A conversation with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville on feminism, public art, education, and the gentle art of activism.
I met Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in November 2014 at the Manifest Fest conference in Warsaw, held to mark the 50th anniversary of the First Things First manifesto. The presentation she gave there, simply of images introduced by just a few words, highlighted her interest in a kind of communication open to interpretation. A few months later, in August 2015, we met again for a long video call. The interview is published (in Italian and English) in the issue #29 of Progetto grafico. Here you can find the full transcription.
Born in New York of Polish emigrant parents, De Bretteville’s life has been full of experiences. After studying at Yale and a stint working in Milan, she helped set up CalArts in the early seventies in Los Angeles and was one of the founders of the Woman’s Building. Since 1990 she has been Head of Graphic Design at Yale University School of Art. Her own work currently focusses on permanent installations in the public space.
Sfligiotti: In your career you’ve been an educator, a designer, an artist, and you also had an important role in the feminist movement. Which ones of these roles are closer to what you are now?
De Bretteville: Well, they’re all mapped on to each other and entwined. I think all of them. Have been concurrent with more emphasis during different periods of time. At one time during the 1990’s — and I know this is true of some of my friends too — I took a break from feminism, but recently I re-engaged in it. I wanted a break because it’s always there. For example when I walk around, I’m inside my body, I forget what gender I am, until somebody makes note of it, or treats me in a way that I feel is not appropriate.
I think that particular strain attached to gender and one’s body has had more bumps and highs and lows in it. At the moment it’s actually rather high because I’ve been asked both in Hong Kong and elsewhere to speak about both my pedagogy and my practice through the lens of being a woman and fluidity of gender, so the title I chose was “F,M,L,G,B,T,Q,I …”. So I’ve thought about and spoken about gender more frequently recently.
Sfligiotti: Which steps in your story were important to arrive at where you are now? You studied at Yale in the ’60s, when it was a very different school from what it is now. And then you had many other experiences. Can you just name the most important points in this development?
De Bretteville: More and more I have thought about my parents, which is why going to Warsaw was so meaningful to me. My mother grew up there until she was in her late teens. And my father was from the countryside in Kaluszyn, Poland. He knew he was ill — he had a heart attack when I was three, again when I was five and died when I was 16 — and he did and said certain things that left very strong impressions on me.
Among them are his bringing home long playing records. I can’t believe — I lived in a very extended family household — how nobody became upset about my playing the records over and over and transcribing them during the time I was learning to write in long hand. Among the records were the Ballad for America sung by Paul Robeson, who was an active American actor and singer who was very involved with the Communist Party, went to Russia and was of course then completely black listed and barred from doing his work in the way that he had done prior to this labeling.
It was more the words in those songs which are very nostalgic and had very much to do with who the people — the real people — are: the people on the street, the people in the neighborhood, the people who you meet everyday, and which could all go under the rubric of lived experience, and democratic practice. Richard Sennett and others have written about city life, mixing with people who you don’t know, people who aren’t just like you, as a daily lived experience of democratic principles.
These things don’t sound connected, but in the long run, they feel very connected to me, in addition to growing up among so many languages I didn’t understand being spoken by the adults around me at home while I was learning to speak. The household into which I was born was filled with immigrants from about 1940 to 1948, and those were my first eight years, the only small person amidst and changing population of family members and refugees with bigger issues they were coping with…
I guess the next point would be the fact that I met Leon Friend, a German writer on design and teacher who came to the United States in i the ’30s. He published a book called Graphic Design. It’s a very eclectic book, it includes the etchings of Kathe Kollowitz, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial represented by Ben Shahn, sculpture, paintings, lithography, any image that was communicative, as well as the history of printing.
Leon Friend did a very interesting, special thing. There were more than 4,000 teenagers in my high school, and many of them were children of immigrants. He found out about competitions in New York City with prizes for art or design, and we all did paintings or posters in response to those competitions. As a result I ended up winning a fair sum before I graduated, including the first prize given by the Metropolitan opera for a painting of The Marriage of Figaro, and also a poster to encourage people to go to the doctor for regular check-ups. This was the way I think he meant to prove to our parents that art and design were a viable means of supporting oneself, and that becoming a doctor or a lawyer was not the only goal for a professional life. My mother was well educated in Warsaw. She had gone to Gymnasium before she came to the United States, and here she landed up being a factory worker like my father; not her chosen career path. She embodied a kind of fearfulness regarding the skills to sustain oneself economically in this world, and was exceptionally quiet, which my sister and I explained to ourselves may have come from not having quite the life she had hoped for.
I enjoyed being in school, partially because it was less complicated than my life at home. It was so easy to get immediate approval for the things I did.
In my mind the places of education and the street are linked together as sites of freedom, where I was free and able to learn, unattended or without any interference in what I was drawn to doing.
It’s not that I wasn’t free at home. It’s just that there were people living in every room. It was just very crowded and the classroom was more orderly, and the streets were playful. And I also loved going on Saturdays to the factory where my father worked. I loved the rows and rows of boxes, each full of different little things. One piece was attached to the front of each box of felt decorative elements, or different colored rhinestones. You have all this glitter and decorative stuff that the machines can attach to clothing. I wanted a sweater without any decoration, but I also took home some glitter and other stuff to put in books I was making at home to bring to school. I think that’s sort of a short hand of the kind of mish-mash of my back story I think played out over time in my life.
The colleges I chose to apply to were known for being the most well regarded and academic. I picked three which combined an access to art or design teaching as well. I wanted to go to the best schools — that’s the elitist part of me. The college advisors in my high school steered me toward women’s colleges. I chose Barnard, the sister college at Columbia University in New York City, and I could and did take art history courses at Columbia across the street, although you stood out, because there were so very few women.
At Barnard professor Barry Ulanoff taught a course called “Modern Art and Tradition.” I asked if I could make visual work instead of writing a paper and design new covers and sample spreads for some of the books we read in his class. He agreed, and then he told me that Yale had a graduate course in graphic design. I gathered all the information and applied with the paintings, posters and booklets I had done in high school and at college, and was accepted with a full scholarship. I didn’t come up to Yale for an interview, nor had ever been here before. I had no idea of what it looked like and did not think about the fact that Yale College was restricted only to men — a big university in a little town.
I didn’t see the unrelenting maleness of the place initially. Coming from a women’s college, I simply had no idea of the degree to which male privilege defined the place. I was 20 when I came and all but one of the teachers were men; the wonderful Polly Lada-Mocarski taught book binding. So looking back it was a very odd, disorienting place. People thought I was exotic. I said, “If you went to Brooklyn, you’d find lots more like me.” In many ways I didn’t love being or learning here — the first time around.
I really love the making of things, the whole process of ideas and content powered by form. And my fellow students were really important and helpful. I’d done everything by hand, and at that time I didn’t know how to use a T-square nor a triangle, and they taught me. I did learn from a color course given by a student of Joseph Albers, and some of typographic ideas came from setting type and some form assignments. Inductive learning comes from guided experiments, but not having had an undergraduate education in graphic design at the college level, that careful teaching wasn’t really what was going on at Yale at that time. Recently I was on a panel to talk about Paul Rand as a teacher. And I called one of my fellow students, Wayne Peterson, to ask if he had anything good I could say about Rand as a teacher. I needed some positive experience to share.
