Responding to Violence with Printmaking in Falcon Heights

“I’m not brave enough to [break a law and risk going to jail] but I can say rather freely what I want to with my art.” -Corita Kent Corita Kent

Kent, a nun, teacher, printmaker, and non-violence activist believed she could make the world a more peaceful place through art. Her screen prints were part of the Hippie Modernism exhibition at the Walker Art Center, and each of the four times I visited the exhibition (twice alone, twice with students), I was struck by work like Kent’s from the 1960s and 70s that addressed some of the issues my students (and all of us) navigate today – civil rights and racial injustice, violence and war, and communication media shaping cultural perceptions.

Copy of taylor002

I learned about Philando Castile via an official email from the University of Minnesota, signed by the president and vice president of the U, while I was killing time in the computer lab at the U of MN School of Journalism, where I teach a Media Design course. It’s hard to know what to do with messages of violence and fear. It’s hard to know how to help strangers in pain, without causing more pain. “Rule #7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.” (Kent and Steward, 2008) When faced with a problem, I often respond by making things with my hands. Inspired by Kent’s screen-printed messages of hope and her collaborations with students, I created a modular system of drawings, textures, and pre-set wood type that could be mashed-up many ways.

Kent “shaped her students to see themselves as artists, world citizens, and people making ‘acts of hope.’” (Kent and Steward, 2008) So I designed a collaborative printmaking lesson for my Media Design class that I hoped would get the students thinking about their perceptions of fear and courage and about all the interesting ways text and image can be combined to shape meaning around those topics. I collaborated with a fellow graphic design grad student and type enthusiast to set up the presses and get the type just right.

Copy of zhu002

The drawings I made and the words I selected were open-ended and abstract so the students could invent their own composition and create their own meanings by experimenting with the different combinations of the typography and graphics. The students experimented with composition and visual communication through layering the drawings and type. I aimed to encourage divergent thinking about the many potential relationships between the words and graphics that could lead to different interpretations of the same imagery.

Experimenting with the layering of screen printed textures and wood type printmaking taught abstract thinking, composition, and transparency. The combinatory nature of printmaking was an excellent teacher. One simple brush stroke texture can hold a world of different meaning depending on how it is printed – brush strokes over the word “fear” hold a different meaning than when they are layered in a different color under the word “courage.”

Each drawing, pattern, texture, or word created different feelings and ideas for the viewer, depending on how it was placed and how it interacted with the the other graphics. One mark or image didn’t always represent just one idea – in one context it meant fear, in another context it feel look beautiful, in another comforting, and in another sad, and on and on. It’s my belief that the hands-on experience of printing graphics and text taught things about context that my words could not.

And that’s where Philando Castile, printmaking, and graphic design collided and became the lesson I struggled to find the words for. Context. Change a color, change a location, change a word, change the style, and the message is altered. Artists, makers, designers, communicators – we have the power to do that.

Copy of taylor010

Bibliography Steward, Jan and Kent, Corita. Learning by Heart, Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. New York: Allworth Press, 2008. Hippie Modernism. Walker Art Museum. 1750 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403. December 2015. Corita Art Center. (accessed July 28, 2016)