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The Mac Weekly

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The Mac Weekly

Prof Talk: Ruthann Godollei discusses printing, graphics with social message

Professor Ruthann Godollei poses with the printing press in the Studio Art’s makeshift Printland, located on the third floor of the Lampert Building. (Photo by Amy Lebowitz.)
Professor Ruthann Godollei poses with the printing press in the Studio Art’s makeshift Printland, located on the third floor of the Lampert Building. (Photo by Amy Lebowitz.)

Talk a bit about your background.

I have always been an artist since I was a little kid, but I wasn’t sure that I was always going to go into art for a profession. I was really interested in science, and I ended up at Pomona College. But Pomona closed its botany program. [laughs] I transferred to Indiana University—I was born in Indiana—and they closed theirs, too. So I thought, “Oh, well, I like art. I’ll go into art.” And someone looked at my portfolio and said, “Well, you draw very nicely. Have you thought about printmaking?” And I really hadn’t, but once I took it, I fell in love with it. So printmaking is etching, lithography, screen printing, relief printing, letterpress and, these days, computer prints, so I can do all those things now. And I really still enjoy the process of it as well as the ability to use it for something I really think needs to be said. Some people would call me a political artist. A lot of my work is about social issues. Printmaking has a long history of commenting on cultural and social concerns.

Did you have a lot of these cultural and social concerns from a young age?

I did. The Vietnam War was wrapping up as I was young, so my sisters all went to protests and I tagged along. My parents took me to a march when Martin Luther King got shot. I was a really little kid and it made a huge impact on me. So I would say I grew up with a sense of social justice.

Can you talk about how you decided to start teaching art in addition to working as an artist?

Well, as you can imagine, making a living off of making art in America is a very hard thing to do. So it’s very common for artists to pick up, say, Saturday classes or things like that. My degree qualified me to teach college and Macalester had an opening for a printmaker, part-time. I thought, “Okay. I get along with young people, I love talking about what I make and do and the things that go into making prints.” So I ended up getting a tenure-track job at Macalester and I’ve been here ever since.

When was that?

I got tenure in the nineties, so I started out part-time and then worked my way to tenure.

How do you balance your individual work with teaching?

I get a lot of energy from my students. A lot of times I’ll be thinking about a topic and discuss that in class, and then the students’ enthusiasm and perspectives and sometimes even the new things they might be reading in other classes—I might hear about a teacher here that is teaching theory that would be very useful for what I’m trying to talk about in art. So I try to use the teaching part of it to inform my work. I don’t want the students to just do what I do. I’m not trying to make clones of myself. But I’m trying to use the academic setting as fuel for my personal practice. Discoveries that I make, both technically and in the processes and also in terms of theoretical background, feed right back into my classes. For example, I’m teaching a new course called Dissent this semester. That came right out of the things I’ve been thinking about lately: the Occupy movement, the environmental concerns over fracking. So when my students are talking about those issues, I go exploring them too. A lot of times we can have mutually beneficial discussions.

How do you structure a class that integrates art and social themes?

I think smart artists are really good artists. So Macalester has already, ready-made, a set of students who are smart. Getting them to apply what they think to what they’re making is a wonderful occasion, when it really matches up. So we discuss issues of concern to them—I’m not trying to tell anybody what side of an issue to be on—but a student will be exploring their own concerns, and I will try to see if there’s some way that I can help them with the execution of it. For example, we have very simple assignments in Dissent, like “Make a button.” Right? For a cause you believe in. But it’s deceptively simple. Effective graphics put in the service of a cause you care about are really a tall order to do in a memorable way. In a little two-inch-diameter space! So I think what I want to do is have people have the tools to express themselves, should they have a social concern, effectively. There’s nothing worse than lame political graphics. [laughs]

Godollei’s current project works to critique and deconstruct the language of the recession. (Austerity, screenprint by Ruthann Godollei. Used by permission.)

Have you had challenges in teaching these courses?

For one, Dissent is taught in a classroom that doesn’t have any studio equipment. So I had to tailor the projects to things that we could do outside of a studio space. I think we’re doing it pretty well. But the challenge of waiting until the art building is renovated is, for all of us in Studio Art, quite a big hurdle. But we’re trying to have fun doing it.