Sfligiotti: You recently mentioned the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition at the Walker Art Center. This definition of “hippie modernism” was first used by Lorraine Wild to describe some of your work from the early Seventies, which is going to be included in the exhibition. Can you tell me more about it?
De Bretteville: I know that is Lorraine Wild’s thinking. I have yet to read her catalog essay and for that reason I can only give you my interpretation of the words. In referencing Hippie culture she probably is talking about the way in which my work has to do with a reacting against hierarchy and the primacy of authority, wanting to make up the rules yourself, and a spirit of freedom. Those notions are not antagonistic, and simply to go another path, to be otherwise. In my work at that time in that city and in the former Chouinard Art School, when and where Cal Arts was being planned, I had total freedom to design all of graphic materials, giving form to what I found remarkable about what Cal Arts could be. Nothing and nobody stood in the way of that freedom and acted out the anti-authoritarian, cooperative and participatory aspects of the Hippie movement with which I connected. That said I do not yet know if that is the spin this exhibition will represent.
The part of modernism that is optimistic and visionary may be what she sees, as there’s a kind of cleanliness and restraint decoration in modernism. Every part of a work, its materials, how it is made, what it says are part of what it means. Our designer choices have to be meaningful. One of Paul Rand’s famous phrases is “you don’t wear a belt and suspenders”. It wouldn’t occur to him that you might wear suspenders for decoration and a belt to hold your pants up. That both utility and the decorative can live together was not an idea that was popular during modernism. In my work I felt that I could and would put the two together. But it took a while to figure that one out for myself.
What’s interesting is the second part of the exhibition title: “The struggle for Utopia” because it almost says that this is not possible because utopia is nowhere. Perhaps it isn’t possible to be both hippie and modernist. What I think is that tension is actually very good. It’s a tension I think I’ve lived with because, much as I don’t like hierarchy or rules, here I am at Yale University. Perhaps that seems like a non-sequitur. But in fact, it is the tension that creates something that is not negative. I definitely get from Yale much that is very, very useful for my students and for me: the unbelievably extensive libraries and collections, the lectures and presentations by people from around the world brought to Yale. The students have access to all of that, and so do I, and I feel very nourished by that part of this enriching context.
And also, I don’t want to go up the food chain. I never have wanted to. I just want to create the very best program I can, and to reconsider each year how best to make sure it is working for the students who are coming.
I think you can act otherwise and be otherwise within a hierarchy and see how to work the system and rules so that you do what you believe is right. I mean, it’s a basic anarchist position within a hierarchy — if that makes any sense to you.
It’s like, you live in the world, and so you are in the world. You’re not outside the world. Certainly those two, Hardt and Negri, made that clear: there is no outside. But while you’re in the world you can try to work with another vision of that world. That’s how I try to put the two together.
Sfligiotti: There’s an interest, visible in your work since the early ’70s, in the participation of peolpe and open-ended projects. This has grown popular in design in recent years. But in your design it was present many years before. Where did this interest for the involvement of the audiences come from?
De Bretteville: I have to say that it was unconscious but I think I developed in Italy! Peter and I were in living and working in Milan in 1968. It was a time of questioning everything, a time of change. The Milan Politecnico was painted red, and we were working on the Triennale with Giancarlo de Carlo, were called Maoisti before I knew what the word meant. I think for sure the work of Superstudio then was an influence, as was the values in Giancarlo de Carlo’s office.
Within little more than a month after retuning to the States we moved to Los Angeles invited by Cal Arts, a new school being formed. Los Angeles was totally unfamiliar to me. Milan was more like New York than Los Angeles is like New York. LA was just far more like some of Sicily. To me at that time Los Angeles seemed exceptionally different, sometimes a surprise sometimes a shock. I mean, even the palm trees. What kind of tree is a palm tree? Certainly it is not for shade. And also I didn’t know how to drive because I didn’t ever needed to learn to it anywhere I lived before. But anyway, I can’t completely explain it. I mean, each explanation is a spurious one. For example, as it turned out I was pregnant during the first nine months that I was in Los Angeles. So physically, I was changing too.
And the nature of the city and the culture was so utterly open and different in LA that perhaps my work reflected that freedom to invent. Everything I made at that time was more than two dimensional in some way. I mean, a book is always three dimensional but my books were three dimensional as well as tactile, physical, including various papers, surfaces and colors.
The first poster I made was shrink wrapped. It had an acorn, a piece of a printed circuit, and a jack that is used in a children’s game. It was in an exhibition of black artists, including the work of their friends — I was there as the friend of Betye Saar. I think the curator Kellie Jones chose that piece of mine as much for the language as for the mode of production, because shrink wrapping is found usually in local hardware and drug stores, it’s the way things for sale there are attached to a board. They print the board, the put the things down and then they heat up the plastic and then it’s sucked to the board. So I was using a method that was very proletarian. And it has lasted all these gazillion years — 46 years to be accurate! The text said, “taste and style just aren’t enough”. I think that phrase is as much the reason this poster caught people’s attention, because it’s an attitude that was popular in the ’70s, that there is more to talk about.
It’s the same thing as “First Things First”, that there’s something more that design can do and does. It really overlaps with the time in which Ken Garland wrote that statement. And it’s I in the things I chose to do — to use silence as the tone for that presentation where I met you in Warsaw. I felt there was a real difference between the first and the second “First Things First”, particularly in tone, and also in who signed it. And I didn’t want to make my talk about that. So I went back to the piece that I had presented here at Yale, which I felt was a richer and fairer presentation. The parts of my presentation had a tone and content similar to the meaning of Ken Garland’s ‘manifesto’. Those differences mattered to me, that it was students as well as teachers as well as regular people who signed the first First Things First. And the later version was signed by well known designers. And just the whole flavor had shifted. But because both authors were there I did not want to point directly to the difference in tone. Additionally, I arrived unable to talk much because of a lingering cough-cold. I thought, forget that. I’m not talking, I will honor the role silence plays in helping you hear and see what you you might have missed.
I think the tone in which you speak matters. And I prefer a more conversational tone and ask that I have a microphone that enable me to speak naturally during a public presentation. It’s harder to do when you’re on a stage because of the lighting. Sometimes the audience is difficult to see because you can’t see beyond the first two rows. But I just try to think that is the first part of a conversation. And since it really isn’t one — tone is the only way that indicates what is being said is about starting a conversation.
Sfligiotti: Even if feminism was not until recently anymore your central concern, you’re continually associated with it.
De Bretteville: Of course! Even when I first came from Los Angeles to Yale, the pedagogy I brought with me is not only informed by Paulo Freire (author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed), it’s also informed by feminist perspective: the student has a body of knowledge. I, the teacher, have a body of knowledge. And I respect your perspective, and your way that you will learn with me is for us to talk with each other. Others here teach that way too each for their own reasons. For me that is very much a result of conscious raising and the way I taught at the Woman’s Building, the way I taught at Cal Arts, the way I taught at every school I’ve been. And my work tries to create that situation as well.
I think feminism as a movement is about equality. And equality is extended to the relationship constructed between teacher and student, which has inequality built in into it due to taking place within a hierarchical institution. So here is that productive tension again…
Sfligiotti: How do you think feminism influences or could influence graphic design and how does it do it, in your case?
