Collectively Speaking

Lead essay from the catalog COLLABORATION AS A MEDIUM, 25 Years of Pyramid Atlantic, 2005

by Jane M. Farmer

Sure hands wield a vintage press. Others perform the ritual alchemy to transform fiber into paper. Fragments of a poem flash on a bare wall like digital graffiti. Paperless chapbooks are published on Cds and ephemeral installations captured on DVDs. There is more: A man, an artisan brought from the desert half the world away, speaks without words to strangers on the Capital Mall. Homeless men and women make their voices heard in an open conversation. Elders record their stories while young people discover that they have stories to tell. A book, pages painstakingly stitched, is bound in leather and stamped with gold foil. Another is bound in a plain zip-lock bag. Incongruities? Unexpected convergences? Tradition and innovation, international dialogue and local community building, teaching and learning and making. It all comes together at Pyramid in a remarkable synergy.

Pyramid Atlantic is an advocate for a creativity-centered community that is celebrating 25 years of accomplishment. A prescient and ever-evolving understanding of the informed practice of making art explains Pyramid’s success. Over its twenty-five years the organization developed and facilitated a place apart –a unique space where artists leave the pressures and expectations of themselves and their lives and come to be simultaneously exposed and supported, enabling ground-breaking growth and expansion in collaborative creative projects.

In addition to being the catalyst for outstanding artistic collaboration, Pyramid’s unique environment has been educating and developing collectors and a devoted artistic community that further sustains the unique creative environment and the production of outstanding works of art.

At the time Pyramid Atlantic was founded, workshops were springing up all over the United States to perfect different media in order to establish their worthiness in the hierarchy of the art world. Helen Frederick had a different agenda from the start. Like many artists, Frederick can trace her artistic definition to a very young age. Born the year the US first utilized the atom bomb, Frederick realized as she was growing up that the answers to the questions forming in her mind were not to come from the external world as she observed it. She took her quest inward. As an adolescent, she often visited the Marcel Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Immediately Frederick responded to the space for articulation and understanding provided by Duchamp’s transformation of materials. Eventually she grasped that the idea was as important as the object itself, that the object’s not falling into our expected definition of beauty and art was what enabled the stimulation of our thinking and enabled us to accept our own answers about art.

As an art student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Frederick found more expansive thinking and freedom in the physically remote realm of the printmaking studio that was run by Dadi Wirz, a student of S.W. Hayter. She was also exposed to the open-ended work of Dieter Roth who, while teaching at RISD, spent many hours in the print studio. Frederick editioned some of his early etchings and gained the insight to risk-taking in art. Roth, a natural teacher, gave Frederick confidence in her role as interpreter as well as artist/printmaker. As a RISD student, she realized that the equipment, the status of printmaking, and the less rigid sets of external expectations permitted the creation of a community that allowed more interdisciplinary collaboration, problem solving, and freedom to discuss and explore materials in experimental ways. Frederick’s attendance at a musical performance by the innovative artist/musician John Cage was another revelation for a young student –a seminal experience she could fully appreciate only later.

Experience as a Fulbright scholar in Norway and then on her own in India, contributed further to Frederick’s approach to teaching and artistic experience. The innovations in weaving of her spiritual friend, Lenore Tawney, were also important to reinforcing her growing sense of experimentation and process over the art world’s emphasis on commercialism.

Frederick traveled to Ahmedabad, India, seeking more personal than artistic understanding. She was introduced to a papermaking community fostering communal/co-operative working. It was there that she experienced the acceptance of the abilities and contributions of all, even including the street children. Frederick’s arrival followed a visit by the American artist, Robert Rauschenberg, arranged by the Los Angeles based workshop, Gemini, GEL. Rauschenberg was a longtime friend of John Cage, a graduate of Black Mountain College, an inveterate collaborator within disciplines, media, and materials. The Ahmedabad community was sensitized by his intermixing of traditional materials, local culture and observational statements, and welcomed Frederick as another American who wanted to learn and interact with handmade paper. Thus the experience was pivotal in her work and development as a collaborator.

