Watch Me Work: CCS Faculty in Action
fac·ul·ty /fakəltē/: from the Latin facere, to make or to do
When we talk about faculty, we talk about a collective of people, who have an aptitude or talent, who teach what they know to others. CCS faculty are particularly skilled at this. Hailing from all over the country and the world, across thirteen disciplines, they boast some of the most accomplished resumes in art and design. They know a lot and love to share.
Those who can’t do may very well teach, but not at CCS. True to the word’s origins, our faculty create, problem-solve and collaborate, and then guide hundreds of talented students in how to figure out and use their own creative voices.
Watch Me Work celebrates making: the craft at the core of creative practice. Every month, we’ll take you into the studios, offices, back rooms and workshops of CCS faculty members to show you what they do and offer some insight into how and why they do it. And if you want to spend the next four years working with, and learning from, this group of elite art and design practitioners, let us know and we’ll help you make it happen.
The Vallejo Mixtape
We try not to categorize people here. Perhaps it’s the art school way which, by definition, insists that artists and designers express themselves as fully as they can imagine regardless of medium or material. Thinking about the work and career of illustrator Francis Vallejo, however, one word that comes to mind is comics — from the kid in the back of his sixth-grade classroom dreaming of drawing comic books to the illustrator of Guerrières Celtes, whose heroes in the genre range from George Pratt to Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. Here’s another: literature. Vallejo is the illustrator of the award-winning 2016 book Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph.
And then there’s music. Assistant Professor of Illustration and native Detroiter, Vallejo says “Music is a big part of my life. From cooking to doing my thumbnails (sketches), everything has a soundtrack.” On the day Vallejo welcomes CCS to his home studio, something meditative is playing low in the background and, before the crew leaves that afternoon, he recommends an experimental LA hip-hop band who happen to be playing the following month at El Club, Detroit. “I’m often rapping under my breath while I’m painting and, when I’m done, I go shoot a few hoops.” Let’s go with: eclectic.
Vallejo’s focus is sharp, his manner is relaxed and his dedication to craft is real. But he doesn’t get so bogged down with labels. His CV is replete with commercial clients across industries on the one hand and art exhibitions on the other. “There’s not necessarily a line between fine art and commercial work,” he explains. “We’re trying to put lines on a surface to tell a story. Sometimes it’s personal and just for yourself and, other times, it’s for a client. But we’re always trying to communicate something.”
Toward the goal of communication, teaching plays a central role for Vallejo. “Teaching allows me to formalize a lot of my instincts intellectually and in a readily accessible form, because I can’t go into a class and tell my students, ‘Paint it good.’ I have to teach them how to paint it appropriately and communicate well. While that’s beneficial for the student, it’s also really beneficial for me.
“Teaching helps me listen to my own advice,” he continues. “The same way that I’m a voice on my students’ shoulders when they’re not doing their value studies appropriately, I’m a voice on my own shoulder. Helping others puts pressure on me to improve my own habits.”
It’s a balancing act, he suggests, but isn’t engaging with the world on a variety of fronts central to being an artist? Teaching, illustrating books, magazine work or drawing comics is part and parcel to the life of an illustrator. “We have all generations of illustration here, who run the gamut of experience,” Vallejo says about CCS.
“Stop on by. We’re best when you can see us in action, when you can come into a figure class or info day, when we’re getting excited talking about core shadows on a 30-hour pose.”
Art is a mode of communication, a way of talking — about who you are, what you think, what matters — to yourself and to others. It ignites and sustains conversations. Miranda Clark’s mode is the camera and her language is photography, a language that can only be described as pure wonder.
“I’m a very social person, and I want to communicate and tell stories,” says Clark. “Photography is a really great way to do that.” Sounds straightforward enough, but Clark tells stories that are visual and performative and a bit quirky. Think: a formal chandelier in the rugged countryside of another country. Or, inhabiting a different persona, an actress, perhaps, complete with wardrobe, back story and wrap party.
“It’s less interesting now to have categories than it was historically,” Clark observes. “Performance is embedded in photography whether it’s intended or not. I loved dressing up as a kid, so I incorporated it into my art practice. Being in a foreign country adds another level of façade to the photos.”
Clark’s sense of wonder translates easily to the classroom. “Teaching keeps me engaged — seeing a student discover an artist for the first time or start connecting dots that they hadn’t previously seen before. I love talking about art, and I have amazing students.” From darkroom to digital or fashion to fine art and commercial, CCS, Clark notes, is a “great playground, with structure and support” where students are given all the tools to find their own voice and decide how to apply it.
Teaching also is an extension of Clark’s own art practice, tending toward the interdisciplinary. She teaches “History of Photography” as a studio course; students build cameras obscura, create projects and connect their own art practices with historical concepts and theories. Her “Landscape as Fiction” course encourages students to write their own narratives. It is a photography course, but students also create soundtracks, and do site-specific work, so the course emphasizes — wait for it — engaging the visual language of photography and connecting it to other mediums.
But if you think this language is for the very few, or the fluent, you’d be wrong. Clark wants everyone to know, well, how democratic photography can be.
“I love photography because it’s something that everyone can do and everyone can see and understand. To really read a photograph, you do need the tools to know who the artist is, why they took it and what they’re trying to say. But at a very base level everyone can look at a photograph and come away with something. And that’s exciting.”
You slide into the buttery leather seats of a new car. Your hand grazes the nubby upholstery of an on-trend, acid yellow sofa. Or maybe you’ve just been eyeballing a new pair of black kicks. If designer Kelly Slank has done her job right, you won’t even know she was there.
Color and materials designers used to be the unsung heroes of the design world. Give them a couch or a shoe, a car seat or stereo — any product we use, really — and their special brand of genius makes it sing with life: the color that attracts, yes, but also the pattern that completes a look, the finish that adds unmistakable vibrancy.
A graduate of Wayne State University and an instructor in CCS’s Color and Materials Design MFA program (C+M), Slank started out in interior design before working for global brand, Nike, General Motors and Ford Motor Company.
Now she runs Slank Design, a consultancy, and a large part of her work is trend forecasting: being able to predict future trends in color for her clients, from individuals to corporations. “What excites me about what I do is the way people respond to those elements,” she explains. “It’s the first thing that everybody sees when they look at a product and, for better or for worse, it’s the thing that everybody has an opinion about.”
Which is one of the reason’s Slank teaches at CCS in C+M, one of only a handful of such programs in the country. Color and materials in general and trend reporting in particular require, as she notes, being connected to youth culture. And teaching gives her that connection.
“It’s twofold,” Slank says. “I’m connected to that young creative energy that I love so much, and it’s a chance to give back. The other thing is, I know what it takes to work in a corporate environment, and I feel that’s too good not to share with someone who might need it.”
But don’t forget: I said they used to be unsung heroes.
Slank points out how, in the two-plus decades she’s been a designer, perspectives on the field have changed. Rather than adding color or finish or pattern or texture as the afterthought of a project, color and materials designers are finding that, more and more, their work is the first thing — catalysts of great design.
“So, rather than ‘Here’s a shoe, put a material on it,’ I see the reverse,” says Slank. “Now it’s often a materials designer presenting some great textile they’ve created and an industrial designer saying, ‘What can I do with this? What kind of product can I make with this?’”
You could walk a crooked line from the hijinks of Steamboat Willie — one of the first cartoons starring Mickey Mouse — to, say, the mayhem of Dragon Ball Z. But when was the last time you even saw an animated film from before World War II? Or before sound? Have you ever? Because Steve Stanchfield, assistant professor of animation and animation history, wants to make sure that when you decide to do a deep dive into the early days of animation, the films are there for you to find. His side gig: preserving animation history.
“These films are the stepping stones of what we do now,” says Stanchfield, who also runs Thunderbean Animation in Ann Arbor. “Often I tell students to go look at the really early 1930s films because those animators were learning lessons that the students are now trying to learn.”
Stanchfield’s recent restoration projects involve films produced in the 1930s and 40s, like the 1948 Alice in Wonderland, a film with both live action and animation made by puppet animator Lou Bunin, and the Flip the Frog cartoons made by the Ub Iwerks Studio. Ub Iwerks was the animator of Steamboat Willie and partnered with Walt Disney before striking out on his own. Stanchfield works with the original nitrate negatives and master positives. “All of that original material still exists,” he says, “and we’re doing everything we can to do preservation work on the material before it doesn’t exist.
“This isn’t about the money; the money’s only enough to be able to restore the next film. It’s because somebody has to do it. If we don’t now…” His voice trails off. “It was brought home to me after visiting UCLA and seeing what they can’t restore now. I thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”
His passion for film restoration is palpable, as is his passion for helping students not only discover the connection between history and now but also find their own way. But that’s why CCS has such a successful animation program, Stanchfield emphasizes, because there is neither a “house” style nor an expectation of what you’re creating — just an expectation to create.
“I feel like the program is always experimental in that way because we never know what someone is going to produce,” Stanchfield says. “Rather than say, ‘Here are the perimeters,’ we say, ‘Here are some things that have existed before. Now what can you do with this? Where can you go now?’”
Watching Kim Harty in CCS’s glass studio is a little like the first time you saw a magician levitate someone or cut a person in half. You figure the fix is in, but you’re caught up in the game anyway. In the hot shop, Harty’s meditative gestures coax a small pyramid-shaped vessel from what had been a shapeless lump. The process is mesmerizing.