De Bretteville: Initially, it made me question the tropes that are embedded in each of the forms of graphic design. For instance, when I was taught to make posters — that started in high school — it was to tell a message. To tell. Not to ask, but to tell. So switching the message the form changes. I think that’s part of conscious raising in general. And it’s part of a formal expression of equality.
Back in 1973 I was one of many asked to make something about a color by the American Institute of Graphic Arts; they asked about 100 designers to make something of 30 inches square on the subject of a color, and I chose to do it on pink. I divided that field into 3 inch pink squares and gave them out to friends and students. Some of them are left blank and all the others I gave away to other people to write what they thought pink meant. And then I tacked them on a board with map tacks and sent it off to New York. While it was on exhibit briefly at the Whitney Museum of Art I asked a student, who had graduated and was living in New York, “Could you go and see what people are saying about it?” because I knew it was going to look different. You can’t tell anything from afar except that it’s a grid and that it has stuff on it and that it’s all pink. And he said that a lot of people stayed there for a long time because they were reading all the things that people wrote on the pink squares.
Ways to engage the viewer have increasingly became of interest to me. And I’ve written an article about that which was published by MIT in Spazio e Società. That article was entitled Feminist Design, and it has some points which deliver what I thought feminist design was at that time. The article presented work women at the Woman’s Building had done in a course I taught called Private conversations, Public Announcements. I’d sent the women out to locate a place were they felt uncomfortable and make a poster regarding how they might be more at ease at that place. Art historian Jenni Sorkin wrote an article in which she took note of my pedagogy being a reversal. I have taught Feeling to Form at the Woman’s Building which she noted as a a reversal of Form follows Function. And similarly I taught Private Converstations, Public Announcements, moving women’s experience from with the private sphere of the home into the public sphere of city. Jenni pointed out this up-ending of old tropes as I developed my own pedagogy. But I think at that point I was only aware of doing what I thought about what was lacking in in my teaching and took my cues from Paolo Freire instead. Let’s see how to say this, when I began to teach, I looked at all the assignments I was given and found them lacking in what I wanted to do.
One of the changes I made was at with an assignment in which you were given a text about 35 words to lay out, in many different ways, to make different parts of the meaning evident. I switched this so that students could choose their own text of 35 words. And it worked for the formal part of it, because that’s so constrained, you can’t change the type size, you can’t change the weight, it has its rules to it.
One of my students, Bia Lowe, chose “The rape of Tralala”, and “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” So she was doing that kind of break-up in it. After you have done all those formal things then you’re able to do an interpretive one, and add images if you want. The students did that less well, and my conclusion about why they did that less well had to do with the fact that they were freshmen, and they hadn’t learned that much yet. Bia Lowe was in that class where each woman made a ten inch square using only one size of type, then moved the words around to emphasize the meaning. She tried to express what it felt like to be raped by isolating the verbs. But when it came to making an image it was much harder. It’s not possible, even through the typographic manipulation of the words, to express the power of what the text said: she was at a loss to give it what she wanted.
That is how I realized that having an emotional response to the language does not always make it easy for you to explore it visually as a first experience of graphic design, let alone render it visually as final step in the sequence.
She succeeded by handing in what was done in terms of a dystopian view of women, by working from a Fritz Lang’s movie image of mechanical women. Each student found ways to do it, but I did learn the limitations of doing that kind of assignment first.
Seeing what occurred, I shifted to a prompt to pick a site which attracts you and you can develop. During the 1970’s I asked women in Los Angeles to go around the city and find the place where they felt uncomfortable. And then, we would come with them if they wanted, to negotiate with the person who owned the spaces — because all public space is owned in the United States — that you could put your poster up in that space.
One of the students went to a small cappuccino stand that’s in a tiny alley in downtown LA with all guys. She had been a waitress, not there but somewhere else. And she wanted to make a poster about “How it feels to be a waitress” and also she felt she attracted attention when she was there. She did have mostly blue hair, that would’ve done it on its own. However, she did a poster in English and in Italian that said “The right kind of attention”, what kind of attention she wanted.
They did their posters using a process that was very popular in the States called diazo, it’s an ammonia based process which was commonly used by architects to duplicate their drawings and the paper’s emulsion comes in blue or sepia. Blueprint paper was a commonplace method and very inexpensive. I found a source for red print diazo in Houston, Texas that was 5 cents a yard. So this became a more eye catching and inexpensive way to make multiples. I taught the students how very easy it was to make your own film positive out of any material that would allow light to move through it enabling the ammonia process to bleaching away parts of the colored layer. The women students developed their visual ideas and made a series of red prints. I understood — and so did they — that a woman in red on the street is noticed, possibly considered a puttana, and that notion about women in public was in play and reversed. I wrote an article for Chrysalis magazine which began by saying I noticed a red couch outside on a corner of a major street in Los Angeles. I was so amazed that it brought to mind a puttana. This apparition started my investigation of the relationship of men to chairs and women to couches. Sure enough if you look at the history of Art, men are represented sitting on chairs and women are on couches or more often n the grass! A queen on a throne is the only way woman who gets to sit on anything like a chair. We are most often found on couches or out in nature sitting or laying down on the grass. So, that difference turned out to be more interesting than I thought, more pervasive than I thought. I think that what catches your eye (your I) provides insight into yourself and that’s also very helpful to generating your work.
Here at Yale I continue to give a prompt based on paying attention, intuition and attraction, rather than research and a problem solving brief. At the start of the first semester in my program, incoming graduate students create a series of iterative works derived from anything that catches their attention here in New Haven. I help by guiding students to make an iterative series of project out of it.
Between the first and second year they have to send a weekly tweet with an image of something that collects their attention and not why but something about it. During summer it’s a way of staying in touch with both your own internal condition and having an expression of the world but also its records in tweets; you can do it with Twitter or you can do it through Instagram, you can do it in many ways that are available, but you have to do it every week.
Anyway, I really do believe that what catches your attention tells you as much about yourself as this tells you, you got what you want to know about.
Sfligiotti: So, you’re inviting your students to reflect and work on that…
De Bretteville: Yes, at the beginning, at least, because the more you do work of your own, the more you have a way of your own. The likelihood is that people will want you for what you do, not only your “exploitable” skill set, we’ve thought that there are other skill sets which are quite particular to you. And you need to know what is that particular to you and how it’s expressed visually, and this is one of the ways to get there.
Sfligiotti: How do all the things you’ve said so far these relate to your increasing attention on work in public space? I think this is mostly what you do now.
De Bretteville: Yes. I say one more thing about feminism, I think that differentiation is important, a focus place on the uniqueness of each individual person. That may be very America, claims the importance of individual rights. I’m genuinely interested in where people are going more than where they come from, despite all this talk of my own past. It’s when they keep thinking about where they come from, it actually doesn’t make it easier. It’s easier if you try to begin to figure out where you might be going, at least in the way I’m teaching. That’s why I put the W, the M, the L-G-B-T-Q-I, because each one of those is very, very complicated and not anywhere as simple as people might have thought initially, or even that I thought. That complexity within each matters to me the way that complexity and uniqueness within each person matters to me. I feel the same way about my public work. In the United States, there’s always been public art, usually statues of man on horses and things like that.
By the time % for art ordnances were passed in the US in mid 80s, it was also a time when there was an increase in consciousness regarding ecology. That awareness was already happening since the late 60s, but it started steaming up in the 70s; by that time paper companies were beginning to make paper which was made of recycled materials, and care about not wasting anything was not uncommon. So I thought that instead of ephemera, I would make permanent things. And I confess I am surprised how much interest there is in the things I made this 70s! I only own one or two of any of those pieces. I gave them all away. I didn’t think of them as permanent. I thought they were to be distributed and ephemeral.