When Frederick returned to New York City, she was struck with the rigidity of the NYC art community, compared to her experiences abroad. She decided to leave New York, to find a place where she could build a truly collaborative artistic community that would focus on a neutral environment of experimentation and support, that would not only permit but would promote collaborative exploration of art media. The choice of printmaking, papermaking and book arts evolved naturally because these media frequently involve the sharing of large and expensive equipment and the extension of the materials they process. It was always –and still is—the collaborative experience that is Frederick’s passion.

Baltimore, Maryland offered an ideally diverse city with its ethnic neighborhoods intact. There was an art school, important universities, two major regional museums and a growing interest in art by the public. The collaborative workshop Frederick founded was named “Pyramid Prints and Paperworks” for the large graphic mural that was a defining landmark on Pyramid’s block in the warehouse district, not far from the Maryland Institute College of Art and Design. Pyramid quickly became known as an experimental center for innovation, technical support, and the combination of printmaking and papermaking. Early on regional artists were invited to collaborate in this unique atmosphere. Pyramid became a source of interchange for visitors as well as resident artists. Early publication projects through artists’ galleries and individual arts awards. Area sponsors such as the Maryland State Arts Council, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Art and Culture provided early funding. The residencies were not a formulaic event. Each artist-in-residence became involved with the workshop; and each residency changed Pyramid. Artists rarely come to Pyramid for only one project. They tend to return, to become involved in further collaboration, to teach classes, to become board members.

From the outset, local institutions were attracted to and at the same time intimidated by the atmosphere of inter-disciplinary and inter-media collaboration that became the hallmark of Pyramid projects. Although union with a large institution was sought, it would have, more than likely, resulted in the smothering of Pyramid’s already unique organizational approach.

In Pyramid’s work with members, artists-in-residence, and students, the most important goal has been to provide a place of neutrality, safety, support, and technical expertise. This environment frees the artists from many restrictions: the expectations of professors, teachers, galleries, museums, and critics. Frederick had witnessed this freedom in the work of Duchamp, the musical collaboration of John Cage, the experimentations of Dieter Roth, and the collaboration of Rauschenberg’s printmaking and papermaking. Frederick continued to explore the nature of collaboration and creativity. From the philosophy of Jacques Derrida she became engaged in the “deconstruction” of traditional media traditions, artistic expectations, and rational thinking in order to free up any particular experience for re-invention. Frederick was driven to provide this open-ended yet supportive environment for artists of all ages, experience, and reputation.

In 1986 Frederick realized that a majority of the artists at Pyramid were commuting from the Washington, DC area. The region was fed by the many nationally supported museums, private museums, and a sophisticated art public and had become a strong art center in its own right. Pyramid moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, straddling the northwest border of the District of Columbia, to a building that housed a community of non-profits and artists’ studios. Kevin Osborn brought an offset press to Pyramid in Takoma Park and with it another possibility of experimentation that connected to writers and artist/bookmakers. Investigations into visual and concrete poetry led to artist offset and letterpress book publications. Shoichi Ida visited from Japan and completed an offset print edition. Offset joined the palette of possibilities for artistic collaboration.

Pyramid filled an important mid-Atlantic need for the support of collaboration and technical expertise. It had taken its place in an international movement of workshops that emphasize interchange. This role led to the name change Pyramid Atlantic (serving the “mid Atlantic’). Papermaking spheres and the book arts spheres overlapped and this confluence further strengthened the regional and international base. Master classes and summer institutes attracting participants and interns from across the country were conceived and planned as a core programs of the organization.

