On Teaching

I started teaching in 1987, when I was twenty-three. I have taught printmaking, artists books, drawing, photography, letterpress, bookbinding, writing classes for book artists, book arts classes for writers, seminars for novelists, and a course on the history of visual narrative. Most recently, I was a professor in the Creative Writing Department of Columbia College; I left in May of 2015 in order to have more time to write. Prior to that, I taught in the MFA program of the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, and also at The Newberry Library, Penland School of Craft, Haystack, and Northwestern University.

— Audrey Niffenegger

The following interview with Audrey was conducted by Ken Gerleve — with questions by Todd Summar and Ken Gerleve — during the Autumn of 2014. 

You worked with Marilyn Sward to establish what eventually became the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. How did that come to be, and what was your role in it?

The Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts (I usually refer to it as the B&P or the Center) opened to the public in 1994. Marilyn Sward was its first Director and I was the first Assistant Director. The original idea for the Center came from Tricia Hammer and Richard Weaver. A group of Chicago book artists, papermakers, bookbinders and letterpress artists began to meet to discuss founding the Center in 1993. We were interested in creating an institution that would offer classes, hold exhibitions, publish books and be a place for people interested in books and book arts to just hang out together. Because of Marilyn’s connection to Columbia College—she was an alumna of the Interdisciplinary Arts program—she approached Suzanne Cohan Lange, the Chair of that department, and Suzanne invited us to start the Center under the auspices of Columbia College. Eventually Paper Press and Artists Book Works, small independent non-profit paper and book arts organizations, both became part of the Center.          

I was one of the original group who wanted to create a book and paper center. When it began to materialize at Columbia, Marilyn asked me if I would join her as Assistant Director. It was not a glorious job. We both worked 60+ hour weeks for very little money. I developed curriculum, wrote catalogues, installed gallery shows, dealt with registration and renters and broken equipment. There were only two of us (and some intrepid interns and volunteers) to get the Center rolling, but even though things were chaotic at the beginning it did eventually begin to roll.

What inspired the creation of the Center for Book and Paper Arts and the merging of the two pre-existing entities?

Some of us had seen the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and we wanted that for Chicago. MCBA was wonderful. Chicago’s two existing book arts organizations were much smaller and not as well funded or equipped. We wanted to be part of a larger organization (a college) that would support a crazy odd thing like the Book and Paper Center just because it was interesting. Columbia College was very supportive indeed, so I’m glad the Center ended up there.

You’ve said that Chicago was a good place to be during the 1980s and 1990s if you were interested in the book arts, since the city had so many people making exciting books. Did the Center for Book and Paper Arts emerge as a response to this phenomenon, to serve as a resource for artists, or were there other goals for it?

I think the Center was the next logical step after Artists Book Works and Paper Press had done so much hard work to create a public for book arts in Chicago. The other crucial group was the Chicago Hand Bookbinders. They had been founded by a small group of professional conservators and bookbinders and their focus was on the best practices and techniques of bookbinding. They met once a month in various locations and there were always demonstrations and discussions and sometimes parties. CHB grew to include book artists (not everyone was happy about that) and as the original bookbinders moved away or retired the vibe of CHB shifted. There was considerable overlap between CHB and the Center. Many of the best CHB binders taught classes at the Center, and many of our students eventually joined the CHB. CHB has ceased to exist, alas. I miss it.

At the beginning there were many ideas about what the Center should be and do, who it should serve, what it was. It was meant to be very community-focused. It evolved into a graduate program for students seeking MFAs. There are still exhibitions and now there is some publishing as well. The people who run it now have quite different interests than the people who founded it. I’m not there anymore, but I am glad the Center continues.

In the years since its inception, how has the world of book arts changed? How did the Center evolve to accommodate the changing needs of its students?

Because of changes in the teaching staff, the focus of the Center shifted from craft and skills, along with ideas and art making, to a much more conceptual curriculum. I don’t think the book arts world has changed much, these things all exist together in the broader world of book arts. What changed was the interests of the professors at the Center.

You first started teaching in 1987, in community education, at a small art center in Evanston, Illinois. What drew you into teaching in the first place?

It’s fun. My first teaching job was teaching etching, my first love, and the students were all much older than me and very experienced, so we had a blast. It’s always interesting to work with artists, there are endless surprises and I get to work on problems I would not encounter in my own studio practice.

You’ve taught in community education as well as academic settings. What do you see as the key differences between each?

Teaching in community art classes is ideal. There are no grades, everyone is there because they are interested, the students are adults and they have self-discipline. We are free to concentrate on teaching and learning.

