FLOCK: Reflections after The University of Tampa by Rachel Simmons

Last month, I had the chance to hang out with students and faculty at the University of Tampa for a two-day collaborative printmaking workshop. The workshop was the third iteration  and expansion of FLOCK, an art project in which participants & I talk about birds, sometimes go birdwatching, and always make bird prints. Every time I have an opportunity to expand FLOCK, it always goes a bit differently, depending on the group I’m working with as well as the space & time we have, but there are always lively interactions & bursts of creativity. 

An assortment of field guides I have collected since 2015. 

An assortment of field guides I have collected since 2015. 

I begin by sharing what I am doing in my practice to examine our human relationship with nature. I pass around my collection of field guides while we chat about them. I always learn a lot about how others are navigating the complexities of of developed environment, and I hear about what they may notice and not notice about nature. I am always surprised that simply by talking about these things, I leave feeling more aware than ever about my own surroundings. 

Bird song became a topic of discussion at UT thanks to a gift from my mom. This summer, she gave me used copy of The Bible of Bird Song and I was able to play songs from a variety of birds for FLOCK participants. One or two of the students even used the book to identity birds they had heard and seen but could not name. Of course, there are plenty of apps that can play bird songs, but The Bible of Bird Song is special— it is a book with a digital sound player which allows one to turn the pages of a book, rather than click through a series of menus. As a book artist, I loved sharing this book and seeing how the UT students seemed to enjoy it, too. There just might be something fundamentally more satisfying in turning the pages of a book versus navigating a screen. 

University of Tampa students adding prints to FLOCK, October 16, 2017

University of Tampa students adding prints to FLOCK, October 16, 2017

The UT workshop was also different because it was a large group (around 70 participants spread out over two days) and many were interested in art, design and some specifically in printmaking. The project has what I think of as built-in opportunities for creative experimentation, as it asks participants to think about their experiences with birds, chose silhouettes, colors and patterns that suit their own aesthetic preferences within the limitations of the project. In other words, they have choices (which birds, which textures, which colors, which layer goes first, second, third), but they do not have an infinite number of choices. I find the space that lies between absolute freedom and guided limitation provides inspiration & spurs innovation. It presents one with a visual problem with thousands of solutions, and no one solution is privileged over another. One formula might be kingfisher + stripes + split run/rainbow roll on black paper, while another might be stripes + kingfisher + green on brown paper. Visually, thew results will always be compelling, and experimentally, this combining and recombining is the way to jump from one idea to another in a very short amount of time. The prints are passed around from person to person, and between groups, so no one owns any of the decisions, and everyone can contribute anything to any of the prints. 

Professor Ry McCullough organizes the flow of traffic on the press at The University of Tampa during FLOCK.

Professor Ry McCullough organizes the flow of traffic on the press at The University of Tampa during FLOCK.

FLOCK is an evolving project, one which continues to generate meaningful human-to-human interactions and opportunities for creative problem-solving. I simply set some things in motion two years ago and since then project has taken on its own identity. Since 2015, FLOCK has become a collective work in which participants are encouraged to think about birds, birdsong and bird behaviors as something more than a side note, but as an essential element of their daily experiences of being part of the natural world. At the same time, the project exists as an opportunity for conversation, sharing stories, and for engaging in a collective kind of creativity that opens up new ways of thinking and making for myself & the participants.  

Many, many, thanks to Ry McCullough and the students at The University of Tampa for creating such a great opportunity to do this project! I had an awesome time! 

The ever-expanding FLOCK at the Orlando Science Center, image taken November 17, 2017.

The ever-expanding FLOCK at the Orlando Science Center, image taken November 17, 2017.

FLOCK Workshop at University of Tampa, October 16-17, 2017 by Rachel Simmons

I am headed to Tampa tomorrow morning for a two-day workshop at the University of Tampa. Printmaker Ryan McCollough and his students will be participating in FLOCKa socially engaged art project which encourages participants to think about their relationship with birds. The UT students and I will spend time talking, birdwatching and making new bird prints to add to FLOCK. When I return home, I'll install their contributions to FLOCK at the Orlando Science Center on wires stretched across the gallery. Each participant will also fill out a bird survey as well. 