Pyramid Atlantic held the first Book Arts Fair in Washington, DC in 1991 at the National Museum of Women and the Arts. This fair quickly grew in stature to an internationally known biennial event that focuses more on unique and limited edition artists’ books than the more typical literary-oriented book fairs. The book collecting community began to establish itself to support contemporary book artists and exhibitions, particularly through the leadership of Jan Howard, then Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Krystyna Wasserman, Curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Neal Turtell, Chief Librarian, The National Gallery of Art, and Joshua Heller, book collector.

Projects and Programs
The escalating real estate market was behind a move to Riverdale, MD in Prince George’s County. This afforded another big opportunity: the rapidly growing PRINCE GEORGE’S County was eager to work with Pyramid Atlantic in several ways. The county art departments for kindergarten through grade12 welcomed enthusiastically the new teaching resource. Other county agencies and programs took advantage of Pyramid Atlantic’s presence. The result was innovative programs for art teachers and students from local schools, for the aging, and with other county cultural organizations. The renowned arts high school, the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, in Washington, DC began an intensive collaborative program at Pyramid Atlantic. Making Connections, brought advanced high school studio art students and their teacher to the workshop for a week, combining hand papermaking, printmaking, computer-based book design, and journaling. Each Student produced an autobiographical artist’s book. Production and presentation of the books to their families and peers was a transformational experience. This program has expanded to regional high schools, in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

The success of the Making Connections program and Pyramid’s collaborative approach fostered a series of groundbreaking educational programs at Pyramid Atlantic:

Visual Literacy Project: Making Connections, Art as Content; Reading as Process is an outgrowth of the high school Making Connections project. Developed with the Howard County Secondary Education Department, it recognizes the need for teachers of all subjects to address and understand literacy. Visual Literacy is now a regional Teacher-Training and Professional Development Course that adds a layer of literacy training to strengthen the teachers’ understanding of the role of literacy in the arts through their own making of artist’s books and working with a reading specialist. Teacher training and exposure to the role that the collaborative process can play in teaching verbal and visual literacy is a major contribution to the educational process by Pyramid Atlantic. Teachers from all over Maryland are presently engaged in this program that celebrated its fourth year as a Summer Institute in 2004.

The Art of Work, The Work of Art was organized by Master Resident Printer Susan Goldman along with artist Richard Dana and lawyer Lewis Segall. As with the Making Connections project, the premise that artists and non-artists met as equals and were supported in their collaborative experience made it successful. Susan Stamberg’s mention on National Public Radio brought an onslaught of inquiry, prompting the realization that a video about such innovative programs could be a model for similar non-profit projects.

Artist- Residence Program has brought emerging and established artists each year to collaborate in the Pyramid Atlantic studios. Over the years the interweaving of artists, of personalities, of experience, and of outlook has produced the rich fabric that is the artistic output of Pyramid. Unlike some collaborative shops or programs, there is no one look or style that characterizes this oeuvre. It is as diverse as the participants themselves. The philosophy that underlies these core collaborative activities is that status and the baggage of pretense are checked at the door. All ideas and all participants are equal.

In addition to the collaborative projects, other artists such as use the studios on their own to develop new works. These artists and their ideas also affect the environment. Over time, many have passed through the doors to transform the field of contemporary art.

Crossing Over/Changing Places Project was a complex project about international exchange and collaboration representing the efforts of four mid-Atlantic non-profit workshop programs, The Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper at Rutgers University, the Lower East Side Print Shop in Manhattan, the Print Club in Philadelphia, and Pyramid Atlantic. In the eighties, the organizations had low-budget exchanges of artwork literally driven from shop to shop by staff members. The concept for the international exchange project grew out of these informal “station wagon” exchanges and the shops’ communication to recommend regional artists to one another for Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation residencies. The four programs formed an umbrella non-profit for international exchange, the Crossing Over Consortium. The timing for such an internationally-focused organization was perfect for the 90’s: the Consortium partners and the government and private funding entities were of the same mind about the appropriateness of less formal organizations being featured in post cold-war Europe.

The Crossing Over/Changing Places exhibition toured extensively in Eastern Europe. It was often the first contemporary US art seen in those locales since the cold war. Because the four projects featured mid-career, ethnically diverse artists, the exhibition was a showcase for an appreciation and understanding of diversity. The project included an extensive international exchange program, sending exhibition artists to 3 US venues, 21 showings in 14 European countries, and bringing 9 European artists to the states for residencies in the four Consortium programs. The final venue at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the fall of 1997 added artworks from the Europe-bound and America-bound collaborative exchanges. Presses and facilities were installed in the museum gallery so that exhibition artists could lead collaborative projects for diverse groups of Washington, DC regional art students, levels kindergarten through university. The newest works gradually replaced those of the overseas exchanges, producing 8 new collaborative pieces. An additional collaborative element was the “zine,” Transfer, created by a team of high school students and Consortium personnel to summarize the complex seven-year project. High school art students served as docents to take school groups through the project at the Corcoran. Local embassy exhibitions and cultural events completed the final venue in Washington.

The interaction of the America-bound exchange artists with the various workshop communities and the experiences of the Europe-bound American artists were groundbreaking for all participants. The project was an excellent exploration of the role of the arts and of artists as diplomats and peace brokers. Eastern European culture has always valued the arts –with particular interest in printmaking, film, and the book arts– as portable media that emphasized the exchange of concepts and ideas. The collaborative process became more important than any particular medium. The message of the work was about collaboration and the acceptance of diversity. The traditionally-oriented art schools and institutions of Eastern Europe were stimulated by the diverse and innovative content, the innovative media, and the collaborative process. The success of Crossing Over/Changing Places affirmed that the intermixing of ages, ethnic and cultural experience, artistic experience, and intellectual disciplines nurtures expansive artistic and personal growth.

Discoveries Program is an outgrowth of both the Making Connections and the Visual Literacy Project. Art teachers select their most at-risk students to bring to experience collaborative art making with their teacher and others. This program takes the benefits of the Making Connections program for the visually adept and talented students and extends the self-empowering experience to those most in need.

After-School Mentorship Program offers high school students an opportunity to work with staff, visiting artists and the college interns in a much longer-term experience, developing mixed-age ongoing relationships to foster self-esteem and a variety of arts-related skills. The new Silver Spring, Maryland studios, Pyramid’s location near the subway and buslines provides access for after school student programs. Two new grant awards will support students at risk and the local immigrant population. The Maryland State Arts Council has funded a new ARTvantage program for at-risk youth and the Carl M. Freeman Foundation supports Pyramid’s Telling Their Stories program for the Latino, Asian, African and African-American population in South Silver Spring.

The Creation Project is a residency project developed by Pyramid Atlantic with Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival, New York. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Access to Artistic Excellence, The Creation Project has taken a diverse group of regional students, from kindergarten through university levels, and brought them together for a longer-term experience centered around Hayden’s musical masterpiece, The Creation. Without specific musical or artistic background presented, the students worked collaboratively to produce work that is their own interpretation of the music. The resulting portfolio of work honors the original imagery and contributions of the students, who worked in handmade paper and screenprint monotype. Both Rollins and Frederick had, separately, evolved to a similar approach in their thinking about the role of collaboration for self-expression. The Creation Project is a timely vehicle for these two educational innovators.

The Creation Project is the culmination of all of the educational and artistic collaborative projects that Pyramid Atlantic has organized and in which Pyramid has participated. All of these projects are gaining recognition as innovative keys to understanding educational and creative experiential processes.

Facilities At Pyramid’s New Home
In the last five years, Pyramid has undergone an exhausting and enervating process for any small non-profit organization: the acquisition, renovation, and funding of a permanent building in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. The dedicated board and staff of Pyramid Atlantic have demonstrated a tremendous will to not compromise the core of the organization, despite the conflicting pressures presented by this process. Consultant Richard Kamenitzer, working with facility project manager Cherl Derricotte joined Pyramid to advance capital support from new state and county sources to enable the completion of a 2.2 million dollar renovation of an old warehouse.
Undergoing the numbing years of fundraising and endless meetings while still providing the “neutrality” that is necessary for true collaboration is nearly impossible. Yet Pyramid has made it through the most difficult part of this process, with its creative spirit intact. Pyramid Atlantic’s newly renovated headquarters is now a key player in the state appointed Arts and Entertainment District of the revitalized downtown Silver Spring. Pyramid is well located to serve the region as an educational and collaborative art center, and to work with institutions and schools in the nation’s capital.

The Pyramid Atlantic Archives contain more than 800 works that represent the print, paper, and book movements of the last 25 years. Additionally catalogues, videos, CD’s, historical photographs and slides as well as the actual materials used during projects and residencies are a valuable resource. Documents from the Crossing Over Changing Places and Paper Road Tibet also contribute a major resource of information about art, process and cultural exchange.

A second key to the unique success of Pyramid Atlantic is the fact that the staff continues to evolve and various projects are run by a consensus of the staff members –with the guidance of the Board of Directors, themselves an extremely dedicated body of members over the years. The community art center is transforming againbecoming more of an institution, while not losing its focus as a place for artistic exchange.

When asked what is next, Frederick, Board and Staff talk of the phase two physical expansion of the building. Frederick speaks enthusiastically of a group of community members who were “trapped” at Pyramid by a thunderstorm and the magical transformation of their experience when they got more deeply involved in conversations about art. “Two dancers from Baltimore spontaneously began signing in the Kunst Vault Project Room space, magnifying its sound capabilities. Everyone was alerted and listened. Such happenings reassure that the presence and uniqueness of space that provides happenings of this nature also allow personal discovery and the development of authentic artistic experience.”

The future new building phase will provide a larger exhibition gallery space, a public lecture hall, and an income generating restaurant/café where such involvement can be fostered. All of these are the outward symbols of mature and successful non-profit organizations and will provide additional benefits for the Silver Spring and Pyramid Atlantic community. The additional facilities will extend Pyramid Atlantic’s role as a much-needed gathering place for Washington DC area artists. These amenities will be successful only if Pyramid Atlantic can maintain the suspension of outward expectations and continue to open its participants to the wonder of collaboration. Frederick reassures that the creative goal will be the dominating priority when she directs the conversation away from the coming fundraising campaign and returns to a discussion of the next collaborative project afoot: a cultural exchange that will bring 9 Mexican artists to Pyramid, again working with the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper at Rutgers University through the auspices of the government of Mexico and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

The creation of a neutral space and the ability to enable artists and students to experience the unexpected motivates Frederick and Staff at Pyramid Atlantic and guides the organizations development. It is what makes Pyramid a place where anything is possible.

In its first 25 years Pyramid Atlantic Art Center has made a lasting--truly revolutionary—contribution to the art world. The emphasis on collaboration among participants of diverse ages, cultures and experiences is the key. Whether in the organization’s management, the artistic projects or the educational programs, these participants come together as equals to exchange and share a process and experience. This process inevitably results in innovative and outstanding works of art, despite—or perhaps because—the emphasis is on collaboration as medium.

The Pyramid Atlantic Archives contain more than 800 works that represent the print, paper, and book movements of the last 25 years. Additionally catalogues, videos, CD’s, historical photographs and slides as well as the actual materials used during projects and residencies are a valuable resource. Documents from the Crossing Over Changing Places and Paper Road Tibet also contribute a major resource of information about art, process and cultural exchange.

Pyramid Atlantic Exhibitions: In its new home, Pyramid Atlantic hosts two exhibitions every two months in its main gallery and in the Kunst Vault Project Room. The exhibitions showcase works integral to its mission of experimentation. Since January, 2004 resident artists, faculty from Montgomery College, local electronic media artists and installation artists have been exhibited, extending and describing the nature of the investigation of the art as work in the studios to gallery presentation is articulated in tours given by a newly formed group of docents.