When we received the following story about a library-inspired art investigation by artist and doctoral candidate Julia Skinner, we knew we had to feature it and her on the Library as Incubator Project! Read on for our conversation with Julia about her project, Modernizing Markham. ~Laura
Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Please introduce yourself to our community–who are you, and what sort of work (creative, day job, etc.) do you do?
Julia Skinner (JS): Currently, I’m a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, and I’m at the dissertation writing stage, so I’m almost done! I’m hunting for jobs right now, so I don’t know what my future job title will be, but I’m mostly looking at archives/special collections or reference and instruction positions.
I got my MLS at University of Iowa, and also got a Center for the Book certificate at the same time. That experience shaped me as an information professional and as an artist, because it gave me the tools to do my work, but also helped me find my voice and learn about myself. I learned that it was actually feasible to make a career out of what I love, and I learned that my style of artistic expression was much broader than I thought. My doctorate has done the same thing, by helping me find my voice as a researcher and as a teacher.
My artwork is closely tied to the things I’m passionate about, which includes libraries and their history, as well as the history of the book. I’m working on a series right now (and have been for some time) that adapts scholarly works on the history of the book into art pieces. I keep taking breaks to make other work though, so it’s taking a while! As far as style and materials, I tend to be pretty broad, although I incorporate a lot of calligraphy into my work, and often use acrylic paint, gouache watercolors, and a variety of inks. Lately I’ve been playing with dripping paint on canvas as a part of a work.
I also love cooking, and view the process of preparing and sharing food as a creative act in a way similar to creating visual art. Food is often the outlet through which I connect with and share my affection for others. As far as other things about me, I love spending time outdoors, doing yoga and meditating, reading, and spending time with the amazing people in my life.
LAIP: Your project Modernizing Markham was inspired by a book called “The English Housewife,” found in the special collections department at the University of Iowa. Can you describe for us the assignment description–what were you assigned to do that prompted you to explore the Szathmary Collection in the first place?
JS: I initially encountered Gervase Markham (author of The English Housewife) during a book history course with one of my favorite professors. She had the folks at Special Collections bring out a variety of different books from different time periods for us to look at and compare. We did this twice during the semester, and one of those times I found The English Housewife, bound with a couple other Markham works into a single volume. This was also the same time one of the Special Collections staff described the Szathmary Collection to us and walked us through some of the areas where it was housed (it’s an amazing collection, and includes everything from manuscript cookbooks of household recipes to manuals for kitchen appliances).
I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I was entranced with the Markham book, and decided to work with it. I wrote a paper on The English Housewife for that class. Initially, I planned to submit it to a journal and have that be the end of the project. I did end up submitting it, but later withdrew it so I could continue to explore Markham through my UICB final project. The final project is very broad, serving as the capstone activity for the graduate certificate program. Each student tailors it to their own interests, and seeks input on the project from UICB faculty. The final products range from thesis-length papers to books bound and printed by the student.
For my project, I knew I wanted to work with The English Housewife, but wanted to go beyond mapping out the history of this particular book. Initially, I thought I would just modernize some recipes, but as I thought more broadly about Markham and what he did, I realized that the project wouldn’t feel complete unless I took it further. Markham was someone who really leveraged the latest communication technology, and published enough books that he ended up getting in trouble legally for flooding the market. I wasn’t interested in a lawsuit, but I was inspired by his approach, so I turned to our modern-day equivalent to pull in social media as a part of the project. While this part wasn’t as successful as I hoped, I learned a lot, and still was able to use it to share the recipes along with historical research to put them (and Markham) in their context. The project continued to grow as I added in the bookbinding and calligraphy component, and culminated in a shared final project show with two other artists from UICB. After I graduated, I was fortunate enough to have Candle Light Press (which is also located in Iowa City) offer to publish the project into a book.
LAIP: Your project is very multi-faceted; you put recipes from the book into practice and document it, as well as create a beautiful work of visual art based on the book. How can libraries, academic and public, work with artists and/or educators to encourage this sort of deep exploration of a text/work/collection etc.?
JS: I think there are a lot of possibilities, and they don’t have to all be as complex as that project was.
One thing I wanted to focus on was using my creative work to foster connections with others. I think that interactive component was vital for fostering engagement with the project over an extended period.
Libraries have incredibly rich collections, and this approach is especially useful for showcasing specialized historic collections (e.g. regional/state history; the history of a particular group). These might be in special collections, or they might be a collection of circulating items in a public library that are highlighted. Having a multi-faceted approach to sharing these materials can provide multiple angles that patrons can grab on to, be engaged with, and relate to, even if the history being described is not their own history.
Many libraries have the collections that can promote creative, and yet very tangible and interactive, ways to connect with people. This might be through the creation of food (e.g. having people make and share a meal), through the creation of visual art (e.g. bringing in local artists and craftspeople in to teach courses), or through other activities that foster connection and dialogue. I like the idea of hosting programs that help people recreate items from the past, giving them something tangible to bring with them and to keep them thinking about what they learned (and about the library) after the program has ended. One person who inspires me in that regard is my grandmother, who held workshops where she taught people about how Native American coastal cultures used shells to create tools. Then she would give everyone a shell or shells, and they would use them to create their own tools, jewelry, etc.
This brings me to my last thought about how this project can translate to libraries, which is to find inspiration from others who are really effectively using a variety of tools (like social media), and bringing those into the library. I was inspired by an author who has been dead hundreds of years, and that’s helped me remember that inspiration and successful ideas don’t always come from the places we expect!
LAIP: How do you think being an artist-librarian, and perhaps with the Modernizing Markham project in particular, influences your approach to library work?
JS: I’ve noticed that my artistic activities help me take my creative ideas seriously as a professional. A lot of times, the ideas that seem kind of wacky and maybe easier to dismiss are the ones that end up being the most fun, the most successful, and the ones I learn the most from. If I weren’t an artist, and used to giving myself permission to explore my creativity, I think it would be easier to listen to that nagging voice that says “no one will take that seriously/that isn’t possible/etc.” I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what I want from myself in my career, and one of the things that keeps reappearing is my desire to do creative things, but also to take the creative ideas of my colleagues seriously. This is especially true if I’m in a supervisory capacity—I want to make sure I’m making people feel like they can share their Markham-like ideas with me, and that those will be taken seriously.
Being an artist and being in an interdisciplinary field has also really helped me look at the big picture when approaching problems. I’ve made a point of pushing myself to learn about and try new approaches that find their homes in many social science and humanities fields, and I think the Markham project is a good example of the melding of some of those approaches. In the Markham project, I used many different skills and perspectives from a variety of life experiences, and this is something I try to do with everything in my work.
In a similar vein, being an artist, and doing research alongside my art as I did in the Markham project, helps me remember the importance of context. In the Markham project, the book itself is somewhat ordinary in appearance, but when you put it in its context, a whole wonderful story emerges. I like to remember that both when working with collections and research, and when working with people.
Finally, being an artist is a constant reminder that it’s ok to be passionate about what you do. I am incredibly proud to be a part of our field, and to work with the people I work with, and that passion lights up my face when I talk to people about my work. Being an artist means I’m used to engaging my passion for my work, and being able to articulate what that feels like, whether it’s in a dissertation chapter, a meal, or a painting. In both cases, a lot of what underlies my excitement is connecting with others and sharing something awesome with them.
For me, being an artist and a librarian aren’t two separate parts of my identity: They’re both sides of the same coin.