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Conceited Rural Dandies, new artist's book in an edition of 15 by Rachel Simmons

"Everybody knows the red head, that conceited rural dandy"...is a caption describing a woodpecker's flashy plumage, part of which became the title of my most recent artist's book, Conceited Rural Dandies. The phrase, and many others found in the book, originated from The Book of Birds, Volumes 1 & 2," a 1932 National Geographic publication in which birds are described in human terms. It was selected for inclusion in the project by a group of about 12 student collaborators from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, during the time we spent together through Benjamin Rinehart's Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop in October 2016. 

In this artist’s book, text and image was paired and layered to help the viewer explore some of the artifacts from the cultural history of birdwatching. Through a vellum layer of recreated field guide drawings and early 20th advertisements for feather-filled ladies' hats, the viewer can see letterpress-printed text, originally composed to describe birds as virtuous, vain, responsible and even caring. The original poem on the first page draws the connection between ladies' hats and birds by imagining why these stylish dressers would eventually trade fashionable feathered hats for binoculars. It sets the stage for the borrowed captions which often refer to birds as humans, discussing their devoted parenting skills, their propensity towards narcissism or rudeness, and even stereotypical ideas of masculinity & femininity. The unique cyanotype covers in this edition of 15 were also a collaborative venture; the Lawrence students created cut-out shapes echoing birds and bird habitats, and the cyanotypes were a result of collaging these shapes together and then exposing the paper to light. 

As with many of the socially engaged projects from Mass Migrations, Conceited Rural Dandies began with birdwatching along the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, an activity which brought birds and birdwatching to the attention of the project participants. In a larger sense, it was an excuse to go outside and think about our connections to the natural world for a while. As a symbol of nature, and as some of the most ubiquitous creatures on earth, birds are very accessible to humans. Their sometimes eerily familiar behaviors are very relatable, which makes it easy to connect with them. Since birdwatching began as a conservationist movement and hobby in the early 20th century, those who observe birds have anthropomorphized their behaviors in endlessly creative ways. In Conceited Rural Dandies, the captions we included almost read like poetry as they elegantly and humorously communicate a sincere desire to connect with birds by seeing them as an extension of ourselves.  

Though birdwatching—if one browses contemporary field guides—seems to have evolved into more of a competitive sport than these early soft-hearted musings about birds, today's birders still connect with birds in very personal ways. Why do birds still capture our admiration? Maybe we are the "conceited dandies" who judge bird behaviors as good or bad, helpful or villainous; we feel compelled by our own vanity to assess their survivalist behaviors by our social standards. Or maybe we just admire the freedom they have to fly away from the earth to which we are naturally tethered. Either way, as part of the Mass Migrations project, this work encourage participants to see birds as an integral part of nature, and for a few moments out of our busy lives, re-examine our symbiotic relationship with nature.

To purchase a book from this edition of 15, please inquire at rsimmons@rollins.edu

Linking Practice to Purpose by Rachel Simmons

At this year's SGCI conference in Atlanta, I sold several broadside prints in support of the ACLU. I am happy to report that I sold enough of these prints to donate $120.00 to that organization. I wanted to give a shout out to my fellow printmakers for supporting this initiative, and to encourage others to do the same. I decided to do this because I wanted to use my professional skills as an artist and scholar in a very direct way to support an organization that protects our civil rights and serves us when we are most vulnerable. I believe that if you care about a cause, your art practice can directly support that cause. You can link your practice to a purpose. 

 

 

A double vision of Teeny Meany Miney NO! letterpress and screen print on paper, 2017

A double vision of Teeny Meany Miney NO! letterpress and screen print on paper, 2017

Notes from Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop, October 10-14, 2016 by Rachel Simmons

Birdwatching at Lawrence University along the Fox River, part of "Mass Migrations," photo by Ben Rinehart

Birdwatching at Lawrence University along the Fox River, part of "Mass Migrations," photo by Ben Rinehart

MASS MIGRATIONS

There have been three iterations of the Mass Migrations project so far. The first was in July 2015 at Constellation studios in Lincoln, Nebraska during which I launched The Survey, FLOCK and created the artist's book A Survey of Popular Birds & Their Behaviors. The next cycle came later that fall when students in my 2D Foundations course at Rollins College elected to join the project and expanded FLOCK for an exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. And this October, students at Lawrence University joined Mass Migrations by birdwatching, filling out surveys and collaborating on a new artist's book edition supported by the Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop. The process for this third cycle of the project was based on my experiences with the previous two, and included the group birdwatching excursion, discussion and reflection, and an examination of the 1932 publication The Book of Birds Volumes 1 & 2 to facilitate awareness of the ways in which humans impose our cultural and social norms, biases and stereotypes on bird behaviors through anthropomorphized descriptions. 

