A New Kind of School

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Jason Urban: Can you provide a quick summary of what the Zz School of Print Media is and what it does?

Erin Zona: Zz School is a printmaking focused education initiative based in Kansas City, Missouri. We offer long and short format courses with an emphasis on the technical, conceptual, and community based realms. Additionally, we provide opportunities to working artists in the form of a visiting artist residency and local publishing projects. Above all we aim to promote print-based public art, encourage exchange between artists and the community, to create opportunities for artists and educators, and to expand the role of printmaking in the visual arts.

JU: The Zz School website explains that you don’t currently have brick and mortar location. I’ve know print artists to start printshops that happen to offer classes but I’ve known far fewer who reverse the order and prioritize education over physical facility. Why start a school rather than open a shop? 

EZ: The idea of a satellite school came to me in February 2014. I was driving down the freeway at this moment, feeling very inspired and entrepreneurial. I was fantasizing about the classes I would create and teach IF I were to EVER get a job. At this point, I was five years out of graduate school with five years adjunct experience. I think I had submitted about 7 job applications so far that year and was willing to move anywhere nationwide for full-time salary. This is how things are done, right?

I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this? It feels as if I am begging for acceptance into an exclusive hierarchy and that goes against my natural instincts. I am an artist and a rebel, what can I do to take my professional destiny into my own hands?” Yes, I am a printmaker, but I don’t want to be a commercial printer. I want to teach, learn, and collaborate. What options do I have outside of academia? It felt obvious to start a school and I immediately set to work crafting an application for a Rocket Grant awarded by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the KU Spencer Museum in Kansas City. This grant by encourages innovative, public-oriented work in non-traditional spaces. I was awarded the grant in June last year and programming started in October.

I am lucky to live in Kansas City. The cost of living is low, space is abundant, and people say YES to good ideas here. So, I utilize Kansas City’s existing print community as an asset and ally in growing this good idea by using facilities that already exist. For example, last fall we offered a class called Silk Screen at Normal Human taught by Patrick Egger. Pat is co-owner of Normal Human, a commercial t-shirt shop in KC, with a focus on local makers goods. Each Tuesday and Thursday for the duration of the eight-week course, the Zz School classroom would be carved out of his shop.  Zz School equipment was designed to be entirely collapsible and stored in a small section of the basement. We would push forward the cash register and t-shirt printing carousel, bring folding tables from the basement and each student would first assemble their printing station at the top of each session.  This class offered participants screen print knowledge and students were given direct open access to the other practical aspects of running a print-based business.

Printshop access is crucial, but having access to an etching press is only one part of being a printmaker and an artist. At Zz School we focus on technical knowledge in tandem with opportunities for artists to grow the content of their work and their awareness of the wider functions of art in Kansas City and within larger historical contexts. Last fall, I taught a field trip class at Zz School called Kansas City Object Lessons. Meeting each week in a different location, participants in this class had the opportunity to view objects, art objects, and works on paper that exist in local personal and private collections as well as “hidden” within well known Kansas City institutions. To view these types of objects, removed from the traditional museum display, opens the viewer a unique insight into the wider functions of art and the ways in which art and collecting are reflective of our city’s history.

JU: As an upstart educational organization, how do you feel about academia, and are there other educational models that you look toward for inspiration? 

EZ: I was reading Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent when I had the vision for Zz School. I certainly look to women artists like Sister Corita and Judy Chicago (Womanhouse, 1971) who had each, in varied projects, blurred the distinct lines between their studio practice and their “job” as an educator.

Honestly, I feel very mixed about academia. Holding a BFA and an MFA, I have to recognize that I am a product of the system and owe a lot of my professional and personal development to my education. It is part of who I am. I have instructors across my experiences that I idealize and those that I criticize. As many young educators are, I am very critical of the tenure systems. I am critical of the walls around and within academic institutions, luckily, with the rise of makers spaces and growing disillusionment with higher education, I feel learning can be pursued diversely by an individual. I am happy to be a part of the growing “D.I.Y education” movement.

