THE CREATION Project at Pyramid Atlantic

Helen Frederick interviewed by Andrea Pollan

AP: How did you become so passionate about printmaking and papermaking? How did this interest feed into the founding of Pyramid Atlantic?

HF: The passion that I have is for collaboration, and the chosen media happens to be part of a fascination. At Rhode Island School of Design, my alma mater, the place that lured me there was the most exchange, the print shop, rather than the structured painting, sculpture, or famous photography programs. I found my life has continually been that kind of investigation. The obvious art with a big A has never been the draw. So, when you say, “Why are you passionate about printmaking and papermaking?” that’s a question I have difficulty in answering. These are disciplines or artistic practice that led me to an answer, but they are not the things I am passionate about. And it’s interesting to tell you that because I direct a center for paper, prints and books, and everyone assumes that’s where my primary interests lie… in those media.

My interests really lie in the unexpected, for example having gone to India, a far away place, and seeing paper being made in a collaborative setting, in a mill where Robert Rauschenberg had explored hand papermaking. The 25 kids on the street drew me to that mill. It was their place, their exploration, and their community. I went in and saw this amazing activity. I saw rags being cut and cleaned. I watched people down in the troughs doing very hard work. I considered how Rauschenberg might have utilized this entire complex to make contemporary works of art.

I came back from that experience in 1976. and found out more about papermaking. I had already been trained in painting and printmaking, the fine arts, but I had never thought about this substrate of information—the paper itself. It was at that point that I said, well, if I learn more about one area more completely, I will have more control over what I can do with methods of investigation, and then I can pass that on to another generation. It can be a line of printers, papermakers, artists, and kids or teachers. Even that wasn’t concretely in my mind as the fact of being involved in an artist-centered community, which was very prevalent at that time in the early 80’s. So I started Pyramid Atlantic. My passion lies in what is possible in a setting where material and technical information draw a community to do things with that information. But more, it’s discovering an unknown form.

The setting created a Pyramid allows people to come in and find or invent a new form. Studio Spaces and techniques are adaptable concepts. It always amazes me when people ask me this question because the internal things that I think about are so hardly related to the actual paper, prints, and books.

AP: It’s really a philosophical approach to a large community and media.

HF: It is. And it’s about getting underneath. If you are really collaborating, you have to deconstruct to rebuild. That’s why it has been interesting to work with Tim, because I think he gets that.

AP: So people are more used to a product coming out of an organization as opposed to the spirit of bringing people and energy together?

HF:I think people are not accustomed to how you look at antecedents, how you look at the history of something before you can rebuild a new platform. The interesting engagement is literature, with Pyramid the experience draws on the history of culture, methods and materials. There is hopefully a chemistry that allows people to explore new ideas that become images that somehow relate, yes, to paper, prints, and books but investigate more. Artists here have generally deconstructed a process to reconstruct what is a strong powerful statement.

So many artists and students have gone through our doors over the years and have brought as many different approaches on this idea of deconstruction and exploration of innovation as has happened in the Discoveries group. Tim and I are both blessed to have worked with those who don’t fit the normal art making/printmaking world and who aren’t interested in it, and who want to work with challenging ideas in our facility.

AP: Could you tell me about your Visual Literacy Project initiative here at Pyramid Atlantic?

The Visual Literacy Project grew beautifully out of our Making Connections program. That was really established in Prince George’s County with the tutelage of Anne Abramson and working with Duke Ellington School for the Arts as a model program. How could these kids tell their stories outside of their school environment in such a way that they would be disarmed and how could we provide them a structure in which they could do it? We then brought more schools and more counties throughout the region to the program. Now it’s become a program that offers scholarships for students from many schools and also an accreditation program for teachers to go back and get Reading Certified Professional Development Credits. In working with the teachers, we have enlarged their capability to choose their students who are most at-risk and to bring those students into the new Visual Literacy program.

That’s how we organized The Creation program, to consider printmaking as a socialist statement, as a catalyst for social change and as a tool to expand visual literacy. It’s the antecedents and historical references in these media that we have talked about – paper, prints and books. And it is the capacity building of the students to take what they know from their other curricula and apply it. We are delighted if someone does a book about science. That’s why I think that The Creation project for Visual Literacy was so exciting because myths came into our conversations and research, and the fact finding from the Hubbell telescope was a resource. The Creation was thematically driven. When we plan the Making Connections program with the high school kids and the teachers, it’s not thematically driven, but rather depends on personal narration.

AP: You mention that this was a model program. How do you and Pyramid want to accomplish that? Do you have national goals or international goals?

HF: The first thing we are doing is continuing to work with one of two students, Luis Hernandez, and his teacher Liz Goins; and Michael Milano and his teacher Anne Marie Lyddane. We are starting an after-school Discoveries program with Pyramid as the model and Tim as the Catalyst. As Michael and a new group of students enter that expanded program, and we start to build on it, in addition to our After-School Mentorship Program, I am really curious to see how we can showcase our ideas to schools around the country through a video presentation. I would hope that we would make this integrated not as a one-shot deal at a school or a museum, but as a curriculum-building change. We plan to get our pilot program so organized here that it could be sent to other state departments of education through various agencies so that it can be employed in other schools.

AP: Did this process meet your expectation of what collaboration is? Or have you redefined to yourself what collaboration is?

HF:I think the excitement for me, is including all of the kids, both k-12 and the George Mason University students, and seeing how we have honored the integrity of the images all the way through. I didn’t know that might happen. I even had some concerns about how that might go. That said, I think there have been some qualities to the collaboration that would have been better handled had the time period been tighter. Scheduling is always an issue. How do you get everyone together for what you really love—the supreme collaborative time?

In terms of what the portfolio is going to be, I think it is really groundbreaking. It acknowledges all of the skills that have gone into it from the all of the many people who have worked on it. And it keeps the integrity of the students’ images. We are pretty thrilled about that.

AP: The way you describe the power of collaboration, in addition to whatever physical project you are working on, is fundamentally its ability to open the eyes of people involved to other possibilities. I hope the same holds for the exhibition.

HF: To make visible the whole gray area where things transform. That transformative nature in the worksite with the students and the art, I think, doesn’t occur all of the time. I hope our exhibition touches on that, the nature of the unexpected. I honestly think that this show can open doors to perception the way we envisioned it would. That’s what I really hope The Creation project and folio of prints will do. I trust that its inspiration will affect viewers so that they feel more hopeful. I think it can do that!