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

My art practice have evolved over the years, gradually moving away from a solitary studio experience (a common model in graduate school) towards inclusivity and interaction with communities. I am interested in creating opportunities where viewers can become active collaborators, breaking out of traditional roles as passive consumers of art.

My current focus has been on creating print and book-based works through shared experiences and collaboration. The work that my collaborators and I make together are vehicles for generating awareness, both of ourselves and our place in the larger context of the natural world. In past projects, my topics have included ecotourism, marine pollution and global warming. Most recently, however, I have turned to the topic of bird behaviors and the culture of birdwatching through an ongoing project titled Mass Migrations. The ubiquitous nature of bird species makes a perfect topic to explore our connections with the natural world. In addition, the language of birdwatching field guides are reflective of our tendencies to characterize bird behaviors as we would human behaviors, with all of the social, cultural, and even political judgements that come with doing so. In this way, birdwatching has become a subculture that opens up dialogue about why we seem to identify animals as an extension of ourselves. 

Hand-set type waiting to be printed on the proof press with dummy book at Lawrence University, photo by Rachel Simmons

Hand-set type waiting to be printed on the proof press with dummy book at Lawrence University, photo by Rachel Simmons

THE PROCESS

Mass Migrations always begins with an introduction to my practice and an overview of the project. Then we begin to share stories about birds. Sometimes we sit around a studio work table to talk and other times we might stroll down a tree-lined path, stopping along the way to identify the sources of birdsong we hear. At Lawrence, the local birder group loaned us several pairs of binoculars to share, so we headed outside for a walk along the Fox River. It was a cool and breezy day in October, and most trees still had vivid green leaves. Birdwatching is an exercise in mindfulness, in actually stopping to notice what is around you using both through sound & sight. Likewise, once we are back in the studio to work, the project extends that mindfulness towards thinking critically about birdwatching as a cultural pastime which leads to shared discoveries in printmaking. 

 

A page from "The Book of Birds" with a caption that reads "EVERYBODY KNOWS THE RED-HEAD, THAT CONCEITED RURAL DANDY," photo by Rachel Simmons

A page from "The Book of Birds" with a caption that reads "EVERYBODY KNOWS THE RED-HEAD, THAT CONCEITED RURAL DANDY," photo by Rachel Simmons

After birdwatching, students were asked to read and choose illustration captions from The Book of Birds which seemed to read more as descriptions of human behaviors, not simply those of birds. After each student chose a caption (sometimes amused or incredulous at the barely hidden biases and stereotypes they found in the 1930's era language), others chose the best 6 captions to set with movable type. These would be featured in the final versions of the book. As they set type for the captions, I set a background for the book using type, ornaments and die cuts from Lawrence's letterpress collection. In addition, the students were also introduced to a photographic process called cyanotype, which we used to create covers for the books. The imagery we made for the covers included all things "bird,: i.e. talons, feathers, plants, trees, eggs and beaks. 

Discussing birds, birdwatching and artist's books, photo by Ben Rinehart

Discussing birds, birdwatching and artist's books, photo by Ben Rinehart

Now I'll be working on assembling the edition, sending half of the edition of 20 back to Lawrence's Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop which supported my visit; the work will be included in their artist's book collection and copies will also be sold to support the program. 

Speaking to students about the captions in "The Book of Birds" photo by Ben Rinehart

 

Update 11/2/16

Yesterday I received a thank you note from the Lawrence students and their professor, my friend, Ben Rinehart. They thanked me for "sharing my expert art skills" & for helping them better understand my art practice. It was a sweet letter. And I have to say, the feelings are mutual. I learned a lot from our time together, too. Doing socially engaged work is a natural fusion of my teaching & studio practices. And paper Fox offered exactly the right kind of experience, at the right time, and really has helped solidify the direction for this work.