I decided I’d rather do fewer things and put them permanently in places, that did the same thing of reflecting and sustaining the people ho use those places. Each of those old printed things, like the Aspen international design conference newspaper which was made of parts that were given out and assembled, that Arts in Society issue which put all people’s names in alphabetical order, and that’s how you found a page number, trying to make up the meaning of itself.
All those works represent ways I have been trying to figure out how to invite people to participate in the signification of the elements in their hands.
And the mid 80’s my work poses the idea at a site. It is about how best to make permanent things that invite the participants at the site to continue to participate in the signification of the site.
I really didn’t know exactly how to made permanent work, but my husband is an architect, and watched our house being built, people pouring concrete, and so I was really interested in concrete also. Another idea that was circulating was history from below. So concrete and sidewalk seemed to make a lot of sense in terms of how history from below could be made visible. I applied for projects that I could do.
The first project that I did, two of us addressed the same content — me and Betye Saar, an artist of African descent, who lived across the street and was and is my friend. Betty and I became friends through my doing print projects about her work with her, and we both doing individual permanent projects about the same African American woman, Biddy Mason, at the site where she lived.
I was attracted to the way one person’s life work contributes to the city at large. We were both were given the floor plans for the site where Biddy Mason lived and I saw a concrete block wall that was indicated as defining the site. This was a parking lot that was going to be a parking garage. And I said “Can I have that wall?” and then I said, “But I’d like to make it out of poured concrete panels, not just applied to the concrete block”. And that of course about four thousand dollars more. And they gave me the money to do it. We had staging area nearby, and we did a test first, because I knew what I wanted to integrate into the concrete wall, but I didn’t know how to make it. So the concrete vendor said we should do a test, and I brought a bag that would be similar of her midwifery bag and the scissors which she used to cut the umbilical cord. I brought a piece of wood for a fence, we put those into the concrete and then it soon became very clear that it was almost impossible to get those materials out of the concrete, even though we put a lot of car wax on those things. So I learned that would have to make the things out of either foam or fiberglass.
I organized this wall very much like a book. As you walk along the wall, you can see maps and read the history of that particular site, and how it changed over the 40 years that she was there and how her life changed while the city changed. I put the her image so everyone could see her from the street. I was really worried, as this was a Latino and depressed part of the city, and I thought they might take a church key to it. You know, the thing that you open up cans used sometimes to scratch car’s metal surfaces? I had used the hardest granite and the concrete too was very dense dark grey. Anyway, it’s still there, and it’s still on the walking tour of Los Angeles.
The second project was intended to deliver the history of Japanese and Japanese Americans integrated into 1,500 linear feet of sidewalk. This is before it was widely known that during the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to intern all Japanese without ever going to Los Angeles or anything like that. He was told that there were Japanese who wore clubs that were inciting pro-Japanese feeling.
In 1989 the Japanese community lobbied the Community Redevelopment Agency of LA to put out a request for qualifications (RFQ), and I applied. The other two people who were chosen were of Japanese descent, so I asked “Why are you choosing me? I’m clearly not of Japanese descent.” And the designer, Miho, said “Because if you are not of any particular generation of Japanese American, you will not have the pressures of that generation’s people for what they think the Japanese American is. As an outsider you can find that out without having that pressure on you. In addition, we want the audience for this to be everyone who comes to this part of the city, and so it should be resonant with all audiences.”
My proposal used colored concrete to define the property lines and a timeline with brass and stainless texts giving a sense of what the people did in these buildings as well as the laws which shaped their lives.
Actually, I did the project in Little Tokyo during the time I first was here in New Haven. It took almost a decade during which I did other projects. There was an RFQ here for a public artwork, with very little money, $25,000. It was to be placed in an area of this small town that was being redeveloped. My administrative assistant at Yale, said “You shouldn’t go to that neighborhood, it’s very dangerous.” I said, “I grew up with gangs in Coney Island. I don’t think anything’s going to happen to me.” That sentiment did help me see that I needed to do something to encourage people to enter that part of the city.
I thought I would put these compass rose squares into the sidewalk, five feet from each other at least. With $25,000, I could make 24 of these stars, and it shows which way is north because I always get lost. I looked at the original maps when the city was laid out and found maps of a woman who had property there, and I looked at the census for the current ethnic breakdown of New Haven, and made sure that the different stars represented the various ethnicities. I had another rule in terms of each person having either worked there for at least a decade. I found the early black population through the “N” in those city directories, and I found the Chinese in ads for a restaurant. I went to the different organizations here, and located who the people in each group where throughout time so that the distribution of women and people in and out of power was equal. The other means for choosing had to do with those did something more than their job.
A friend of mine, when I was writing up the narrative explaining the compass rose idea of getting people to enter that area of town, reminded me of the Hollywood star and how this upturned the celebrity idea in to the working people getting honored.
Sfligiotti: I was wondering if there was any connection with that.
De Bretteville: I simply had not thought at all about Hollywood! I was focused on what could make people less afraid by engaging them in the stories. I began to see how each of my projects had a role in generating the next project. There’s something that was said to me when I gave a talk in Russia — I think it was Nizhny Novgorod — and the person who came to interview me said: “America is the land of celebrities, you’re American, and all the people you talk about are not celebrities. Does it make sense?” I responded that I am uninterested celebrity, I’m more interested in people in general, and people as specific.
I said before there is something about the democratic principle that is at work in my thinking. When I read people who wrote about the democracy of the street, they all talk about the ways in which the street is central to public life. People on city streets in America have to pass people who are not like them, it’s just not possible in big cities to not do that. Of course there are many cities in other countries which are ore homogenous. In Sendai, there’re very few non-Japanese. And certainly in Hong Kong, if you’re at the Cantonese quarters, there are very few Caucasians. Often times when you are the unique person, or the unusual person on the street. All my projects are in cities, only one is inside, and one is sort of inside. The one that’s most inside is actually in Boston at the Massachusetts State House, which has a big gold dome, you can’t miss it. It’s on a hill.
When I went to the site, only men are represented, by marble statues or bronze busts. There’s only one woman and she’s a generic helper, nursing a wounded. As a result of seeing a suffragette film on television, one of the statesmen going to legislature realized the absence of women. A group was formed and they chose six women to honor. In that case, I didn’t choose the people. I chose the content; and I felt, because it was about women, I shouldn’t do it alone — I should do it with another woman. I asked an African American artist, Carrie Mae Weems, but she was not free to work on it in this time frame, so, I asked my colleague, Susan Sellers, who’s about 20 years younger than I am, and studied feminism. One of the terrific suggestions Susan made was to wallpaper the wall, and I said “Let’s make wallpaper out of the laws regarding the conditions each women worked to change, because their work changed laws, and the site was a hallway on the path to legislature.” So there is now wallpaper, a background from the private sphere of home but with a pattern of the legislation that their activism affected. Each woman has her own distinct panel at image in bronze, and behind her face is the law has she changed. There’s a quote from each woman, because they all wrote. One was an editor of an African American newspaper. One of the questions they asked me when I presented our idea was ”How do people know that two of the women are African American?” And I said “All will be brown because of the bronze and you should be able to tell from the words that they write, because they’re dealing with those issues as well.”
