Drawn Towards Arts: An Interview with Printmaker Janet Burns Campbell

Wind Harp in Rose w Fractals-Solar Etching

Wind Harp in Rose with Fractals, Solar Etching. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Janet Burns Campbell holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Literature from Reed College in Portland, Oregon and a master’s degree in English Literature from Tufts University. A painter and a printmaker, Janet has exhibited her work at the Somerville Public Library, The Hills School in Belmont, MA, the Cambridge Art Association and at Somerville Open Studios among many other venues. She is a member of the Blacksmith House Printmakers as well as the Earthscape Printmakers. Janet’s art education has been primarily at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education where she now teaches a gelatin monotype class. You can see more of Janet’s work at the Vernon Street Studios in Somerville on December 5 and 6, 2015. Her work can be seen on her website.

Anulfo Baez: Janet, thank you so much for meeting up with me tonight to conduct this interview. My first question to you is what is your background and training?

Janet Campbell: Well, it’s always been sort of a dual thing. There’s the art side of life and then there’s the history and literature side of life, and for me they’ve always melded. My BA at Reed was in History and Literature before they had the medieval studies program. I wound up in Boston and I was sort of looking at a catalog for art classes and found myself instead looking at the English classes and wound up in a PhD program over at Tufts. I worked on the degree for quite a long time and supported myself as a calligrapher, doing certificates, diplomas and some more imaginative work—some illustration; self-taught—but calligraphy was really my area. In the end, an illness prevented me from actually getting the PhD, but that diploma hadn’t really been the point.

AB: At what point did you realize that making art was something you’ve always wanted to do?

JC: Even as a child, I was drawn towards art mainly because there were members of my family who were artists—including my grandfather who was one of those old school artists with great realist technique and who was very daunting for a child to look at, “Oh, I want to do this, but how?” I was also very much drawn to letter forms even as a child and when I arrived at Reed College, they turned out to have this wonderful tradition of calligraphy. And in fact, Reed was at the heart of the calligraphy revival that swept the United States. Lloyd J. Reynolds was the founder of the Western American Branch of the Society for Italic Handwriting (now known as the Portland Society for Calligraphers) and he was of the “lineage” that went back through Edward Johnston to William Morris. He taught at Reed, and I did take a few classes with him. He’d left by the time I got there (he came back for special sessions).   The regular classes were now being taught by a Trappist monk named Robert Palladino, who was nationally known.  Calligraphy was a subject you could take a full year class in—calligraphy and paleography, very academically serious.  Portland was a mecca for really good calligraphers, and perhaps it wasn’t the best place to try to make a living for that very reason, but there were some astoundingly good teachers.

After leaving Tufts, I started taking classes at the Cambridge Center.  My idea was to find out what an art school education would have been like if I had gone in that direction. I took a lot of drawing classes with Phil Press, watercolor with Dudty Fletcher, and then started taking classes with David Wenstrom. Wenstrom’s background is very traditional—realist but not anti-abstract—he emphasizes transmitting the techniques that were handed down from the Renaissance and even before that. I took a ton of classes with him: silverpoint, pencil and charcoal, pastel and oil portrait.  And plein-air oil landscape.  He would organize groups to travel to locations around or outside the Boston area, so he started me in landscape painting too.  At the same time, I started taking classes with Selma Bromberg and I just stuck with them.

AB: You learned printmaking from Selma Bromberg and you’ve been teaching the gelatin monotype class at the Cambridge Center for a few years now. What is it about printmaking that attracts you to it?

JC: Several different things. The matte effect that you can get that you really can’t get unless you’re a master with watercolor. You spread out your inks, and turn the plate over and print it– and there it is. All the work is done beforehand, and you don’t really know what the actual print will look like (until you’re very good).  Printmaking is different from drawing, painting or whatever, where you are working on your surface and building up your image on your substrate—seeing what you’re doing. Printmaking is a lot more like a performance, where everything has been prepared in advance, all the special effects are put in place, waiting to happen.  Everybody—that is all the elements—have to be on cue– and then, Ta Da!–there it is—this is the great reveal and you never know exactly quite what is going to be–which is why everybody gathers around the press when something is going through.

