Each term, Art Center College of Design offers a transdisciplinary course called ‘Text, Image, and Written Word’ that challenges students to design and create a book using the facilities at Archetype Press, the college’s letterpress printing studio. The course has been running for years, and every term the students work with a different poem to explore the connections between text, image, and meaning. I was lucky to be invited to the summer term’s final critique this past week, during which the student teams presented their finished chap books (shown above) to the poet Paul Vangelisti, an LA-based and internationally recognized poet who provided a short poem, “Adonis”, for the students to illustrate and print.
The course faculty - poet Dennis Phillips, illustrator Steve Turk, and Archetype Press director Gloria Kondrup - encourage the students to avoid direct representation, instead advocating graphical and illustrative strategies more akin to poetic devices. This compelled the students to engage more deeply with the images and ideas embedded within the text, drawing them out and finding unique ways to render them legible. In the critique, the students explained how they had used abstraction and sophisticated visual allegory to elucidate the poem’s mythological roots, its etymological wordplay alongside references to masculinity and youth; many of the chap books seemed like a series of neatly bound doors or nested rooms, leading the reader through the spaces of the text. Working in pairs, many of the students combined letterpress with other printing techniques like digital image transfer and silkscreening.
Future iterations of the course will use a similar format, with the selected poet providing a specially written poem for the course and visiting the class at various points throughout the term. The generative nature of the collaboration seems to hinge upon the intersections between modes of representation, pushing designers to reinterpret not only a text but the act of creating that text, and asking them to adapt poetic and linguistic models for the design process. When instructors, artists, and students from various disciplines use their skills as tools to explore the fabric of representational strategies, unraveling and reweaving them, new forms can emerge.