Over time, I’ve continued to find ways to invite the continued participation of people in what it also a permanent installation.
At a dinner I met Marina Warner, a woman I admire a great deal for her independent thinking and writing. I had received photographs of the H E A R U S project in the Massachusetts State House that afternoon so I showed them to her. Marina said that the installation appeared to her to be rather conservative. That adjective resounded as it was also used in the art critic’s article in the Boston Globe. I have thought often about that word conservative because it bothers me. Of course I don’t consider myself nor my work conservative although I would definitely say hat the State House context is conservative and the representation of men in marble and bronze statuary is dignified.
When we created H E A R U S we thought the women honored should be treated in an equally dignified way and that was expressed by our choice of marble panels and a bronze busts. Every other choice had to do with what each said and did. And we placed the separate panels so that you could read the law each woman’s work had changed behind the bronze representation of her face. Creating a legal wallpaper backdrop in a public building was meant to bring material from the private sphere into the public sphere. In the same spirit, more than twenty-five years earlier, I had taught women at the Woman’s Building to create posters about public places and help them put these posters up in those public places. From my perspective The H E A R U S women were activists each in their own separate way, they were not colleagues and each had different conditions they worked to change. They are the first women to be honored in that very formal building. Admittedly they were allotted only a hallway, but it is the public passageway to the state legislature where the people who pass the work are legislators, school children and tourists who should feel respect accorded to these women and then find out why by reading their words.
I have often found relationship of public to private a rich territory for feminist work.
And I do see my work as being a rather calm otherwise — no fist in the air. When I started calling myself a feminist I focused on questions: which characteristics are associated with women as a category, why are women’s experience, perspectives and the attributes associated with us less noticed or valued, how best to make what we think and do public and known? And my classes as well as my own work are constructed to honor a diversity of experience and making, and whenever possible to make public places about and for that work, accessible to a broader spectrum of people. I imagine the conversation the work encourages. Perhaps because I enjoy conversations more than pronouncements and arguments, calm is a result. Maybe that is what is seen as conservative or appropriate, those surprising and troubling descriptions.
I am genuinely interested in people and what they say. And my work is intended to represent people carefully with materials that honor that work and that person. With each project and proposal I try to create formats that extend an invitation to participate — as you perceptively noticed. Paying attention to who have been overlooked and providing places in public for others to hear their voices is what I most enjoy doing.
Possibly my 1971 newspaper for the IDCA (International Design Conference in Aspen) was the earliest professional expression by making the content be the voices of the audience. When I proposed that idea I did not tell the All male Board of directors who gave me the commission that I needed a way to get this work done during that week there in Aspen and did not want to be working on the journal about the conference all summer. So I presented a format and process which involved the participation and equal representation of the audiences ideas. All the speakers which included me would have already spoken and their tapes were available for purchase. The newspaper would be given out freely on the last day of the conference. And they agreed, much to my surprise. I did not learn until a couple of years ago that there had been an uprising at the IDCA conference the year before in which the audience rebelled against the autocratic top down methods of the IDCA board of directors! More people than I ever imagined gave me back those pieces than I could possibly use, so I hung them up on a line outside on the last day when we gave out the special issue of the Aspen Times.
Sfligiotti: There’s a long history of social and political activism in graphic design. You have your own way of doing things otherwise. What’s your own way of being an activist?
De Bretteville: Thank you Silvia! I am always so very pleased when anyone notices my work is political. The art critic Lucy Lippard wrote about my Pink project calling it a political poster much to my delight! I have trying for a long time to quietly insert into public places the voices of overlooked persons, groups of people and perspectives. I really do not like it when anyone is left out, in any situation — parties, admissions, neighborhoods. One way to compensate is to help others to pay attention to the people in the forgotten parts of cites. Whenever possible I choose marks such the ellipses’ three dots . . . which I see as giving a location for someone’s else thoughts.
I have been creating a visual language that invites participation by being on the alert for whatever could reflect, sustain, include, encourage, delight wherever I go to make my work. I can see that this work is relatively small, often a series of gestures in pubic space. I have so seldom made big things nor are they usually in central places. Rather they have most often been embedded in concrete or carved out of stone at the edges of the cities.
For example, I did a project in concrete in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Russian steppe. It is the entrance to an old water tower that is now a junk store. I celled it Step(pe) and I was surprised such a small project was chosen the best public art of that year. Thanks to Kendall Henry who was the art administrator for the 207th Street Station project. He left to join the CEC ArtsLink, an organization that was established to maintain cultural relationships with Russia. In Yekaterinburg a concrete vendor had offered to sponsor an artist to come do a work in that city and Kendal said “I know somebody who knows how to work in concrete.” Kendall and I went to Yekaterinburg. He gave lectures on public projects around the world while I was shown two sites: a museum that really didn’t need anything, but the other site was a funky Water Tower by the river. There was rickety collection of rocks that led to the entrance. I thought I would use the concrete to make a more stable stair so that it would be easier to enter the building. The proprietor agreed and I was taken to an Art School to give a talk about my Biddy Mason project. Some of the students volunteered to work with me.
I went to the concrete factory where the foreman said that it would be easier to install if the step were made in a set of panels. I then met with the students and told them I had read that chastushki are a local form storytelling in four-line stanzas. These stanzas can be about anything and do not have to rhyme. I asked, “What questions do you have? What’s troubling you? What thoughts do you have?” With the help of a translator the young people made up two stanzas. I realized that there was no way I could cut all those Russian letters in time, so I actually got dressed at 4 am to tell Kendall’s and was about to knock on his door but hesitated thinking, “He is not going to appreciate my knocking on his door at 4 in the morning.” So I went back to my room, and came up with another idea: I would make only the first letter of every word and leave the spaces for the rest of the letters. Then whatever words can be created with that first letter could be added by anyone who came to the site to fill in. Therefore it was was by lack of time that I discovered how to have something permanent and infinitely changeable in my work. I was ecstatic that in this way I would be able to extend an invitation to anyone to enter into the signification of the site. At the opening of the project the students wrote in their words with colored chalk from a nearby kiosk and within an hour the rain had washed that first set of completed words away.
Eager to make other works combining permanent and infinitely changeable parts I made two proposals to friends I have in China. The proposal I made using water writing for Chengdu did not take place. The proposal I made using conjunctions, sent to my friend Leslie Lu in Hong Kong, was accepted and a woman in the upper administration said, “she has to come and do it here.” I said, “Fine” and they brought me to their just finished building in Hong Kong’s New Territories as a Visiting Scholar. This meant I was to give several lectures on various topics to different audiences and developed my project using conjunctions at HKDI (Hong Kong Design Institute).
Once there I immediately saw that the building was at a huge scale and I would have to adjust my idea accordingly. The public spaces and movement through the spaces were spectacular. On the other hand the students had no interior place hang out at all and were sitting with their devices on the ground everywhere. Touring the site I noticed there was an empty glazed room on the 7th floor and asked the principal, “What’s that space for, the one on the left at the top of the escalator ?” The principal, Victor Tsang said, “We were thinking of maybe doing cooking design there, but what are you thinking of?” I said, “I think the students really need a place to hang out in a comfortable club like place”.