JU: Zz School has an artist residency program that uses the phrase, “Printmaking in the Expanded Field.” I love it but wonder about the origins of the phrase and how it’s defined. Can you speak to this?

EZ: I have heard the phrase kicked around a bit in the academic print world. I chose the phrase because I want to rally the use of print mediums in socially engaged and site-specific projects. I want the artist in this program to focus on the application of prints and print techniques in unexpected ways within larger community based projects.

JU: Any suggestions for artists applying to the Printmaking in the Expanded Field residency? Do’s and/or don’ts?

EZ: I think it is important for artists interested in this opportunity to be open to the experience itself shaping the work made. The residency is about opportunity and constraint. This residency is only seven days and I designed this short timeline with great purpose. There isn’t much time to think or re-think during the production week. The artist and the production team are made vulnerable under pressure and the final presentation (whatever form it may take) is reflective of this and hopefully real connections are made between the artist and those engaged by the project.

JU: Breanne Trammell was Zz’s first Artist-in-Residence. Can you tell us a bit about that project? In what ways did it fulfill your expectations?

EZ: Breanne’s project was called “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and set a very high standard for the future of the residency. Breanne chose to seek inspiration for the project in the LaBudde Special Collections at the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC. I picked her up from the airport and we went straight to the collection. The director, Stuart Hinds, was very generous and kept the library open a few extra hours for us. We spent the evening looking at all the objects from the archives that we could.

Breanne was sensitive to her role as an “outsider” in Kansas City and cautious not to breach this boundary describing herself as an “amateur excavator” within the collection and choosing to make a suite of nine prints inspired and extracted from objects within the archives. Breanne, with the help of the Zz production team made nine prints in an edition of 100, with 13 passes of color in only 22 hours!

The presentation of her project was held as a “Show and Tell Print Happening” at Plug Projects in Kansas City. We invited two guests Stuart Hinds and Michael Boles to speak about their own research related to the histories of a few of the objects Breanne had chosen to highlight from the collection. Those who came to the event were given the suite of prints as a takeaway archive.

For example, The Jewel Box Lounge operating between 1948-1982, was a place in Kansas City to see locally and nationally recognized female impersonators. Breanne choose to make a print replica of a Jewel Box Lounge matchbook from the GLAMA Collection at La Budde and we invited Michael Boles to share his ongoing research into this particular history at Breanne’s event. In 2008, Michael Boles found a shoebox filled with dozens of photographic slides in an attic very near the historical location of the Jewel Box Lounge on Troost Avenue. The slides featured over 100 images of drag performers from the 1950’s-60’s era in Kansas City. Michael Boles has since been documenting the history and tracking down individuals from the time period. Viewing physical objects from the past side-by-side with artist interpretation side-by-side with ongoing historical research into the destiny of the Jewel Box Lounge, I would like to think that through this shared experience, participants at the event had a privileged engagement with Kansas City history, its past, present, and the future.

JU: What’s next for the Zz School? Future projects and what direction is your momentum taking you?

EZ: Zz School is enrolling now for our Spring and Summer programming. We are offering an exciting new screen-printing course this spring at a shop called Oddities Prints. Of course, my long-term goal is for Zz School to have a physical home in Kansas City. When we do get a space of our own, I want Zz School to be more than a print shop. Zz School is a place for artistic innovation with a focus in printmaking. Zz School is possible because of the generosity of our community and we’re taking it slow for now, like rolling a snowball up a steep hill, its not easy. The snowball is getting rounder, but our muscles are getting huge!

Follow our progress on Facebook and on the web at zzschool.org.

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Object lessons in print study.

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Breanne Trammell at LaBudde Special Collections at the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC.

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Breanne Trammell at LaBudde Special Collections at the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC.

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Image from Breanne Trammell’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the first project in Zz’s Printmaking in the Expanded Field residency.

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Image from Breanne Trammell’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the first project in Zz’s Printmaking in the Expanded Field residency.

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Image from Breanne Trammell’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the first project in Zz’s Printmaking in the Expanded Field residency.

Zz School is flooding the market with certified printmakers.

Zz School is flooding the market with certified printmakers.

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