Q+A with Guest Artist in Print Program Abra Ancliffe
Wed. October 29, 2014
Can you tell us about your practice and background?
My education was in English literature and printmaking — making a clear path to a language-based art practice that is heavy in book and print. I also run a subscription-based circulating library, the Personal Libraries Library (PLL) that recreates the personal libraries of artists, thinkers, writers, and scientists of interest to my members and myself.
The PLL collections include the personal libraries of Maria Mitchell, the nineteenth century astronomer, librarian, educator, and suffragist and Robert Smithson (1938-1973), the influential artist, writer, and thinker. The Library then expanded to include the personal libraries of writer, critic, and journalist Italo Calvino (1923-1985); short-story writer, translator and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986); and poet, civil-rights activist, and gardener Anne Spencer (1882-1975). Outside of my practice, I teach printmaking at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon.
How did you become interested in astronomy?
I believe that everyone has an innate interest in the stars and other observable celestial bodies. Unfortunately, now most of us are quite disconnected from the night sky due, in part, to light pollution that obscures all but the brightest celestial bodies. Most of us do not tilt our eyes towards the sky much, since they are trained on more earthly objects. Halley’s Comet in 1986 was an incredibly memorable experience for me as a girl. There was an excitement around the comet that was palpable, and staying up late to catch a glimpse of it was transformative. Funnily, I do not remember actually seeing the comet with my own eyes.
You will be working with the John R.W. Herschel Collection at the Harry Ransom Center? What is in the collection?
Much of my current work is centered on how we view and understand the night sky through the page. With that in mind, I decided to explore the Ransom Center collection to see its holdings in astronomy. I found the Herschel Papers and began to search for items in the collection that could be images/drawings/paintings/prints made by the Herschel family of the observable night sky. Serendipitously, the Ransom Center has multiple observed drawings of stars, nebulae, and at least four paintings of Halley’s Comet as seen in 1836.
What drew you to the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type collection?
What wouldn’t? It is a world-class collection that is still in use for students, scholars, and artists — a very exciting “living” collection. As a letterpress printer, I have studied the collection through the book, American Wood Type: 1828-1900, and was able to see it in person, briefly, a couple years ago. I also teach wood type typography and history from the book and the website in my classes at PNCA.
The opportunity to work with both the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type and Herschel collections is incredibly exciting and allows me access to source materials and tools to expand my current practice.
How do you see the production, labor, and meaning-making of publishing and astronomy converging and overlapping?
At some point, astronomy and publishing are the act of putting the night sky on the page. As aforementioned, the printed page has increasingly become the primary way that we view the night sky. Thus, the labor and modes of production in each field converge and overlap. In fact, many early astronomers made and printed their own texts and images. They knew well that representation of celestial bodies is mediated by how the ink is put on the page. This continues today with the spectacular images produced from Hubble-collected data, where processors assign colors and create the images that we see. As the Hubble website states, “Hubble images are made, not born. Images must be woven together from the incoming data from the cameras, cleaned up and given colors that bring out features that eyes would otherwise miss.”
This exploration is at the heart of my current body of work, When Looking Down is Looking Up.