I said that I would like to install an interactive LED strip at eye level along the full length of the back glazed wall of this glazed room. I explained that, “the students would be there on comfortable seats as see conjunctions floating by on the LED strip and they could connect to the LED strip with their cellphones or computers. Conjunctions are connectors, and ellipses would help the students to think and make up sentences for all in the room to see using their devices.” In Chinese conjunctions connect two thoughts from their position within a sentence or phrase. My work is called …so… or therefore… But as seen on the interactive LED all conjunctions are in traditional Chinese characters, so appears like this …所以… It is one of the many words that are written the same in both Mandarin and in Cantonese, even though it is pronounced differently. I said that I would choose about 35 conjunctions and of course I did a plebiscite with the students and other people I knew in town, and so we chose the most evocative conjunctions.
Since the room was raw and the floor had yet to be poured, I was able to chose a warm sunny color concrete with several layers of shiny coating to reflect the special focused beams of light Optiled had. And a beanbag seating would provide a comfortable pace to sit, chat and text!
On the opening night, my friend Shelly Pecot brought McYan, a rock star famous for his politics, singing, artwork. I got street cred from him being there — and more. Yan and his friend Phil used their cell phones to add a word on either side of …和 …which is “and” in English. I learned that they resultant phrase was “justice and bananas” and had to ask what that meant. They told me that, “we threw bananas into the legislature in protest against the way the Chinese had been treating Tibetans.” And the biggest surprise was that Yan and Phil got up, stood on either side of their phrase and they walked making it look like it was static and that they were moving it down the whole length of the room.. I never expected that, it was just the most wonderful and unexpected kind of thing to happen.
The other proposed project, the one that never took place, looks completed by virtue of being a photo-shop drawing of what I so wanted it to be. I had emailed my publisher friend in Beijing photos of my Step(pe) project and asked him to meet with me when I was to come to Beijing to talk at Icograda. At dinner I explained again how “I would love to do something in China that’s open-ended like that Russian project”. He said, “I’d like you to do something about a tragedy in my Sichuan during 1927.” And I replied that I would send a proposal. I did, and that project didn’t happen despite their efforts. Possibly because the project did not tell all of the war story of Japanese destruction, or it was too open ended. If they did not like the idea they did not say so. My proposal was based on the way older Chinese people go to the park and paint letters with water using a brush at the end of a very long stick — exquisitely drawn characters. It seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for memory, and my visual proposal showed a concrete path with some permanent stone cut characters in the concrete to start a sentence with the date that a tragedy occurred, an invitation to what happened on that day would be supplied by the water painters’ writing.
It’s just one of several of my projects didn’t-happen projects. It’s not so easy with proposals. I need to find support. Support from the city and money for the materials and installation as well. Here in New Haven I made a proposal just two years ago regarding a very badly maintained underpass. Whenever a pedestrian wants to walk to the train station in New Haven must pass through a dark, decaying highway underpass.
I am amazed that this is the gateway to the city and a danger to its for pedestrians. So I made an image for how it could be a joyous, transformative and welcoming experience instead — and finally I think it is going ahead as part of city planning. I luckily received a little help from the National Endowment for the Arts and from an arts organization that does events in this city planning. I met with the companies the city chose and it is is slated to be completed by 2017. Having done other small projects here I know oversight is essential. I worry because this city work uses the dubious principle of giving work to the lowest bidder, and if we are not clever in the way the work is written up those who don’t know how or care about the quality of the work they do may cause a sorry result.
I have been really lucky everywhere in this regard. It’s important to be there, and I always have been where my work takes place so that it will come out the way it’s supposed to come out. I feel badly to have to insist that it be written into the contract that I have to be there. I feel very lucky for all the times I have expert arts administrators, I have not only had support for what needs to be done really well and those projects are also well taken care of by that!. But it’s going to happen: I proposed widening the sidewalk under the pathways to enable people on skateboard and with baby carriage to move at their pace while other in a hurry can move faster and those who walk to play in the set of spotlights have a choice. These spotlights make anyone a star: you could choose to dance or just strike a pose. With the backdrop cleaned up and quiet, this pathway becomes a proscenium stage: the motion detectors and spotlights make this it into a more transformative and pleasurable experience, as well as cleaner and nicer place for anyone to use.
More often I am looking for places that need what I like to do and proposing it, instead of someone to come to me for what I want to do. In any case I have to see the place, know who lives near it and uses it, talk with the people on the street about the place. It is best to know there are local thriving businesses in the area who are experts with available material. I try to work with local vendors. It’s somewhat like the slow food idea in that my work supports local vendors.
For the kind of public work I do it is necessary to have the support of other organizations, and that means other people to help make the projects take place. I’m 74 years old and still feel as I always have while in some countries you must retire at 60. And while some of those friends and supporters may no longer be able to help others appear and suggest friends of theirs and that is how I keep my public installation work going.
Sfligiotti: You’ve been the Head of Graphic Design at Yale for more than 20 years now. Which were your ideas when you started out, and how have they changed over time?
De Bretteville: I do think some things did change, and yet some things are the same or similar. The essential idea with which I came has very much to do with valuing a the uniqueness of each individual student, and fostering that difference to take form — that’s definitely still here. How we do that — that is what changes. Every year I meet with the students in May. They tell me what worked and what did not. That helps me make the adjustments and also me and my faculty come in with new concepts they are developing and that informs the shifts in what we ask the students to consider. There are new ideas every year and some new equipment — and even some older equipment that deepens and broadens what I students can use and think about, what they want to try out changes too over time. Some of it has to do with the continuous development of newer technology as well as back to basics: we have a Vandercook letterpress and a method to make plates by computer as well as newer version of RISO. And the change is also in who the students are as well. Students this year are coming from more different places and in larger numbers from other places around the globe. They find out what we are doing here based on what they see online or hear from graduates or faculty.
My first hire was Michael Rock, who was not anywhere as well known as he and his firm 2x4 is now. I chose him not only because he is very intelligent, inventive and thoughtful, but also because he had never set foot in Yale. It was very important to me that I bring people to teach who would not genuflect to the Yale of the past and would bring fresh ideas to this program I was creating. Tradition here brings the great collections of art and artifacts and libraries with exceptional librarians eager to help. And alumni are generous. They also have memories and are somewhat resistant to change. I arrived and was criticized for wanting an engagement with the world at large, and for being so focused on changing problems into prompts so that each graduate student could give voice to their differences — not one size fits all and only the one way is appreciated! The initial reaction was like the children who do not want the bedroom in their parents’ house changed after you have left it. I needed some new colleagues excited by that opportunity and bringing with them their ideas and their colleagues, etc. Michael Rock was the first person here and did that and the faculty chosen after have each continued in an iterative and generative way ever since. There were ideas I brought with me and added others whose ideas differ from mine as well.
Not only do the freshest ideas of our students develop in their two years here but older work and ideas are revisited seen in a new light — the sheer diversification of origins, intentions, interests, sources of deep knowledge on such a wide variety of subjects is reflected in the student body and in our workshops, Yale’s collections, lecture series, symposia, screenings, neighborhoods and peoples. Also the university changes some each year as well.
