland instructor, former trustee, former resident artist, and director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Dan Bailey bugged the studios with cameras on timers, then assembled the thousands of images they captured into a series of time-lapse videos. They’re pretty awesome.

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An interview with Audrey Niffenegger – Part I

Audrey Niffenegger in the print studio
Audrey Niffenegger at work in the Penland printmaking studio

A few weeks ago, between summer classes and fall concentration, artist and author Audrey Niffenegger was in town to speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, and spent about a week working in Penland’s printmaking studio. This wasn’t Audrey’s first visit; she’s taught here a couple of times (which we talk about in Part II). We’re big fans, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down with our multi-talented guest and ask her a couple of questions.

You’re relatively well-known, and there are many written descriptions of you out there. How would you describe yourself?
I’m a visual artist and a writer. My main interest is in narrative and storytelling, and that crosses the boundaries of whatever media I might be in. I’m an American artist, based in Chicago, but also spend a great deal of time in London. At this point, I have a kind of strange hybrid of the English and European things I’m interested in and the American things I’m interested in, and I’m never entirely sure how that’s going to manifest. That’s important to me – to be someone who is from Chicago, but is heavily invested in London, having a kind of parallel life there.

Do you enjoy speaking engagements like the one at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival?
Once I actually get out on stage, and I’m in the midst of it, I do enjoy it. My favorite part of speaking at any kind of event, whether it’s a visual thing or a literary thing, is definitely the Q&A. I would just do total Q&A if I could get away with it.

One of the things I like about things like the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival is that it’s a community gathering. This is an especially nice literary festival because the community is not huge, and everybody knows each other. As it goes on, I’m sure it will pull in more and more people who are not close friends of the people involved, but I did notice that most of the authors were from this area, and there was this conversation going back and forth between the readers and the writers. Of course, writers are always readers, too – I know almost no one who writes who isn’t also a voracious reader; it’s just about the only way you learn anything. It impressed me, that feeling almost like a town meeting or going to a potluck, it had a real homemade quality to it. I’ve been to some festivals that were very, very large; I just got back from a lit fest in Edinburgh in August, which is one of the largest in the world. I think there were 750 authors there. It’s impressive and crazy, and has a lot of things going on, but it’s not like everyone in the audience knows each other and knows the person on stage. That’s a different kind of connectedness.

Having made works that would traditionally be called artist’s books, hand bound, in small editions, some of which have gone on to be much more widely published, how do you feel about the difference between an artisan-sized book and an industrial-sized book? Is there a meaningful difference?
For me, the meaningful difference is in the distribution. It’s pleasing to control all the aspects of production and to have exactly what you want, which is what an artist’s book is all about, but having a trade edition of an artist’s book is kind of the best of both worlds, because then you get the distribution. Most of the things I’ve done, I’ve made 10 copies, and generally they end up in the hands of private collectors, who I think will one day give them to libraries or museums, and then there are a few museums and institutions that just bought them outright. So they’re ending up in places where it’s hard for people to stumble across them accidentally. If you go to Harvard, or the Newberry, or some of the places that own my work, and you know what to ask for – because this isn’t the type of library where you can browse – then you get to see it, but if you’re standing in a Barnes & Noble, wandering around, you stumble across all kinds of things that you didn’t know existed. Even if you’re looking online, at a place like Amazon, you have a hard time stumbling. Amazon will stumble for you, you know, “If you like this, you’ll like that,” but that’s just some strange algorithm. Most of the important discoveries of my life have been through browsing. It worries me when real spaces with books in them become endangered, because it’s such a different discovery process. I worry that people’s worlds may become strangely narrow, if they spend all their time looking at them through a screen. We’ll see. I doubt that people will really let that happen.

What have you been working on while you’ve been here in the studio?
I’m working on some etchings. The thing I’m supposed to be working on…. I’m collaborating with a choreographer on a ballet. My responsibility is to write the story, which I have done, and now I’m supposed to be storyboarding, to make it from a word thing into a picture thing. Then the choreographer will take the storyboards and start thinking about dance, and I will design the costumes and sets and also make a graphic novel out of it.

What I’ve been doing is collecting and amassing all this reference material. The ballet is called The Raven Girl. It’s about this girl whose parents are a postman and a raven, which sounds like some sort of Lewis Carol joke. The beginning of the story is about how her parents met, and how they came to have a girl. She feels… although she looks like a girl, she feels like a raven, a raven inside and a girl outside. When she grows up, she tries to do something about making her outer self match her inner self, and she finds a plastic surgeon who’s willing to try to give her wings. There’s a lot of stuff sort of swirling around, and I’m hoping that…. One of the things I like about collaborating is that other people often seize upon elements that you yourself might have left dormant. I’m curious to see what directions my collaborator will take it in.

Will you let her have her wings? After reading The Three Incestuous Sisters and seeing the prints of the Saint with his stunted little wing stubs, I hope you’ll let her have beautiful raven wings. Or are planning something terrible for her?
I’m trying to resist. I’m collaborating with Wayne Macgregor, a very wonderful choreographer, who is based in London. Wayne’s work with his own company, the Random Dance Company, is incredibly physical. There’s a very high degree of athleticism – huge, challenging levels of physicality in his dances. He’s very interested in the science of the body, the science of movement, and collaborates with scientists sometimes. When I asked him what sort of story he wanted, he said, “Let’s have a new fairy tale!” So I went and read a pile of fairy tales that had previously been used to make dances. Quite frequently, the protagonist is a young girl and terrible things happen to her. That matched up pretty well with what I like to do, but then I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we subvert these expectations a little bit, and don’t kill her, or…. So I’m endeavoring to fit the mold of the fairy tale without necessarily doing all of that pre-feminist stuff that the makers of the older fairy tales do to their young girls.

I’m trying to think, out of all the ballets I’ve seen, if there are any that really end happily. There’s The Nutcracker, which isn’t too dreadful, but then again, that’s for children. Sleeping Beauty ends okay. Snow White – we kill off the characters we don’t like, and retain the ones we do. Nobody dies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone is restored to their proper forms and put back where they belong. I think it depends on whether the story comes from a comedy or a tragedy. There are things you can probably do in ballet, because it’s somewhat abstracted, that might be less palatable in certain other forms. Things are highly symbolic and the level of gore is generally lower.

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.