In undergraduate classes, the students are young and they’re used to working for a grade. Some are able to work for the love of it, but many have to be given the old carrot/stick treatment, which I find very boring indeed. Graduate students are a pleasure, they have chosen to commit to their work and they are driven to improve. I especially love to work with thesis students, it’s very interesting to work intensely with people over long periods of time.

You’ve mentioned that one of your goals as a teacher is to help students become a more heightened version of themselves, not necessarily to emulate your work. How do you help them achieve this?

I don’t think most of my students have any interest in imitating me, but I have met teachers who work hard to impress their own views upon their students. I try to figure out what the student is doing, or meaning to do, in their work. Sometimes that isn’t clear, because they are beginners, or they are still growing up, or they aren’t aware of what they are saying. So I try to help them be as clear as possible, and I ask them what they want to do, and we try to find ways for them to do that better. It’s a very individual process.

Do you have any other goals as a teacher, or different teaching philosophies? For instance, how would you define a successful teacher, and a successful student?

The best teachers I have had were very demanding. They expected me to work hard, to listen carefully, to form my own judgements and act on them. They never said something was good if it wasn’t, and if it was good or bad they explained why. They helped me to form my understanding of aesthetics, ideas, techniques, and they were clear about their own sources and biases. They encouraged independence. I try to be that sort of teacher.

The best students go beyond their teachers and find their own voices, thier own ideas. When my students achieve that I feel extremely proud of them.

You’ve taught visual art-centered classes – everything from drawing, to printmaking – and you’ve taught fiction writing classes, as well as hybrids between the two. How do you approach the teaching of art vs. writing? What are the differences and overlaps?

The biggest difference for me is the reading load; I teach a seminar on novel writing, and so I read hundreds of pages of student writing each semester. For a studio art class I do some preparation but mostly I work with students during class hours.

The similarities have to do with process. I’m trying to demonstrate for them how a thing is made, possible ways they might make a thing like that themselves.

What have you found to be the most effective resources for artists, either in Chicago or elsewhere?

Some of them have disappeared. Aikos was a stupendous thing for all Chicago area book artists because they were a retailer of Japanese paper and they were importing things that no one else had but they closed a few years ago. I suppose the best resource for any artist is one’s circle of fellow artists. People here do tend to help each other out quite a bit and to form little groups and to get studios together and to exchange ideas and so there's been quite a lot of help from artist-to-artist.

A lot of the institutional things that used to exist when I was a bit younger, things like Chicago Hand Bookbinders, have also disappeared. I hope that it’s time for a new wave of groups and organisations and so forth. There are places like Spudnik Press that sound quite good - I've never been over there - but I hear good things.

How have you utilized them for your teaching and your own artwork?

For teaching, of course it depends on what it is I'm teaching. For example, the Newberry Library is always terrific, a great place to bring students so they could see older printed books and all sorts of letterpress beauties. The Newberry has a fantastic collection on the history of the book, its called the John M. Wing Collection. That was always a great thing. I have learned a lot from looking at that and also talking to Paul Gehl who is the Custodian of the Wing Collection.

Other things that have been great - the Print and Drawing Room at the Art Institute of Chicago is something I've used since I was a student at SAIC. For a printmaker, they have such riches, such beautiful things. Sometimes you can even see plates, so you get a better sense of how a print was made. These are places I bring art students.

For the writing students, we tend not to go to so many places; I usually bring people into the classroom to talk to the students. For the artists it’s more important and easier to bring them to look at things. Chicago is rich in collections and institutions and teachers. There's a longstanding network of people who know each other and who are willing to open their collections to students. That's been really helpful. It gives a feeling of continuity that there are several generations of people who are willing to show things to the young people coming up.

For people who are interested in making things like artist’s books by hand, as you did with The Adventuress while at SAIC (for which you incorporated letterpress printing and hand bookbinding), what is the best route for them to segue into publishing? Or is there a route? Is this something you address in your teaching?

Publishing is changing, the world of artist's books is changing and there's a happy middle ground right now where it’s incredibly easy to self-publish things that look quite professional, as though they have been published by some giant New York conglomerate, so I think the desire for people to publish artist’s books through conventional channels has perhaps somewhat lessened. It’s easier now to make the thing - to get the thing to look like a “real book” (a trade book). Meanwhile, I think that publishers are becoming more conservative and more experimental simultaneously, if that makes sense. I think if you’re a midlist author, it’s harder to get your books out there now. The publishers are interested in things that make a lot of money and/or things that have a reason to be a physical book. If you’re making something that is especially wonderful and is going to be a marvel of book design or a glorious thing that really makes use of the physical form, I think that there are publishers who understand what that is and are willing to do it.