Magicians are entertainers; they deal in misdirection. Kim Harty’s alchemy definitely transforms the raw materials she interacts with. She’s just not trying to pull one over on you.
“Glass is a magical and seductive material,” says Harty, preparing for an upcoming show at Holding House in Detroit’s Corktown. “Working with glass hot is an endlessly challenging process. It’s almost like a living material that you’re constantly reacting to. The material has its own phenomena embedded within it, so you could, for example, have something that’s ten inches thick but it remains totally clear. It’s kind of amazing.”
So is Harty’s creative practice, which lives at the crossroads of sculpture, performance and installation. Her work is known for testing assumptions, the biggest of which may well be that glassblowing takes too long to learn to do well.
“Glass is difficult at first; learning glassblowing is like learning a language,” she explains. “So, for example, your first day of French class, it’s going to be really challenging to have a vocabulary to communicate with others. With CCS’s program, you get so much time in the studio and so many opportunities to take classes, you become proficient very, very quickly.”
And CCS is the place to learn glass, as it’s the only college degree-granting program in Michigan. Students begin working in the state-of-the-art hot and cold shops right away — a huge advantage over schools that may delay exposure until sophomore or junior year.
“I love teaching glass because you get to introduce students to the possibilities of this material. I’m really interested in expanding the potential of what can be done with glass,” says Harty. “And that may be that the glass isn’t just an object but it becomes an installation or a tool to create a light effect or a way to change space or change a viewer’s perception of a space.”
Blacksmith James Viste holds up a knife he’s made and notes that the blade, which appears razor thin to the naked eye, contains layer upon layer of welded steel. It is glorious. Sometimes a maker practices his craft so well that we immediately understand his work as “in the tradition” — part of a long and storied history yet somehow completely new. This is one of those times.
The full-time technician in CCS’ Crafts Department and an instructor in the Metalsmithing section, Viste first joined the College for Creative Studies two decades ago. And his enthusiasm is contagious: if you don’t leave his shop wanting to learn blacksmithing, check your pulse. It happened to him as an undergrad in Wisconsin. He intended to study painting — until he took a metals class. He never looked back, eventually completing his MFA at Cranbrook. You get the feeling that, for Viste, blacksmithing isn’t just a craft. It’s a calling.
“I enjoy all aspects of blacksmithing, really. I enjoy doing decorative iron. I enjoy restoration — discovering moments in time gone by, seeing things as I work on a historical piece,” he explains.
“I come back to the knife, though, for many reasons. It’s a great instructional form. I always say that knives are the jewelry of blacksmithing because they have the fine detail work; it’s not all just grunt work. But I also come back to the knife out of respect for how I started because my first teacher was a knife maker.”
That continuity from teacher to student is evident not only in Viste’s work but in the ethos of the Crafts Department where, he points out, the faculty are a spark. “And after that spark, students, among themselves, will start to build their own department. They become colleagues who may spend the rest of their lives working and talking to each other, sharing and building on each other’s ideas.”
The department rotates several blacksmithing courses, including contemporary and traditional decorative iron and toolmaking for students who want to make tools to use in their own craft. “A glass student might want to make their own glass jacks and shears,” says Viste, “or a wood student might want to make their own chisels.
“This class and all the classes are individual based. I emphasize that I’m here to help you produce what you are interested in.”
But every student makes the same start, according to Viste. “The taper and the scroll are the first things you learn in blacksmithing: how to draw a line and how to manipulate it.” Those techniques lead to everything else.
“People think it’s work,” he says, smiling, “but I could do this all day.”
Dave Chow is a walking advertisement for the possibilities of what you can learn at CCS, what you can do with those skills professionally, and how much fun it can be. An illustration instructor, a Communication Design alum (back when it was called Graphic Design) and the longest-running member of the Alumni Council — 30 years and counting — he loves CCS down to the bone.
“I had amazing instructors during my time at CCS,” Chow explains. “They gave freely of their time and, as far as I’m concerned, this is Karma. I’m just giving back. But I also enjoy doing it. I try to enjoy whatever I do, whether it’s teaching or drawing. I just try to enjoy life as much as possible.”
Chow brims with nervous energy; it’s a riot of smart observation, sly humor, trivia and off-beat enthusiasm. Think The Sugarcubes. Or, better yet, Pixies in their prime. But don’t get it twisted: he is a highly sought-after illustrator and designer for clients across diverse industries, including cars (the Big Three), non-profits, sports teams, big business, small business, Hollywood and even storyboards award-winning music videos for hip-hop artists Eminem and Obie Trice. And what does he want to do with all this experience? Share it, of course, and help students find their own artistic voices.
“I don’t have a preference as to medium or subject matter, but I make sure that whatever art they create is relevant to a market,” Chow says of his junior studio course. “Simply put, by the time students get done with my class, they can actually go into their senior year and craft a portfolio that will be ready for the job search.”
