Department of Art and Art History Special Program

Q+A with Guest Artist in Print Program Abra Ancliffe

Wed. October 29, 2014

photography of woodblock print with two circular shapes on paper
When Looking Up is Looking Down, detail of fig. 13, woodblock + letterpress, edition of 6 , 2013. Photo by the artist.

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.

books, paper, and prints arranged on a table
Printed Matter from the Personal Libraries Library, installed at the Tacoma Art Museum. Photo by the artist.

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.

two photographs of books held open by hands pasted alongside one another
BOOK / UNIVERSE, 12" x 18", c-print, 2014. Photo by the artist.

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.

Ancliffe will have a public lecture November 4 at 5 p.m.

Learning Tuscany students featured in The Daily Texan

Fri. October 24, 2014

green department cube logo

Studio Art undergraduates Brigitte Cara Butler and Kristyn Coster, along with European Studies major Brigitte Chapman, discuss their experiences in Italy with The Daily Texan.

Students find la bella vita in Tuscany

Wed. August 27, 2014

Group of students on tour

Every summer, students in the Department of Art and Art History leave the confines of the UT Forty Acres for the Italian countryside. Through the department’s Learning Tuscany study abroad program, students spend six weeks in the region to experience Italian culture, see famous works of art, and surmount the hurdles of doing laundry in a foreign country.

“I want the students to ... push themselves to use both the challenges and charms of Italy to develop an increased self-awareness and confidence,” said Art History professor Ann Johns, who has managed the Learning Tuscany program since 2006.

Johns travels abroad each summer with a colleague from Studio Art—this year, professor Leslie Mutchler—and leads between 20–25 students through Italy. The program’s home base is in the small town of Castiglion Fiorentino, but they also travel to area cities such as Florence and Rome.

“I was striving to engage students in an active investigation of Italy and the phenomenon of travel through the process of making handmade books and zines,” Mutchler said, “I wanted our students to broaden their understanding of art (and themselves) in the context of travel.”

Mutchler asked the students to collect printed ephemera. They then constructed mobile wunderkammer to house and curate those collections. Cara Stamp, MA candidate in Art History, said of Mutchler’s assignments, “Her planned projects really forced us to get to know Italy and especially our hometown, and it was a much-needed push that really brought the trip to the next level.”

The students are not the only ones who face challenges in Italy. “It can be very difficult for me to talk to students on-site,” said Johns, “For example, we can't talk in the Sistine Chapel. We also visit museums, such as the Vatican museums or the Uffizi museum, that are so huge that it's virtually impossible to keep everyone together.”

To solve this problem, Johns created a series of venue-specific podcasts that serve as individual audio guides. She explained, “The podcasts allow students to move through large collections at their own pace and listen to ‘me’ when they've arrived, for example, in the Raphael Stanze in the Vatican Museums.”

Mimi Richardson, BFA candidate in Design, found the recordings helpful. “It made visits in the museum pleasant, as you could tune out all of the distractions around you by just using your headphones. I loved that I could move at my own pace and linger on what seemed most interesting to me.”

Learning Tuscany students and faculty take group picture in front of building

Learning Tuscany provides a foundation from which the students explore Italy independently, Kristyn Coster, BA candidate in Studio Art, said, “By providing a few language lessons and allowing us to figure out certain aspects of Italian life on our own, we developed a closer bond with the culture and the people.”

"Traveling to an alien place has a way of erasing social barriers and allowing you to forge truly awesome friendships,” said Allie Swaar, BFA candidate in Studio Art, “Sharing an incredible, terrifying, and wonderful experience with people I would have never come into contact with in Austin, but who will now remain my friends for years to come.”

More information:

  • An exhibition of artworks by the Learning Tuscany students will be on display September 19 through October 3 at the Visual Arts Center as part of Fieldwork Projects.
  • Meet the 2015 Learning Tuscany class with the Flying Longhorns on a 14 day trip with tours lead by faculty from the Department of Art and Art History.
  • Listen to Learning Tuscany podcasts on iTunesU (link will open in iTunes).
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