Teaching the Art of Printmaking at Duke Kunshan

Merrill Shatzman
April 5, 2018

One year after her students' art opening, Duke professor Merrill Shatzman reflects on her experience teaching her course at DKU.

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While in my final semester of teaching at Duke, I was offered the opportunity to teach the first art practice course at Duke Kunshan University during the winter/spring quarter of 2017. I must admit I was nervous. Although I was well prepared, having designed a printmaking course drawing on the historical aspects of Chinese culture, and supported by an extensive reading list, I didn't know what my students would be like. Had they taken college-level art courses in the past? What were they were capable of creatively producing? I had been told by professors who had previously taught at DKU (and returned to teach again) that this would be the teaching experience of a lifetime, with an amazing group of smart, dedicated students.

Yes, my class was amazing and I personally had the best group of students one could imagine. In Chinese universities, unless enrolled in an art college, students rarely take humanities courses, let alone a hands-on class in making art. My fourteen students squeezed into our make-shift conference room studio, with table space being about two students short, and seriously got to work. It clearly didn’t matter that our supplies arrived late, or were refused by customs, and all work was done by hand without the comforts of a contemporary printmaking studio. The students were there to get the most out of an art class, and their enthusiasm, determination, camaraderie and talent overrode any obstacles in our way. 

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These photos share our magical experience together. They display my students’ works in progress during review sessions, a critique and the group show opening of one of my favorite projects I have used in my relief printmaking and artist book courses at Duke. This assignment, the creation of a wordless graphic novel, offered students the chance to tell a story and to see their images both as individual prints and as a hand-bound artist book. When developing the assignments for my Relief Printmaking and Chinese Culture course, I immediately went to this project as it presented my students their first opportunity to tell a story visually, using multiple small woodblocks presented in a book format. My course at DKU focused on different relief printmaking techniques, along with learning about the history of the woodblock print in Chinese culture. The three assigned projects throughout our seven weeks together were designed to teach relief cutting and printing techniques, and to provide a strong understanding of design by emphasizing the visual, formal and conceptual ideas in the students’ work. The assignments were ideologically driven and visually open-ended, thus allowing the students to explore their own visual imagery and ideas. Making artist books from carved, printed blocks thus immersed my students in their rich cultural heritage. The wordless graphic novel project was by far where students made their biggest investment and were most proud of their results.

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A graphic novel can be fictional, non-fictional or an anthology relaying a story through its graphic combination of imagery and text. Wordless graphic novels depend on imagery to convey a story.  Artists including Frans Masareel (Die Sonn, a sixty-three plate book, 1927), Otto Nuckel (Destiny, a volume of two hundred wood engravings, 1930) and Lynd Ward were acclaimed for their graphic novel works. Ward’s work reflects on art, nature and society surrounding the time of the Great Depression. His books explore social and labor matters, religion and social justice. His works include God’s Man (1929), Madman’s Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), Song Without Words (1936) and Vertigo (1937).

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By creating a wordless graphic novel, the students relayed a story of their own choosing, that was portrayed by seven to ten different woodcuts. Each student chose different sized small blocks, which, being double-sided, could count for two prints each. Through storyboarding, they broke down their narratives into specific images that most clearly portrayed their ideas. We extensively discussed book design concepts, building upon the compositional ideas applied to the first prints they had made. Now, with their imagery presented in a book format, concerns of the order, image placement on a single and double-page spread and pacing of their prints became critical. We talked about referral (the interaction of objects and/or visual elements throughout the book), preview (relating by referral to upcoming elements), motif (a visual element serving as a theme and/or structural device) and pacing (the accentuation and movement of time and rhythm found throughout the book) so as to build up the suspense of their stories. In order to best see their prints as a book, the students made unbound facsimiles of their printed books, giving them the chance to insert additional images and blank pages and make alterations to their project prior to seeing it in its bound, finished form. Binding methods including accordion fold and Japanese stitch binding were demonstrated, so that the best binding choice could be made in relationship to the materials they were presenting. In order for the students to receive the most feedback on their books, we reviewed their works in progress, helping them address how their narrative could best be shown in their woodblock prints.

And my students truly embraced their projects. They chose to create stories on Chinese folklore, family tales, personal experiences and memories. In order to celebrate the success of their work, their stories, and to share their amazing results with the Duke Kunshan community, the DKU library hosted an opening of their work. As many of the students had never taken an art course in college, and certainly never experienced an opening of their work, this was a big deal! I could not have been prouder of these outstanding young women and men.

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Merrill Shatzman is an artist and Professor of the Practice in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University.  Learn more about her work at www.merrillshatzman.com.