For example throughout the arts at Yale the majority of the faculty are adjuncts. Most teachers do not come in like Michael Rock and Paul Elliman did, as a lecturer then as an Assistant Professor then Associate Professor etc. When Michael was Associate Professor, 2x4 had just blossomed into a large company and it too was changing. Michael was one of many of my faculty who had to cut back his teaching He continues an adjunct professor. Teaching life has to be balanced with design studio life and family life. A new arrangement evolved along with each faculty ember continuing to teach and contribute to my program, the type of prompts and roles have developed and changed over time. And as some cut back I brought in a broader range of faculty each with their own talents and specificities. Inviting also practitioners from other places — from England, Korea, China etc.
Sfligiotti: There was a kind of Dutch wave at Yale at one point.
De Bretteville: Well, yes our Dutch wave has mostly to do with the way the Dutch designers who come teach here as well as how thoughtful and smart their own work is. It is mostly how they are with other people. For example Karel Martens and Irma Boom have come each year for more than 15 years and then Linda van Deursen and Daniel van der Velden have been coming regularly too. These are people I respect and trust. They work with our students one on one, it’s conversational, it’s helping them do what they do better. That’s all I ask of faculty to do there. And if someone wants to give an assignment, it has to be so open-ended, that each student can find their way with that material.
Here the students work in many technologies and formats: networks and interactivity, motion graphics and video, installations and exhibitions. They can learn from me and Michael and Paul and Daniel, Tobias Frere-Jones and Matthew Carter. Because the students are in an arts school, and their friends are artists, they see what everyone is doing. Actually, I just received an email that says this, from Neil Goldberg, who teaches my video class, and Sarah Oppenheimer, a sculptor who has worked with our students for quite a while, saying that our students’ video is as good as any other video done in any other area of study. It doesn’t mean the students want to continue with video, but they do know that you can use video to present your work, you also can use video as your main way of making, and some do that. I can’t require anyone to take a class or more in video but most do. But I suggest that the ways in which to render your idea will be limited if you don’t take interactivity and video. You might be better in either print, video and/or interactivity, but at least you know what those can do and in that way it helps your ideation around anything you choose or want to make. They all make one very special book which Irma helps them think about, as a summation of their work here at Yale. And its form reflects the visual method they have exercised on myriad subjects and contents.
Sfligiotti: So you’re asking anyone who comes and teaches at Yale to have this dialogical approach.
De Bretteville: Yes, the designers who teach here are like that — I don’t have to ask them. They are not dictators or autocrats, and do not think there is only one way to do anything or one way the work must look to be appreciated. Some teachers I have had have been inspiring and helpful. Others were presumptuous, dictatorial and invasive. I don’t want that kind of teacher here in any way, shape or form. It is not useful to our purpose to have have anyone here who tends to tell a student what to do rather than help them think about what they are doing, what attracted or repulsed them. I prefer those who present a rich idea with which the student can work and enjoy their own making — that’s who comes here to teach. There’s enough rulers and rule makers already. I try to have as few as possible even in an institution like Yale.
I mean, the way that Irma (Boom) teaches, the way that Karel (Martens) teaches, the way that Linda Van Deursen teaches, they teach in the way that’s important to me. We foster thinking about who you’re talking to and why you’re saying the things that you’re saying, and all the visiting faculty here work with the students in ways which enrich and folds seamlessly into the work plan I am doing with the students.
In the very beginning our students cannot help doing what they they did before they got here. It takes only one semester for that to play out, and the work moves forward toward making things they had never done before. Almost every one each year begins a new way of thinking about work, and each creates a body of work that is coherent yet variegated in terms of content and form. We see that movement and very rarely does it not happen. And when they do not make work or move it forward I write a warning note. Because the fact is they each came here to be themselves in their work and develop that work to become what it might be. And change takes place in its own subtle way most of the time.
You can always be who you were. You don’t have to worry about that. What you have to think about here who you want to become, what your work and practice can be.
Most students collaborate once they have found their own way, and they help other students see what they have done that their classmates have yet to see.
For instance during a review of a young man from Beijing’s work, an older and experienced student from Seoul who was 29 helped that 23 year old student by pointing out how his work dealt with the edges of things. As a result the younger student listened and was better able to see and generate an exceptionally coherent body of work for the next review. After all the positive comments about his work he said “What you’re teaching me, I can’t use it in Beijing.” So I replied, “You can’t think about Beijing when you’re here. You can’t. You’ll be ahead whenever you go back. You will have skills and you’ll have a way of making that’s all your own and you will be desirable. Do not worry about Beijing now. Do all that you could do while you are here” The Korean designer nodded his head in agreement. “I’m not thinking about Seoul.”
Sfligiotti: Which kind of designer do you think the world needs now?
De Bretteville: I don’t know that designers are what the world needs to wake up. The world is in such bad shape that I don’t know that we could design ourselves out of it. I mean, we have to do and be otherwise than what is unfair, unequal, destructive. I should show you the poster I did when I was 24 with Emmanuele Sandeauter about freedom of speech and TV. What we were doing was a translation of the phrase “silence being complicity”. Not doing what you think is worth doing helps nobody. Not yourself nor the world at large. We were trying to do the Italian version of “silence is complicity” and chose silenzio, omertà, complicità. We put omertà realizing where it came from but not exactly how it might play against the other two words. So we just left those two words and then we made a closed mouth made out of the dots of the printing process and the lines of the television. It’s a very simple modernist old-style poster, only in black and white.
Speaking out and the importance of engaging in a conversation, letting others know you hear and see what is going on. I think you put out what you understand what you want. And you put it out with honesty. I think that’s a model, because all the people who are in government seem to lie. And if you are not silent and don’t lie, and you create enough situations you tell your truths, whatever your truth is… I think you put out better vibes into the world, if nothing else.
Being against is not as helpful as being for something, something that you could think is worth being for. And whatever that is, to do that, the best way you can do it, it’s a worthy thing you can do in this world. You know, it’s that — to make the effort.
In the beginning of my time at Yale some of our students did more radical work of a more obvious political sort. They found a billboard owner who permitted them to paint a pro-choice billboard and it was up on I-95, the largest highway in the northeast. There’s a picture of them painting it and of it being up that was published in ID magazine that year. The students formed a group called “Class Action”, and together they created another one against domestic violence printed by that same Billboard company. And the group split in two after they graduated and one part has continued and done other against guns.
But something happened which really turned me off from running that activist class, after the good work that was done taking something from the newspaper that caught their attention and doing a graphic action about it. What bothered me had to do with the feeling of righteousness.
When I first arrived at Yale, I met Jonathan Weinberg, a young art historian who had called a meeting about what should we do for Day Without Art, which honor the loss of creative people to AIDS and raise money for AIDS Project New Haven and other sites helping HIV infected people. This was in 1990, and I said I know how to do it — a silent auction. So we put together a silent auction of work from students throughout Yale School of Art and invited the public in New Haven to bid and raised a significant amount. We did that Silent Auction for Day without Art for five years. And then everybody involved from the staff came to me and Jonathan said, “No more, it’s far too much work. We can’t do that.”
Our graphic design students were caught by the importance of getting the word out so they made T-shirts and baseball caps that said positive-negative or negative-positive. They got the Gap store on our main street to put these T shirts and Caps on the dummies in the window. And our students were selling the T-shirts on the steps of the Art and Architecture building. That is where I heard a student argue with someone who did not want to buy a t- shirt and was appalled. Not by her passion, but that she would berate a fellow student for not doing what she wanted him to do.