Can you talk a bit about some of the mentors and teachers that influenced you in your development as an artist and storyteller? What lessons stuck with you the most? In what ways do you see their influence in your own work? How did they inform your own approach to teaching?

I have been fortunate and have had a lot of great teachers. Even when I was in elementary school I had several teachers who really encouraged me to draw. We did not have art lessons in this school. I went to a tiny Catholic school in Skokie, Illinois. But there were several teachers when I was in the seventh and eighth grades who noticed that I could draw and who entered my drawings in the Scholastic art competition which was my first experience seeing my art on a wall someplace other than in my own house. Those teachers were Sally Nagawicki[1]  and Joyce Cary Then I went to Evanston Township High School, which is huge. When I was there it had about 4,000 students and a whole art department. Enrollment at the time was shrinking; I was born at the end of the baby boom.  There was an unused art classroom and those of us who were committed art students were allowed to take this unused classroom and have a club, of sorts. We just hung out there all the time, between classes and after school, we were constantly making art. We had some great teachers, they gave us a lot of freedom.

For me the one who was most pivotal was William Wimmer, who had been the printmaking teacher when there were enough students to make a printmaking class. But in my day, the printmaking classroom was part of this unused classroom we had taken over. The press was just standing there looking kind of forlorn. A friend of mine, who was a little older, said “You like to do these pen and ink drawings - you should try etching. You should go to the art office and ask William Wimmer to give you etching lessons.” I thought, Really? Ok. And so I went and knocked on the door and Bill Wimmer happened to answer it. He was a tall guy with big glasses that magnified his eyes, he looked like an owl. He stuck his head out and I said “Becky Heydeman said you would give me printmaking lessons.” He said “Oh?” and he did, for about three years. Several times a week he would stay after school with me. We reassembled that press. We got a new motor.  Then he taught me printmaking pretty much from the ground up. He started by handing me a piece of zinc and explaining what drypoint intaglio was and sent me off to do a drypoint. So when we got the press working again, we printed the drypoint and that was the first print that I ever made. I think I might have done some linoleum blocks before that because I kind of understood what that was, but the first organised print that I made was this crazy little drypoint. He gave me a very thorough grounding in old-school intaglio technique. When I think of the time that he put into working with me I am in awe because it’s rare to find someone who will do that just because they want to. Just because they can. And later, I think it was one of the things that made me want to go into teaching, because Bill Wimmer had been so generous.

When I got to the School of the Art Institute, I was lucky, again, that I had good teachers. One of them was Joan Flasch who was teaching the bookbinding class. Her class had a huge waiting list and I couldn’t get in. I ended up taking it my last semester of school because you simply couldn’t get in unless you had registration priority. The thing that made her so popular was that she was funny and clever and delightful as a teacher but also she was teaching something that involved skills - there were actual handskills involved - it wasn’t just some vague conceptual thing. People craved it. She taught six different bindings. They were all basic, but you could build on that if you were interested, you could keep going. That’s what I did; after graduation I started to study bookbinding independently. Another teacher who was super important to me was Mark Pascale, who went on to become a curator in the Print and Drawing Department at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mark was a very young teacher and he was filled with enthusiasm, someone who was generous and kind. He could tell you what you needed to hear without being condescending in any way about it. To me he was important for his teaching methods as well as the things I learned from him about art. He was my lithography teacher.

In graduate school at Northwestern University, my advisor was Philip Chen. He was an exemplary teacher. He was extraordinarily patient. More than once I watched him do a critique for a student while I was thinking, this student has nothing going on, Phil would look at the art and tease out the elements that were interesting and that would be educational for the whole class. He was able to talk about just about anything you put in front of him in a way that would actually be beneficial for everybody sitting there. And I thought, “That is a skill. That is an amazing technique.” Because when I was a student, I was like a junior wolverine, I was sitting there all the time with a snarl on my face and a bad attitude. I realised, when I began to teach, that this was not going to be in any way helpful to anybody. So I started to think much harder about these qualities that all these different teachers had modelled of kindness and cleverness and generosity and patience, and I thought, ok, that’s the way to go. That is what will get the message across, eventually. If you are willing to get in there and be with the person you are teaching and come at it with that level of commitment and understanding: if you can do that, then eventually they are going to learn something.