Secondly, I want to be really careful to make sure that I have room for whatever opinions students have. My idea is not to impose my political preferences on someone else. I want to facilitate someone expressing their own preferences. So that’s always something to be cautious about.

Have you ever taught classes that involved community interaction?

It’s our final assignment. The students are directed to work with a community, put the community’s concerns first and put the graphics in the service of the community’s concerns. To me, this is a dimension of socially responsible graphics that is very important. It’s one thing to have personal expression, and then it’s another thing to work with a community and not just helicopter in and say, “Oh, here, we’re going to plop some graphics on you.” Instead, trying to do it in a responsible way. We will discuss the theory of that and other people who practice that very well. There are some wonderful collectives that make it their mission to get feedback from the community. Like the Beehive Collective, who visited Mac last year, and Just Seeds collective, which is a printmaking collective, and I’m friends with many of those people. There’s a wave of interest in doing this new, responsive art that I think is really good to introduce our students to.

It’s definitely fitting here.

Don’t you think?

What’s your favorite part of teaching?

I love my students. As I said, I get energy from teaching. The idea that I bring my ideas and then I listen and get ideas back—that’s a room full of people who wouldn’t necessarily normally be together. They’re put in an artificial environment, but the cool thing is, the mix can make for something very exciting. It’s getting a range of views from an audience that’s prepared to come and talk about it. Sometimes you can put up stuff in an art show and you don’t hear a peep from the public, you know? They’re not obliged to talk to you about it. But students willing to talk to me about what they see going on in art, or in the world, is so helpful to the kind of practice I do. The other thing is, I’ve made student friends that I’ve kept for decades now. So every year I get a new batch of people that I get to stay in contact with as they go out and do amazing things in the world. That’s the other pleasure of teaching. One of my former students just got a Fulbright to India. She’s going to teach printmaking in communities there. What a wonderful thing. She’s going to send me postcards and tell me how she does it and what she finds in the communities there. And that’s going to open a whole new field for me to think about.

Have you had a favorite class that you’ve taught?

Oh, it’s always the ones that are going on right now. It’s true. It’s never stayed static. Just when I think it can’t get any better, I get a gift from some amazing thing a student does. Right now, the Dissent class is wonderful. They’re just waiting to do their next assignment. I just think they get better and better here.

What are you working on in your own art right now?

I am doing a series of cultural critiques around issues like the recession. I’m kind of doing an alternative vocabulary of the recession. There are some words that are very weird, like “austerity.” When the EU says to a smaller country like Greece, “Tighten your belts!”—it’s easy for somebody else to say to someone else. I’m trying to deconstruct the word by juxtaposing an image of something entirely different with that. So the word means one thing in the language of the recession, but in English it actually means a kind of brutal, repressed situation. So I’ve made a belt tightened until there’s no more loops, and that’s the image I chose to go with the word “austerity.” I have words like “stimulus” and “downturn.” Words that sound innocuous out of context, but we know they’re being used to fire people, to foreclose homes, to make bad banking policy. So I’m just trolling the news for words of our era and trying to deconstruct them in a more humane context.

Ideas, plans, hopes for the future?

My book just came out. I did a do-it-yourself book on printmaking techniques. There’s going to be a release party at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in downtown St. Paul on Mar. 15. I’m also in a bunch of shows all at once. I’m in a show at the Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota called The Dance of Words. I curated a show at 801 Gallery on North Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, and that’s all contemporary printmakers. And I just got into the Portuguese Biennial of Printmaking. I figure they might appreciate some work about recession policy. I think that’s why they contacted me, actually. It was an invitation to send in the work, and the show is by invitation only. So I’m very excited. I have a good year of shows ahead. So I guess that’s proof that I’m managing to teach and still make my work and make the two of those help each other, and not get in the way of each other.

Anything you’d like to throw out to the community?

I can’t convey enough how much I love my students, and how that relationship, to me, is one of mutual assistance. It’s not that I’m having my students do my work for me. It’s that I grow from having to think about what to give them.

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