Curating as Pedagogy, Paper as Dialogue

Curating as Pedagogy, Paper as Dialogue

The Center for Book and Paper Arts is perfectly situated within the Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia College Chicago—our studios, classrooms, gallery and offices steadily hum with graduate student and faculty activity; it is an energizing atmosphere, and we are happy to harness not only the students’ enthusiasm, but also their ideas and growing expertise.

In January 2012, Associate Professor Melissa Potter and I initiated this paper exhibition as an independent study opportunity, for which graduate students could receive three credits for assisting me in the organization of our summer exhibition. Three students signed on–Elizabeth Isakson-Dado, CJ Mace, and Hannah King.  From curatorial concept to marketing and installation, each student is granted creative agency in every stage of the process.  This blog is an example of that.

Material Assumptions exhibition team.

Split into two sections our exhibition, Material Assumptions features works in handmade paper by prominent artists (including Glenn Ligon, Chuck Close, Mel Bochner, and Jessica Stockholder, to name a few) made in-residence at Dieu Donne, an artist workspace in New York. For the second section, we have commissioned eleven interdisciplinary artists to create new works out of paper handmade in our studios by CJ, Elizabeth and Hannah themselves, with the help of fellow graduate student Trisha Martin.  Because we are placing handmade paper into the hands of visual artists for whom paper (much less handmade paper) may not be a primary medium, the exhibition asks us to consider that “handmadeness points not to a certain visual or aesthetic trope, but to realms of possibility.”

Consulting with each artist, Elizabeth, C.J. and Hannah, are not only producing the paper, but working collaboratively with each artist to determine the types, sizes and fibers best suited to their project. Sometimes, its a give and take– when asked for particularly large quantities or sizes, the students are learning the nuance of explaining to artists that hand papermaking is a long, sometimes delicate process.  Negotiations over quantity, and discussions about scale and concept ensue!  However, this illustrates one of the greatest aspects of this project: in this model knowledge flows both ways. Our students are uniquely poised to share their sophisticated understanding of paper with contemporary artists; in turn they glean from each artist yet a new way this often-marginalized practice can translate provocatively and meaningfully into ever wider realms of art production and discourse.

Artists have long immersed themselves in the practice of exhibition making through the creation of artist-run spaces.  Increasingly, however, artists are feeling comfortable adapting more explicitly curatorial roles, within both an aesthetic and a professional dimension, hence the ubiquity of the term “artist as curator.”

To that end, our reasons for adding a pedagogical layer to exhibitions at CBPA are as much about professional development as they are about artistic growth: professionally, exhibitions are an important public vehicle for display, communication and education. They are essential tools we utilize as we work to “center” the production of artists’ books and hand papermaking within the field of interdisciplinary arts discourse.  But for an artist working today, how can the collaborative act of curating someone else’s project translate into a more nuanced consideration of the way one’s own work exists in the white cube? …and then in the world beyond it?

To learn more about the Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program, visit

-Jessica Cochran
Curator of Exhibitions and Programs
Interdisciplinary Arts Department | Center for Book and Paper Arts


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