Audrey Niffenegger is a visual artist who helped establish the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College. She's also a writer and the author of the internationally acclaimed novels The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) and Her Fearful Symmetry (2009). I sat down with Audrey to ask her about working across disciplines, book arts, and the experience of attending art colonies and writers' retreats. —Laura Pearson, CAR Literary Researcher
As a visual artist, did you always think of writing as being part of your career trajectory?
What I always wanted to do is combine visual art and writing. Originally, I was thinking I'd be some sort of book illustrator, but I'm not good at being art directed. I have a tendency to rebel... In art school, I was always trying to do things to put the [two disciplines] together. I did performance art for a while. But it's surprisingly not that easy. You'd think that if you have two really closely related talents that you'd easily be able to find the training that you need to do these things together, but it was just nonexistent when I was in school.
Although you're both a writer and a visual artist, do people ever come up to you and say, "Which one are you really?'
All the time. You apparently can't be more than one thing!
Where do you think that impulse comes from?
I think sometimes it's just a really lazy question—people simply haven't thought it through. There seems to be this notion, though, that you have one calling that you're meant to do, and everything else is some sort of hobby.
When you started getting a wider audience for your writing, did you feel like you had to assert more ownership over your visual art practice?
Writing gets so much more attention from critics than visual art does. Even now, people will say, "Oh, you're an artist!" like it's some quant thing, like—"Oh, you knit!"
Do you think that sort of "hobbyist" assumption comes with doing book and paper arts? You helped found the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts. Do you find that there's a serious audience for that in Chicago?
There's certainly a critical mass of artists making book and paper arts. The Center did that; it accomplished creating multiple groups of people—a number of circles of people—who are doing [this kind of art]. Then there are people who came into it independent of the Center... But it's still something you have to explain to people. I mean, if you say "book arts," people say "What?" Even artists' books can be difficult to explain to a general audience.
In balancing writing and visual art, do you have a plan, when you sit down for the day, to create in a particular discipline?
I'm kind of deadline-driven. I know that I'm going to spend most of the summer making art, because I have a show this September . Whatever hideous, looming deadline is upon me, that's what I do—which is good, because it keeps me working in different disciplines. I think, in a way, that's what school does for people: It gives a kind of exoskeleton of deadlines and expectations [that exists] outside of opinions about what you should do.
Are there any artists who work across disciplines whom you especially admire?
Comics people are always inspiring, because they are artists and writers and storytellers all at once. People like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Alison Bechdel… Right now is kind of a golden age of comics. When I was in high school, I was always looking for anything that would qualify as an artist's book, and a lot of what I was looking at was old. So just to see all these examples hot off the press— I mean, you can go to Quimby's and always see something new. There are certain pockets of publishing that have enabled this renaissance.
Switching gears, I know that sometimes you go away to work. How have art colonies or retreats figured into your creative output and the rhythm of how you produce?
I started going to Ragdale [in Lake Forest, Illinois] in 1996, and I probably knew about it pretty close to when it started in the '80s when I was an art student. At first, I had no idea why anyone would bother to do that. Then I started doing the Book and Paper Center, and by 1996, I was working 60-hour weeks. There were only two of us on staff, and it was just this overwhelming amount of work. And so I thought, 'I need to go there—where there's no phone!' This was before cellphones, really. I thought, 'No one will find me if I go there.' So I actually started going to Ragdale because I wanted to hide! [Laughs]
It turned out to be this amazing thing. When you're a student you don't need [a residency], because your life is structured around schoolwork and you don't really need any help ditching your responsibilities. But when your ordinary life is so overwhelming that you can't get your work done, the colonies are ideal. Even now, I still like to go because I meet other artists and make friends with people I'd never otherwise meet.
Interviewed in Summer 2010.
Audrey Niffenegger was trained as a visual artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and received her MFA from Northwestern. She has exhibited her artist’s books, prints, paintings, drawings, and comics at Printworks Gallery in Chicago since 1987. In 1994, she helped establish a new book arts center, the Columbia College Chicago
Center for Book and Paper Arts. She taught
book arts for many years at Columbia and now is on the faculty in the Fiction Writing Department. She published her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, in 2003 (MacAdam/Cage). It was an international best seller and has been made into a movie. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, was published in 2009 (Scribner). In 2008 she made a serialized graphic novel for the London Guardian, The Night Bookmobile, which was published in book form in September, 2010. She is working on her third novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile.