Craft Commune

May 24, 2018

By Luke Woodling ’17MBA

Rachel Simmons ’97’s printmaking studio is a hotbed of collaborative creation.

Community has always been an essential ingredient of art professor Rachel Simmons ’97’s work. In fact, virtually all of her ventures include some sort of social component—whether she’s developing a comic book to confront climate change with history professor Julian Chambliss or partnering with students to design and print posters to support community partners. It’s little wonder then that Simmons’ printmaking studio in the Cornell Fine Arts Center feels like the physical manifestation of her collaborative approach to art and teaching.

“It’s really an extension of my personal studio,” says Simmons. “I see it as a space that I share with students—a place where we can create together.”

Simmons makes use of every square inch of the compact studio, and the jam-packed floor plan enhances the intimacy of the working and learning environment. Over the past decade, she’s curated an eclectic collection of printing equipment, preserving vintage, yet-still-relevant pieces while gradually introducing more modern implements.

On one wall, a catalog of wood type from the turn of the 20th century sits next to a screen-printing washout booth that’s less than a month old. Across the room, a half-dozen screen-printing stations overlook a picturesque stretch of Lake Virginia. The studio’s other three walls are blanketed floor to ceiling with student-designed letterpress posters, lending the space both an energetic vibe of constant evolution and a lived-in quality of ownership.

“It’s really important to me that this space is exciting and welcoming,” says Simmons. “It should be a place where students walk in and say, ‘This is a maker space and I want to be involved in what’s going on here.’” Mission accomplished.

Press Progression

Simmons’ students start on the studio’s Sigwalt Ideal No. 2, a compact tabletop press from the 1920s that was designed primarily to print business cards. They move on to the Chandler & Price Pilot Press, a hand-lever press from the ’50s. Ultimately, they graduate to what Simmons calls the Cadillac of the shop’s presses, the Vandercook Universal 1, a fully automated letterpress that Simmons herself learned to print on as a Rollins undergrad.

Classic Collection

The shop’s vintage Hamilton Manufacturing Co. typesetting cabinet is the graphic-design equivalent of a treasure chest. Inside: letterpress gold. The cabinet contains the College’s 12,000-piece antique wood- and metal-type collection, much of which is more than 100 years old. “In the ’90s, we got this stuff for free because designers had moved to computers and people were just chucking it away,” says Simmons. “Now, it’s like ‘Good luck.’ Everybody wants it.”

Collaborative Conversion

Simmons recently traded in a collection of random rectangular tables for a single round table that now occupies a significant swath of the studio. She also altered her class format, meeting fewer times per week but for longer stretches. Both moves are straight from former president Hamilton Holt’s Conference Plan playbook, the genesis of Rollins’ emphasis on close teacher-student scholarship and conversational class structure. “There’s no way not to engage when you’re around a round table,” says Simmons. “There’s no place to hide, no back of the room.”

Interdisciplinary Inclusion

The shop isn’t solely the domain of studio art majors. Students in Simmons’ The Power of Print course explore the history and practice of printmaking as a tool for communicating new ideas. Economics and physics majors swiftly put this newfound knowledge into practice. After a crash course in letterpress technique, students design and print posters to support local nonprofits.

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