AB: It’s funny you say performance because I interviewed Jason Asselin who is also a printmaker and he has incorporated some aspects of performance into his work. For example, for his MFA thesis at Cranbrook Academy he created an installation where he silkscreened 500 handkerchiefs and placed them in a gallery. Part of the work involved spectators taking the handkerchiefs and tying them to their wrists.

JC: Certainly.  Many art forms could be called performance—where the artist and audience are in immediate relationship (as opposed maybe to reading)–actively involving the audience.  There are painters who paint in public and you watch this canvas being developed. In general, I tend to be a more private worker except when I’m teaching. I think that to really get into the zone, I need to be alone and undisturbed.



AB: In your own words, tell me about your work.

JC: Colors and shapes and trying to get them to work together. For me, that’s a big challenge because I do a lot in black and white design work and then a lot of color with monotypes—colors and different arrangements. Those are beautiful but they need something to hold them together—they need form, so that’s where the design stuff comes in. I take a woodcut and put it on top of a monotype and I also do a lot of combinations on the computer.

AB: You’ve been a student at CCAE for a long time, but you’ve also been a teacher for some time teaching printmaking. Has your practice change over time?

JC: Oh, very definitely. I have gotten better at integrating different elements, so that more and more of my work is multimedia. Also, just from sheer practice I’ve learned something about how I work, about how to organize myself in a way that actually promotes both doing and finishing my pieces–so that I don’t simply lose all of the drawings and prints that I’ve produced over the years. I’m getting into the whole artist journal thing now–as opposed to artist books, which as you know are a different ball game. Artist journals are supposed to be scruffy.  They keep me looking back—as all journals do. They keep things from getting lost, so that has been a very valuable tool.

AB: Have you been doing these artist journals for a while?

JC: Yeah

AB: What got you into them?

JC: I’ve always liked the idea of filling up books—that is, paper in actual book form. I’ve kept handwritten journals for a long time and inevitably I started to illustrate them.

AB: As a teacher, do your students inform the way you make art as well?

JC: I wouldn’t think of it necessarily as the students informing me. I’m so used to being in that print studio as a student and we all look at each other’s work and we all learn from each other’s work. When I have students coming in, of course, I tell them about the basics and they look at what they’re doing and I look at what they come up with and even on the first day, they’re doing these amazingly different things and just being in the midst of that, it’s bound to inform me and inform them and it’s really a group dynamic. I always come away amazed by what they’re produced and what they’ve thought of producing. Yeah, it’s definitely a two-way thing.

The Frenchman

The Frenchman’s Wife, Woodcut. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

AB: When it comes to printmaking, you’ve worked imonotype, woodcut, drypoint, collagraph and solar etching. Do you prefer one technique over another?

JC: Yes–I’ve worked in a lot of different printmaking techniques.  As well as those you mention, I think I’m the only one of Selma Bromberg’s students who’s ever tried to do a mezzotint!  Right now, I’m very much in monotype mode because of gelatin plate is a form of monotype. I got into that a couple of years ago. My first take on gelatin plate was that it was sloppy and made ambiguous messes, but it really isn’t. There a million things you can do with gelatin plate that are vivid and complex. And it’s a wonderful introduction to the printmaking mindset for people who have never done any printmaking at all–or just something simple like vegetable prints or things like that.  And at the same time very experienced printmakers can appreciate it.

AB: What is your process like? What do you look at to get you started?

JC: It can be either colors or letterforms–or something like that. It’s just important to get the pencil moving, doodles—I do a lot of that sort of thing.  I look at medieval manuscripts—children’s book illustrators, science fiction art.

AB: I’m probably going to pronounce this wrong, but tell me about your fascination with dracantapedes. What is a dracantepede and what do they represent to you?

JC: It’s a mythological beast that is associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden. There are snake people throughout world mythology, but this particular image, the Dracantapede, evolved in the Middle Ages.  She’s depicted as a snake with a woman’s head, often wearing a crown, usually shown proffering an apple– and often she is given the same face as Eve. She is connected with the whole idea of the lamia and with Lilith, the first wife of Adam. So this particular woman-headed snake seemed like a good symbol and I’ve adopted her. The one that is on the entry page of my website, it’s kind of an angry looking one. I’ve done her in woodcut and she’s more of a maze—I figured she’s a nice enigmatic symbol.

This interview was conducted on Monday, November 23 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education

AB, November 2015