A proponent of practical education, Chow points out that the Illustration department at CCS has two great assets: a strong and active alumni pipeline (where the majority of his work comes from) and instructors who do what they teach. “I still work 40 to 60 hours minimum per week,” he says, “and I know a lot of my peers are doing the same thing. We work in the industry and students can see the immediate results of what we do” – like his storyboarding course where Chow often uses examples from real jobs as the basis for class assignments.
“In the last 15, 16 years of teaching,” he says, “there are probably about a dozen or so of my students storyboarding in Hollywood and all over the world, doing what I do. In a way, I’m kind of creating my own competition. But I’m also creating my own peer group as well, which helps. And they’re fun. They’re good kids.”
When Stephen Schock talks design, his speech becomes staccato: each sentence is an excited declaration, punctuating his thoughts on the importance of process and the two-way street that is teaching. It would be easy for you to make the leap that it’s all made up, spur of the moment. But you would, of course, be wrong. He’s done the hours. And every designer will tell you that it takes a lot of preparation, a lot of experimenting and pushing boundaries, to make dedication look easy.
An award-winning product designer and educator, Schock, an associate professor, is an advocate for the value and influence of good design. “A design education, creativity, innovation — all of these things are really necessary in the world,” he says, explaining why he teaches. “If I can spark that in young people, or anyone, that drives me as a teacher.”
Last summer, Schock taught a pre-college seminar on accessories design to high school juniors and seniors. The goal was for students to learn the design process and how to deploy it to make functional objects.
“I want them to know how to be inspired and use that inspiration to drive their process, to be creative.” he explains. “We’re creating physical objects, working with leather. We’re making things — tangible stuff — watchbands, bags, wallets. These are things they can use; it’s not just for their portfolios.”
Schock is a champion of the College and its mission, a line that can be traced back to his own experience as a student. “I’m an alum. CCS changed my life,” he says. “It helped me see things I never thought I could see and do things I never thought I could do. I want to pass that to the next generation of designers. I want them to see the world as more meaningful and beautiful, to experience its depth and richness.”
His own designs have a rhythm and range that’s pretty impressive. Co-founder of Detroit Relic, Dlab and Detroit Boots, Schock has made everything from desktop lamps using recycled pistons to furniture, footwear and a 66cc bicycle inspired by early 20th-century board track racers. In 2015, he co-designed the Metafora system, an award-winning healthcare concept for reducing delays in patient care and improving patient transport and tracking in hospitals.
“Really, as a designer, you can do anything,” says Schock. “I’m a master of design process, whether that’s a digital interface or a physical object, a bicycle or a piece of furniture. It’s all design. When you know how to design something you can design anything.”
Whatever you were thinking about doing today, let that go. Head over to the print studio with Tyanna Buie and learn a thing or two. Even if you’re majoring in something else. Even if you don’t know what printmaking is or how to do it.
“The thing I want people to know about printmaking is that you’ve done it — you just don’t know you’ve done it,” says Buie, a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors grant.
“I remember being little and drawing on my finger with an ink pen and stamping it on a piece of paper. That’s printmaking. Tracking up your mother’s house with snow or muddy footprints. You’re making prints all the time, every day. The question is: how do you harness it and make it work for your creative practice and research?”
Buie joined CCS in 2015, and the place hasn’t been the same since. Her enthusiasm is infectious. But then teaching, Buie asserts, is natural when it’s something you’re excited about. It also is what one artist does for another — in order to pass on skills and techniques, sure, but also to become better.
“Teaching helps push me as an artist. I think to myself, 'I should try that more often!'” Buie says, laughing. “Also, I had so many mentors and professors who helped me, and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m interested in obtaining knowledge and giving it back and getting ready for the next generation of artists.
With one of the best printmaking facilities in the country, CCS is a good place to move beyond promises and walk that walk. Just ask Buie. In the years since she began printmaking, her powerful and deeply personal mixed-media artwork has taken her to art schools and galleries across the country exhibiting, teaching workshops and lecturing.
“CCS has everything, which is one of the reasons I came here to teach,” Buie explains. “We have letterpress, and a lot of schools don’t have that. We have relief, which is woodcarving; we have intaglio, which is etching; we have copper, and a lot of schools aren’t set up for that. We have, of course, silkscreen and lithography. Lithography is one of the oldest forms of printmaking. It’s a little archaic, and people are naturally intimidated by litho. But we have it.”
Part of why Buie does what she does is that making prints can be labor intensive, and engaging with a process physically helps build a good work ethic. But it also helps young artists and designers think holistically about their own work. The process that creates a print —making an image from scratch with innovative, quick-on-your-feet problem solving — can be useful to anything else you’re doing.
“‘You’re going to be next, I tell my students.’ That’s exciting to be working in your field with people you know are the future.”