I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on what is known, rather informally, in the art world as an “artist talk”. The artist in question was Amber Hansen, the current painting professor at the University of South Dakota. What I expected to be a simple recap of Hansen’s past works was, to my pleasant surprise, a journey through a number of small towns within the Midwest, an interesting discussion on sustainable farming techniques, a viewing of a diverse array of charcoal drawings, large scale murals, experimental films, and Hansen’s insight as to what it means to create artwork collaboratively. What I assumed would be a summary of Hansen’s formal education and a viewing of her portfolio, was actually a dive into Hansen’s world of creating artwork, not simply for herself, but with community involvement and a sense of unity in mind.
Furthermore, Hansen’s diverse portfolio contains a work that may surprise you- the production of the feature length documentary, Called to Walls, that Hansen and her fellow artist Nicholas Ward, filmed, edited, and produced on their own. This film documents the two artists’ journey as mural assistants to Dave Loewenstein, and their experiences working with communities to create large scale murals outside of the world of “high art”. It was this brief lecture and the introduction to the unique work that Hansen has been a part of, which prompted me to ask Hansen more about her creative processes and what impact they have had on her as a fine arts educator.
I sat down with Hansen early on a Saturday morning. As she sipped iced coffee from a mason jar. I set up my things and spent some time taking in her studio. It was clean and minimal. I couldn’t help but admire the soft charcoal drawings that causally leaned against the walls in raw wooden frames. A canvas that Hansen had stapled to a wall in her studio showed the beginnings of her process, as I could see she had begun to sketch out a scene in cool grey tones. The canvas covered the entirety of one of Hansen’s studio walls and served as the backdrop to our interview. -Emma
To begin, what led you to teach, and how would you describe your teaching style?
Initially, I imagined I’d be a teacher because it’s one of the most visible career opportunities to an art student. After graduating from the University of Kansas I was teaching a little, but I was really becoming excited about my own work. So, I sort of stepped away from teaching to become more involved with the film and community based work, and my own work. I really stepped away from academia all together. So really, I just recently have come back to teaching. I think the time I spent on my own work was important for me, and also for my students because learning from someone who makes their living as an artist versus someone who makes their living as a teacher is a completely different experience. I feel that these experiences really provided me with unique tools that I could bring back to the classroom. However, now, I feel that I really do just enjoy teaching and interacting with students. I am constantly learning from students and what they care about, which for me, makes teaching a symbiotic relationship that I truly enjoy.
To sort of branch off that idea of a symbiotic relationship, what do you hope to teach your students and what do you hope to learn from them?
Ultimately, I want them to have the tools to be able to create in any way that they want. To make sophisticated, articulated work, specifically in the realm of painting. But I also hope that they’re introduced to the many ways that artists can take their degree, and shape it to fit many different careers. I want to teach students to value the process of working through the mediums of drawing and painting, and to realize how important that is to the creative process. I want to encourage students to find ways to make the slow process of letting their ideas evolve and change over time become relevant to their own work. I feel that because most of my time is spent talking to students about their ideas, I have truly learned to empathize with others, especially with regard to their creative processes.
Is painting your favorite medium to teach?
Painting and drawing is where ideas begin. It’s where I think through ideas, and watch them evolve into more sophisticated ideas or more interesting metaphors. Over the past several years, I’ve been working primarily in drawing with charcoal, but more recently I’ve moved to things like ink washes. Often times the materials I use relates to the spaces I’m working in and what I have access to, but when I am able to, I always come back to painting. Painting allows me to talk about all of the things I care about. I can talk about the technical aspects of painting and sort of nerd out over the visual and technical elements of painting. But I also love that I am able to introduce ideas about collaborative and community based work to my students through painting. It’s also a medium that many artists have translated into other mediums such as stop motion animation, film, set design – there are all these other avenues that painting allows. So if I have a student that wants to do these things, they are able to do it right here in the painting studio. I think we are seeing this across the country, where the painting studio is now this place where there are installations and performances – painting is not quite bound by the material itself.
