Q&A With... Dean Kate Copeland

October 30, 2020

Can you describe in one sentence what you do at PNCA?
I work with faculty and staff to ensure that PNCA students have a great educational experience that prepares them for lives of creative practice.

What does PNCA mean to you? What makes PNCA unique?
PNCA is such a special place because students are truly the focus. I love seeing people from all parts of the institution coming together with student support as a common goal - we care so deeply about each student holistically, and we recognize that education comes in many forms.

At PNCA, we focus on arts education from a very personalized standpoint, with a mentor-based approach at all levels. Every single discipline at PNCA has its own unique identity, which is both specific and expansive, allowing students to develop their own voices and explore interdisciplinary potential.

What was your pathway to PNCA, and to being an artist/designer?
I ended up in Portland after I finished graduate school in the mid 2000s, to participate in a residency at Oregon College of Art and Craft. I then worked as an adjunct professor at a number of institutions, including PNCA, for about five years. PNCA was always my favorite place to teach — because of the students, the level of talent within the institution, and the sense of community and belonging. I jumped at the opportunity to become a full-time employee at PNCA in 2011 and have worn many different hats at PNCA since that time.

I’ve been an artist ever since I was a kid. Growing up, my mom took me to free classes at the art museum in our city, which helped me cultivate an appreciation of art history and learn new skills. I actually learned oil painting when I was five years old because of it! That’s one reason I’m passionate about Community Education at PNCA, and why I’m so excited about the way our Community Education Directors are running free community programming.

I went to a liberal arts school for my undergraduate degree, and was always curious about what art and design schools could offer that’s different to a liberal arts school experience; that curiosity ultimately led me to art and design school for my graduate degree. That exploration showed me that independent art and design colleges are doing unique work — and PNCA is on the cutting edge of innovation in pedagogy.

How would you describe your practice?
Slow and steady wins the race! I make things all the time, and my making takes many forms. My practice has definitely changed since having a kid and becoming Dean — two life-events that coincided. My approach has been influenced by some of the friends I’ve made at Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina. I’ve met so many creative people there who’ve integrated art, design and craft into all aspects of their life. That has been a model that helped me figure out sustainable ways of working.

I strive to integrate creative practice into my life every single day in some way — no matter how large or small. There are some days where I sit down and have some time that is dedicated to making “Art with a capital A” — but most days I find that my practice comes about from the expression of creativity through playing with my kid, or through doing some repetitive and manual tasks that accumulate into something larger.

What are you working on currently?
I constantly experiment with materials, and right now I’m exploring how cyanotype works with delicate printmaking papers, multiple layers, and negatives made of paper and foil. Since the pandemic started, my home has become a combination of a studio, office, and preschool. That actually fits really well with the way I do creative work, because it allows me to easily experiment with unusual combinations. The physical chaos of my home life is actually helping me think in new ways!

I’m also working on an ongoing series of cyanotype books that I began several years ago. It involves many tedious steps, so the process of making allows me to have some thought-space. Even describing the process is tedious! I tear handmade kitakata paper, size it with gelatin, hang it to dry, coat each piece of paper with cyanotype emulsion, dry it flat, bind it into books, and expose the photo-sensitive books to sunlight for a day. I then unbind the books, develop the cyanotype emulsion, dry them, flatten them, gold foil stamp them with the date and time, and re-bind them into books. That kind of methodical approach allows me to do something concrete each day that leads towards the greater whole — it’s a practical approach to navigating life as an artist, administrator and parent, and also a way of preserving artifacts of daily experience in the accumulation of tangible objects.

You mentioned drawing inspiration from the intersection of art and life. Are there any particular artists whose work is inspiring you right now?
Recently, I’ve been looking at ACT UP’s historic and contemporary work. I’m inspired by the approach to printmaking, performance, and media interventions. I’ve also been revisiting the graphic work of Käthe Kollwitz. And I’m constantly inspired by the work of PNCA faculty! I’ve been thinking about the artwork and scholarship of PNCA faculty like Melanie Stevens, Sara Bernstein, Sara Siestreem, Dylan Beck, Yer Za Vue, and many more.

What’s your favorite thing about your job at PNCA?
The personal connections — the bonds I have made with students, faculty, staff and the community have been life-changing and inspiring. And working with students is always rewarding, but last semester — spring 2020 — I saw my students making really incredible work while being faced with extreme parameters. Seeing students work under such adversity is so amazing and pushes me to keep on moving forward.

What are three adjectives you’d use to describe PNCA students?
Talented, flexible, driven.

Do you stay connected with PNCA alumni and their journeys into the art and design world? Do you have a favorite alumni story to share?
So many PNCA alumni are doing incredible things! I’m inspired by the work and practice of Anthony Hudson/Carla Rossi (‘13 BFA Intermedia); Cecilia Mignon Hamlin (‘14, BFA Printmaking), Mikai Arion (’20 Intermedia with Minor in Art & Ecology), and Demian Dinéyazhi' (‘14 BFA Intermedia); and so many more.

Alumna Maddy Mackin Freeman (‘13 General Fine Art), has an interesting story: her degree was in General Fine Art with a focus on printmaking and painting. She began working for PNCA during our move to the new 511 building (Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design) as a special assistant, and during the course of that work she came into contact with various architects and designers. That experience led Maddy directly into a career at an interior design firm. It speaks to the way that a PNCA education and PNCA students’ approach towards problem-solving and critical thinking can lead to some really interesting job paths. It’s very evident to me, from my time working in Career Services at PNCA and my time in the Dean’s office, that it’s typical for artists and designers to take circuitous pathways that lead them to a variety of different fulfilling careers – it’s rarely a linear experience. It’s exciting to see the way that the process of exploration can open doors where one really didn’t know to look for a door. That can be really exciting.

As well as providing ongoing leadership, you’ve also contributed financially to the college, including to Pane in the Glass - why did you give to that program in particular?
I love the way Pane in the Glass is both a large institutional effort, and a grassroots effort, with many different people spanning different departments at PNCA working together. It’s also a very visible, tangible way of seeing the good that your money can do.

Why are student scholarships so important? How have you witnessed them making a difference? Student scholarships have a huge impact at PNCA, because PNCA students are often in need of further support to complete their education. Scholarships are a way of making a direct impact that will influence a student’s individual life in very concrete ways. I have seen a lot of students struggle — and especially during the pandemic. Any additional support that can be given to our students — now is the time to do it. It really can have an incredible impact. Pre-COVID, I’ve seen many students juggle one, two, even three jobs at the same time, while simultaneously pursuing their education. As a result of the pandemic, so many of our students lost jobs they relied on because of the way those jobs intersect with industries that are heavily impacted. Right now, PNCA students need support more than ever. We have a general scholarship fund, as well as the newly developed Equity Scholarships, and both are a great way to support students in need.

What about the planned merger with WU is most exciting to you?
I'm so excited for the curricular opportunities it will open up for PNCA students. Not only will they be able to continue to maintain access to all the departments and majors that they are currently connected to, this also provides a way for them to engage in new experiences and to be part of building PNCA into the future.

Thank you, Dean Copeland!