And I said, to myself this is not the right way to go. “No, the problem is that the work is top-down and this gives people a strange sense of authority to think they alone are right. If self righteousness is what is being learned. A class is not the way community based work is best created. It’s going to be bottom-up: if a student wants to do something like this, then we help them do it. No class, even though I deeply respect Donald Moffett and Marlene McCarthy who taught that class and Sylvia Harris taught the class as well. Three times, it’s out. As a result, activist and community based graphic design projects became bottom-up; students initiated their projects engaging with communities and content of their own choosing. One example from that next period of time was done in response to a conference for the American Institute of Graphic Arts in Florida. There very very few women speakers and our students decided this is not anywhere near an equal and fair representation of women. A group of men and women designed a poster and came for my help as they didn’t know how to get it up all over Miami? I said, “Okay, I will call Robbie Canal who I know has his posters put up all over, everywhere, and he will help you contact a group to put it up for you in Florida.” And so that group plastered Miami with these posters during the night. The next day I got a call from a design writer who organized the AIGA conference saying, “that was not nice, Sheila”. I said, “I didn’t do it. It was a student idea and they did it — and if you had more women speakers they would not have done it.”
But actually, that response may well have come from something which had happened when I first was teaching, at Cal Arts. I didn’t know that it was illegal to put things up in public places. (that’s why the Miami group did it at night). I was annoyed by the new “Fem sprays” that had suddenly appeared in LA drugstores. I said, “What the hell, this is ridiculous.” So I made what is probably the only shocking thing I have ever done — a little shocking pink circular sticker that said, “Your vagina smells fine the way it is.” And because the label making company, cannot accept such a small order of stickers, I landed up with too many. I don’t remember how many, like 100 or more, was the minimum order. With suddenly lots of these stickers, more than I could put up on that product in the drugstores, my Cal Arts students offered to help me. One of them was apprehended in a store putting stickers on these fem sprays. We got her off from being formally arrested, but I realized that I made the student and the school vulnerable. Since then I do not ever recommend my students do anything illegal while they are students as the make themselves and the school vulnerable. It must their idea, their choice as individual citizens.
Sfligiotti: I’m always surprised by the fact that women are the majority among graphic design students in many countries — but if you think of the establishment, the “hall of fame” of designers, there’s not yet — .
De Bretteville: Positive political change is slow going. The top of the pyramid appears unmovable and worse yet the M>F idea holds there. By the time women move very far up the ladder in politics they behave and think like the men at that level. And this is apparently as true in the world of design as well despite the fact that here are many women in design businesses.
I do think that if you look at everything that women have tried to change, including men, there are many more young men who seem to me to be different. Not only do our women students speak up when they see a work they they feel is like stalking or puts them down in some way. The newspaper carry articles about how most men want to bring up their children. What makes having children difficult is they require you to be present and so many women and now men too cannot participate as fully as they want because far too many companies don’t give men time to act out their desires to do their equal shares. If any woman chooses to have children, the problem remains who’s going to take care, unless you live in a family situation, or if you have enough money for help or live were there is affordable childcare. I had one child, and had the kind of work and he happens to be the kid of child I could take with me or pass back and forth between me and my husband Peter. While I was writing that article on chairs and couches which I called Parlorization I could go into the library, and ask our son to bring his things, little trucks and such, and that when I’m finished researching, we would go to Travel Town where they have trains, and he could ride them for as much time as he wants. And we still have a wonderful open relationship and I could attribute that to the process of “we do this for me, and then we do this for you”. But I had only one. The minute you have two, I have seen, each goes in separate directions and only one person can’t do it all, more than one child begins a very different story. And so children are a reason.
And it also helps that I am happy where I am on the food chain, not ambitious nor eager to go up ladder. I really like what it is I do. I think part of it is, and then you can quote me for this too, I am not interested in my legacy, as it was totally by accident that I became known by being in LA during the resurgence of feminism, which had a lot to do with when I became visible. But it wasn’t my intention. Recently I returned to a Commencement ceremony at Cal Arts, and I said to all who were graduating that “I hope that you will have the opportunity while here in school that I had when I came here. And have a sense of having come into your own, and know what your own work is”.
When I arrived in California brought there by Cal Arts to do all their graphic work, I found the provost and deans were so busy creating the school hiring faculty etc. they said, “Do it all, get it l done — edit, design, manufacture everything, just go ahead and do it!” And they truly let me solve every need without any interference beyond budget and time. So I did what I believed was right: participatory, politically engaged work, celebrating differences..
And not all of it was the right one thing, and one thing for sure was stupid. Cal Arts needed letterhead and I decided that the secretaries could make their own stationery. I gave each of the secretarial staff a California Institute of the Arts stamp, Walt Disney characters stamps too, because Disney owned Cal Arts — and still there is a more enlightened Disney on the board now — and stars of different sizes, arrows and exclamation points etc.. A large section of stamps from which to choose and use. Well, it turns out that secretaries don’t have time to go stamping! I heard: “Sheila, this is not helpful — looks like fun but we do not have time to do that” and I saw that it was a bad idea. That I should have asked some and or tested out first. I did design everything — some things better than others, but most are participatory in some way.
It appears that work is held in high regard. Can it be that is due to the current love of the 70’s? Back then, more people than I ever imagined wanted to do what I suggested. And I’m looking for this way not to make exclude anyone, that is the main aspect of infinitely accessible I desire. Infinite participation over time was really a goal all along. It’s just not so easy.
Although great things unexpectedly do happen! May I tell you one little quote, because this kind of validation is rare and wonderful. The situation was at Barnard, the college from which I graduated was giving me a distinguished alumnae award, and I had some kind of infection that the doctor had told me to take “Z pack”, and it had a terrible effect of making me want crawl into bed more than anything. So when I got up on the podium to speak while they were showing images of my work. I was supposed to link my commuter days as a student travelling 3 hours a day to my 207th St subway project. I stood there and looked up, there there was “At the start…” and “At long last…” and I said, “Does anybody in this audience know Inwood area of Manhattan? It’s only about 150 blocks north of here at 116th Street.” And this tall, black woman got up and said, “I live there. You did that station?” Her name is Frances Sadler and she is CEO of a Halfway House and she wrote an email where she said:
“I only wanted to say that it was truly a thrill to meet you. I love that station. When new people ride home with me, we stand outside the elevator to the street reading the quotes from the tiles. But my favorite is: ‘At long last…’ Usually I’m dragging home long past dinner time. When I get to that wall, I look at it and I sigh, and repeat the words. It makes me feel that the universe is empathetic with my feelings about the day. More importantly, it makes me smile.”
I always hoped that passengers arriving or leaving would complete those sentences I started and ended with three dots. I chose glittering silver tesserae and bits of mirror to make up “At the start…”, and “At long last…”, and also the three dots of the ellipses which are 4” square, and after them continues 4” square white tiles with, quotes from 207 people in the neighborhood. So it was just like, “Yes, I wanted you to think that this work is empathetic with your experience.”
That’s what I want. I want that empathy between the made work and the viewer, the teacher and the student, that empathy between, yes I want that. But you don’t know that you’re getting it unless someone tells you.
There’s a quote I really do like — I don’t know if that counts as activism. A 19th century woman writer I loved quoting in the early days of giving public talks, oh dear what’s her name? — she was talking about factory workers and spoke of “the gentle art of mutual aid”.
So really this is the gentle art of activism. It’s not a fist, it’s something else. It’s being something else. It’s being otherwise.