What is the most important thing you would like to teach your students?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I think my answer to this will change, but this semester one of the most important things that I’ve wanted students to ask themselves is who is the audience for their work. I want students to think about who they want to connect with and how that relates to what they’re making and why they’re making it in that way. But maybe that isn’t the most important thing… maybe it’s helping students make the connection that painting and drawing are an active process of thinking. It is asking them to be present within the process of creating and being responsive to their own work. I would like students to realize that they can learn as much from the process of painting and drawing as they can from any other form of learning. They may do research and watch documentaries and read books and collect all this information that they will in turn bring to the painting. By being engaged in their process, painting can really reveal a lot.
What was life like before teaching?
It was kind of like piecing together a lot of different things. In a day I could go from adjunct teaching, to holding a community meeting, going to band practice, and then bar tending that evening. It was constantly doing drastically different things and piecing together a lot of different jobs. There is a nice consistency in being a professor and it definitely allows for more time to be creative. Essentially, I am always trying to find enough time and space to be creative, and that’s sort of my motivation in life.
I’d like to ask you a little bit about your film, Called to Walls. What led you to make this film?
I was a mural assistant for Dave Loewenstein on his mural project that began in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Tonkawa is this small town that we essentially lived in for three months. For Nicholas and I both, this was our first experience being introduced to community based art in any serious way. This particular town reminded me a lot of the town that I had grown up in, it was equal in size and I could imagine the impact this project would have had on my life and my town had it been introduced to my city when I was a kid. Working on the mural there was, for me, thinking about art as something that existed beyond frames in galleries. And at the same time I was thinking about how underrepresented [mural painting and community based artworks] were in my own academic training. So I started asking “why?” We were thinking about how we could bring this art form to the forefront of contemporary art making in this part of the country and how we could recognize it as a valid art form. So this became our motivation to create the film. I think we were also compelled to make it because the emotions we were expressing and the things we were feeling as we were painting the murals were really beyond words – letting the imagery, and the people in the communities speak for themselves in the film became a way to record this. It doesn’t just convey the facts of the project, it really shows how there is an emotional quality to creating works with a community.
When did you start filming?
We started filming in 2010. The murals were created between 2010 and 2014 and each project took about three months. So we filmed throughout that time and later went back and gathered follow up interviews and spent another three or four years editing.
And you two did this all yourself?
Did you have any film making experience prior to this project?
Nicholas had created stop motion films. I had done some performative, experimental films. We did some short documentary films of moments we had been a part of in our community, but they were only 3 to 5 minutes long. So we had an introduction into film making but we really had to learn as were making the film. We checked out a lot of books, we watched documentaries, and really taught ourselves through the process, which is probably why it took so long!
Did you just film whenever you thought something excited was going to happen? How did you decide when to pull out the camera?
Once we decided we were going to make a documentary we were a little more specific when it came to picking what scenes we wanted and what the narrative was going to be. There are many narratives that develop in every town and we essentially had to choose which one to bring to the surface. It was constantly a challenge to try to identify the individuals who were good story tellers and who would be a consistent thread in the mural project. There was a lot of planning that occurred before the project but also a lot of improvising that happened during the course of each project.
I’m sure that working collaboratively with so many individuals has had an effect on your teaching. Do you think making the documentary itself has had an impact on how you teach?
Through the mural process we would hold these design meetings and hear all of these wonderful stories. We got to know the individuals so quickly because of this. I know we would have met all these people through the mural making process but we really got to know them quite intimately through the documentary. I think that has caused me, as a teacher, to work to create spaces within the classroom for students to speak and feel comfortable speaking. The actual creating of the documentary helped me gain a lot of technical skills that I wouldn’t otherwise have.
On a human aspect there are things that I have learned through the documentary about working with people, and the weight of being trusted with other people’s stories. I feel that I am better able to assist students who are interested in working with other people and their stories. I have learned that there are methods to conducting successful interviews and communicating with people.
What’s next for you?
I feel like there’s a lot of wonderful energy in the art department and in the painting community here at USD, as well as the community of vermillion. I see a lot of potential to build a vibrant painting department but also to foster and build connections within the community. Both of which are really exciting. I’d like to see how the relationship between the art department and the community here can grow.
Some artists that inspire Amber Hansen are:
Allan Kaprow, Judy Baca, Marina Abramovic, Miranda July, Kerry James Marshal, Henry Darger
To learn more about Amber Hansen’s work please visit her website!