A collaborate project and much more
Susan Bickford is an adjunct professor at the UMA. Recently she did a most interesting collaborate project that challenged students in a unique way. You’ll learn about the project in this post along with Susan’s story.
Susan’s most recent project
The Collaborative Portrait Project began in my 2-D classroom four years ago. I wanted to develop a project that required a group effort, like the experiential education games that we played on Cow Island at Ripple Effect. I wanted to translate that group leadership dynamic to art making. At the same time I had to deliver the value studies lesson. I was also mandated to work both digitally and manually. So in this project I begin by asking the students to research and nominate a hero, “give me three good reasons why I should vote for your candidate”. At first they suggested movie stars and pop idols, like Micheal Jackson, Hugh Jackman, and they were all male. I hinted that they could go deeper and choose people that were more meaningful to them, more relevant of the present time, and more deserving of an epic portrait. Now we are getting nominations like Malala Youzefsai, Amelia Earhardt, Edward Snowden and the Dalai Lama. Each time I do the project I figure out a better way to do a certain aspect of it. The students give me suggestions.
The most recent iteration of the Collaborative Portrait Project is the Farmers Edition. Over the course of making a video documentary of a growing season on the Goranson Farm, farmers in general had become my heroes. In this case I nominated the farmers that I had worked with in the CSA: Community Supported Arts Project with the Harlow Gallery. Ten of the farmers that participated in that project agreed to be subjects for the portraits. I solicited Allison McKeen to take photographic portraits of the farmers, applied a coded matrix and digital filters. Now all I needed was a group to help me make the 360 panels. Deb Fahy who helped to find funding for the project connected me with the education committee at the Harlow Gallery through which 10 teachers committed to doing the project with their classrooms. I taught the teachers the methods at workshops and distributed the panels. Our first meeting was in April, the students made the panels during the Fall semester and we showed the portraits at the UMA Danforth Gallery in January. We even got materials donated by local businesses: Artist and Craftsman Supply and A.C. Moore. Ten four foot portraits of farmers from Maine, made collaboratively by 10 teachers and their 250 students. Each panel is lovely, it is amazing how they all fit together. You can see them now on the website at www.collaborativeportraitproject.com. Epic Portraiture throughout most of history has been reserved for monarchs, religious leaders, and the very rich. Images of the few, commissioned by the few, made by a master. They reveal the dominant paradigm of their time. Andy Warhol utilizing mechanical reproduction shifted the subjects of portraits to include ordinary people and cinematic moments. Chuck Close magnified virtuosity and mastered imperfection as beauty. In contrast, making portraits in collaboration, redefines how we see ourselves as a group. This is a radically different model, many with many, not icons but locals, not virtuosity but inclusiveness. My colleague Robert Rainey designed a gorgeous documentary book of our process with a DIY section which you can view and purchase on blurb.
What are your next steps with the collaborative project?
Thank you so much for asking me that question, you might think that after doing this project with 360 moving pieces and so many people that I would be exhausted but there is something about the group dynamic that is energizing me. You have to follow your flow, so I want to do this nationally. “100 heroes” is what I am calling the next iteration for this system of collaborative portraiture. I want to work with teachers across the country, teach them the project, have each group nominate a local hero and feed it into the system. We will all learn about what amazing things local people are doing all around the country. One thing I learned from the Farmers Edition was that the kids really enjoyed being part of a larger group. It inspired them to work really hard on their panels. To belong to this larger group was expansive and empowering. Another thing that confirmed to me by Carolyn Brown from Camden Hills Regional High School was that the digital filters assisted the students in their manual reproduction. The abstract nature actually facilitated the value study because it reduced the preconception of content. I want to highlight both of these discoveries in the national project. I am developing an online interface so that all of the portraits will be remotely uploaded to the internet, and the participants will be able to pick their panels much like you would pick an airplane seat. Then apply the filters, print them out and manually and reproduce them. Finally they will send them all, carefully coded, snail mail in a packet to the exhibition site. The collection of portraits serves to empower through involvement, and make visible an index of hope for the future. Can you imagine all these newly elected heroes, portraits traveling in pieces across the country toward their exhibition to be put back together like ambassadors of hope? It gives me chills.
What is your background?
As an artist I have always pieced my living together with lots of part time work. I grew up here in Maine, in Yarmouth. My fathers side of the family goes back seven generations in the Lisbon Falls area. When I graduated from college I worked doing environmental graphics in DC for a short time. But I soon moved back to Maine and started my own business making fine craft jewelry. I had big clients like Barneys and Nordstrom as well as many small galleries. I did wholesale trade shows for 15 years, as well as taught ceramics and metal smithing at North Yarmouth Academy and continuing education venues. Then I had my daughter Bella, which changed everything because I wanted to be with her all the time. When she was three, I started the MFA program at Maine College of Art (MECA) which really re-invigorated my art practice. My mom encouraged me to continue my studies. I studied at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the early eighties, now it was the new millennium and so much had changed in those 15 years. In the Masters program at MECA I was required to read and write, to think and articulate my thoughts. My artwork is systems of interactivity. Sometimes I make installation with projected video and sound that viewers can modify with their movements and voice. Other times I make projections for theater. I was the artist in residence at Ripple Effect on Cow Island for several summers, living in a tent, being a video instructor, making rings and environmental sculpture. Nature is a very important element in my work. Since 2003 I have been teaching at the college level within the University of Maine system, Augusta, Farmington, USM, and Orono and more recently at MECA. I teach 2-D, 3-D, Electronic Art and various seminars.
How did you get interested in art?
I got my start in art because my Grandmother Vivian took me to art classes with her on Tuesday nights all through high school in the seventies. We drew with colored pencils, Mr. Matolchy and Lee Bean were my teachers, I wasn’t very good at drawing but I learned to see, make marks and the discipline of practice. Then my parents funded my undergraduate studies at RISD. I probably would not have gotten accepted if not for those classes. My Dad suggested I major in Industrial Design because it was applied, he was an engineer and liked that idea. It has served me well, I have a fond place in my heart for machines and manufacture, and well functioning, elegant objects. I like problem solving and design process. The jewelry that I made was modular and utilized all of that training. When I think about installation it is with a knowledge of three dimensional space and ability to build things.
What is your role at UMA?
Since 2003 I have been an adjunct faculty member at UMA. We have great art facilities there, for printmaking, sculpture, photography, painting, electronic art and ceramics. The faculty are really passionate about teaching and their media. Most of our students are place bound and would not have the resources to travel to other locations to study so I feel we are providing a valuable service for Central Maine. In the twenty-first century everyone utilizes media so having some visual literacy is a skill employers are looking for.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.