Staff Column: Traditional art forms represent humanity

Kristen Koehler

Living in a world surrounded by sharp digital imagery and perfectly symmetrical dinnerware certainly makes the film grain on a recently developed photograph or the irregular texture on a hand-built vase stand out against the masses.

Photo Editor: Kristen Koehler
Photo Editor: Kristen Koehler

It wasn’t until this semester that I began to question why I am intrigued by the imperfections that often exist within alternatively processed photographic images as well as handmade ceramic art, though flipping through glossy airbrushed magazine advertisements and mindlessly drinking out of mass-produced plastic cups for most of my life has likely led to the majority of this intrigue.

My interest in the relationship between traditional art forms and technology was sparked when a student in my ceramics seminar brought in an article to share with the class about a ceramic vessel constructed entirely by a machine.

I felt the air in the room instantly shift and a lengthy debate ensued. One student embarked on an impassioned rant, denouncing the 3D printed object entirely and instead stressed the necessity of direct human contact with clay in the ceramic world. Others argued that the number of hours involved in the ideation process behind creating the machine was as valid as hand building the vessel from scratch.

As I walked out of the studio my mind was still spinning from the conversation and I began to reflect on my own experience with art and technology. When I arrived at NMU as an incoming freshman photography student, there were two things I was completely stoked about: my new Nikon digital SLR and the fact that I would be receiving a MacBook Pro from the university loaded with every editing program I could dream of.

It wasn’t until I stepped into Christine Flavin’s Alternative Photographic Processes classroom a year later that I realized the little technological bubble I was living in was about to pop.

During this time of darkroom discoveries, my roommate was also taking a wheel forms course. Our cupboards were soon filled with handmade mugs and bowls. I found myself reaching past the plastic cups from Wal-Mart to grasp the handle of a ceramic mug, which felt like holding onto the hand of an old friend.

I have never before wondered why I was drawn to that ceramic mug my roommate made and as I look back at my transformation in the art and design department at NMU, the technology discussion comes full circle. To me, there’s nothing better than a pinhole photograph that’s out of focus or an uneven lip on a ceramic cup, both of which add a little bit of humanity back into a piece. These are qualities achieved through hands-on, human involvement, qualities I often find vacant from images uploaded on my computer screen.

What I have learned through this discussion is my appreciation for these two mediums goes beyond obvious functionality or composition; it is the knowledge of the human interaction involved throughout the creative process and how I can relate to the end result that leads to a greater understanding of an artist’s work.

While I have discovered a newfound passion for these more traditional practices, without technology my job as photo editor and photographer at the North Wind would be 10 times more challenging, not to mention time-consuming. Technology is our reality in today’s society and serves as an ever-evolving tool in the art world.

That said, maintaining the mediums that existed long before computer-generated art through preservation of knowledge in eduation is entirely necessary.

It allows for continuation of these historic techniques as well as the exciting potential for combining them with new technology.

I am grateful to be graduating from the art and design department with skills in digital software that will keep me relevant in the job market. However, it is the hours spent in the darkroom and leaving the ceramics studio with my jeans completely covered in clay that I am most appreciative of.