Papermaking with Marilyn Propp
By Madison Kobe’18
One of the biggest attractions of Carthage is the wide variety of classes available to the students. Most of these unique classes are offered during January or June as part of J-Term; but there are classes that rotate into available curriculum every three or four years during fall and spring semester, and Papermaking is one of those classes. Papermaking is a Fine Arts class taught every couple of years during fall semester; a big part of Papermaking is the collaborative process, and how important collaboration and teamwork are in the class. I was able to meet with the professor who taught Papermaking fall 2016, Marilyn Propp, and ask her a few questions about the course.
Have you always wanted to be an art professor?
I did not go for teaching initially. When I was an undergraduate I actually decided I wanted to be a professional artist. My father said, “You should get your teaching diploma to fall back on; you can do your work when you retire.” And I said, “No, it’s a lifelong pursuit and you can’t just pick it up after 40 years.” So actually I did not go for teaching initially. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and then I went to a number of art schools throughout the country, and then out to San Francisco for my MFA (Master of Fine Arts). I ended up leaving that program early, and I was invited to teach at William Jewell College, which was in 1979. So, I jumped right in, and I learned over time how to be a good teacher, how to listen to students. So it wasn’t in my initial plan but it’s what I’ve been doing for nearly 40 years now.
So did you continue working on your art during your 40 years as a teacher?
Yes, I’ve always had a professional practice. Without a robust studio practice, I find that what I teach loses its relevance. If I’m only in the studio, I feel too isolated. I seem to need the balance of teaching and working in the studio.
Do you have a preferred medium?
I’ve always worked with oils, and I’ve been working with oil on shaped wooden panels in recent years; but in the last three years I’ve started making handmade paper and printing woodblocks on them. The paper itself is pulp painted, so it is a form of painting with pigments while the paper is being made. I’ve always collected found objects and crushed metal to construct 3D objects, because they help me think about composition; now, I’m doing life-size 3D constructions, which are part of my Sentinel series.
What are some highlights of your career as a professor and artist?
One highlight was when I moved to Kansas City in 1976. Immediately, I got a letter in my mailbox that said, “Dear artist, we have this enormous wall in downtown Kansas City and you are invited to create a mural.” So I went down to look at the site, and I measured the dimensions to scale it down, and I realized the measurements they had given me were wrong. So I competed against all the Kansas City artists and professors, and my design won! It was put on a 115 foot wall on the side of a building. And mine was the only one that was the correct dimensions because I had gone to the site and looked at it, and checked them for myself. That was definitely one of the biggest moments, since I was only in my 20s. I got a lot of publicity from that: I got a gallery, and collectors, and I always had a write up in the Kansas City Star whenever I had a show, and I had quite a few shows over the 11 years I was there. Then I’ve had many solo shows and a lot of highpoints along the way; every time you have a show is a highpoint. My most recent solo show was at Rockford University and the highlight of that exhibition twofold: sharing the work with the community, and discussing the work and responding to questions during my gallery talk. This was very rewarding.
What are some challenges you have faced in your career?
Being a visual artist, the biggest challenge is being persistent, continuing to do the work. Sometimes you’ll get shows, sometimes you won’t; sometimes you’ll sell the work, sometimes you won’t. The biggest challenge is to keep telling myself to be persistent and to keep working. You can’t worry about what the outside world says; you have to focus on being in the studio and doing the work and being focused on being present to your work. I think all artists have that challenge to not be influenced by the world and its opinions.
Why is it important that visual arts remain in the education system?
When people make art, even if they aren’t artists and no matter what field they are in, art making does a number of things. It helps a person to really focus and be very intentional about what they are doing; to be very creative in problem solving, to persist when there is failure, and to use that failure (when you do fail) to push the work further. So you learn how to be very innovative, and creative thinking is developed, especially for problem solving. All these skills are developed that are actually needed right now in the business world and market place; we need innovative and creative thinkers who aren’t afraid to take risks and who can problem solve and who can work in teams, and you learn all of that in art.
What rewards do students experience from taking fun and interactive classes that allow them to be creative thinkers and problem solvers?
Well my papermaking class was interesting because there were no art majors, but the students just ran with it. I would show them a technique, and then they would come up with their own way of doing it. They would come across challenges and they would invent and develop new ways to do the process. They were extremely innovative, and they took a lot of risks; and, they created some pretty astounding work. I was very impressed. Papermaking is one of those skills where once you do it, you come away with an absolute love for it.