As a current grad student one common conversation amongst my peers and I is on the subject of internships. Where’s your internship this semester? Is it good? Do you like the people you’re working under? And most importantly: are you learning anything? Understandably, there is a wide range of internship possibilities in a program like mine. Just in the one year I’ve attended UArts, I’ve spent time working in a new community-oriented print studio modeled after NYC’s Blackburn Studios, shadowed an amazing press technician learning how to tune up presses, and am currently in my final week at the American Philosophical Society (APS) as a conservation intern.
Throughout this whole process, I’ve caught myself wondering if interning through an accredited program, such as UArts, was any better than just simply volunteering as an interested individual. Did I really need to pay tuition to provide a weekly, or daily, hand onsite to help out where needed and hopefully learn something in the process? For this post, I decided to interview my current boss Denise Carbone, head conservator at the APS, and put some of my questions to her for some perspective.
JP: Can you describe what brought you to the field of conservation?
DC: Well, what brought me to conservation was Hedi Kyle. I was in the graduate program at the University of the Arts, in my first year and, not good at binding, was very frustrated with the program, and she was offering an internship for the summer. She said, “Why don’t you come intern with me for the summer?” And at that time the internship was three months, so I worked with her all summer. And it totally changed my life. It made me look at books; I had never seen books like that, handled books like that, collections like that. Just the fact that I got to know Hedi more and realized her genius and dynamic and just knew that I wanted to work with her and learn more about book conservation.
JP: What is it that you do at the American Philosophical Society (APS)?
DC: Many things. Anywhere from prepare books for–I’ll say circulation even though we’re a non-circulating library–for readership. Our oldest book is a 15th century illuminated manuscript, our newest book was probably published three months ago, so we run the gamut. I do anything from minor repairs to re-backs to full treatment; washing pages, cleaning, re-sewing, rebinding, repair, everything. And with that working with interested materials: leather, vellum, paste papers. Also learning about historical book structures through the collection like album structures. All kinds of great things.
JP: How does the work you do at APS relate to your personal artistic practice, if at all?
DC: It relates a lot. Huge. I could probably do this separately but, because of who I am they are very much interconnected. The last ten years I have been concentrating on making manuscript inks and that was because I was so intrigued and interested in all these hand-written letters (in the APS library), different colored inks, and how they reacted to the papers and what they did. I wanted to learn how to make them and where they came from and I got started and now I just can’t stop! You know, collecting oakgalls and walnut hulls and asking people from all over the country to send me stuff so I can cook it up and see what I can get. I’m actually getting back in to the printshop, I’m working on a litho. I’m working on a stone litho for a collaboration and its really great to be back. I do have a letterpress at home. I don’t do as much letterpress as I’d like to but, I do like setting type and printing from wood and lead type. So that seems to be where my work goes and it ranges from anywhere–it could just be drawings to structures and a lot of combinations of things.
JP: Do you think obtaining an MFA degree is useful to contemporary artists or the students coming through your classrooms?
DC: Yes, I do. And I think it’s important because they have an opportunity to spend two years studying. Whether it’s bookarts or printmaking or whatever or wherever their focus develops on. They also join a community of people that they’ve never been with and that community hopefully becomes an asset for you, for networking, for the rest of your life so… it’s the work and the community, that’s why the MFA is so important.
JP: Is teaching important to you and the work you do? Why or why not?
DC: Yes. I mostly teach undergraduates, I’m only affiliated with grad students by thesis committees or internships at the APS. One of the first things I tell my students is, of course, “You’re going to learn a lot from me but, I expect to learn something from you. Because there is something that you can bring to the table that I know I don’t know.” And I think that’s what I love about teaching. Because I love being around young people and young artists especially in this day and age; different ideas, incorporating stuff with video and projections. It’s not just paper, pencil and ink anymore. I think if I wasn’t teaching I wouldn’t be as motivated and fueled up to go home and work. I mean, I guess some artists can live in a vacuum but for me being at school and in the shops and with other people and at shows is very inspiring.
JP: You take on several interns, grad students, a semester at the APS–do you think this is useful to their attaining a degree? How is this different from simply volunteering on their own, outside of an official program?
DC: Well, I do have some people who have interned and then I’ll hire them for project work. If the project ends and they’re between jobs or whatever they’ll volunteer because they love the work, they love the space and being around interesting stuff. I think it’s really great. I like having interns be grad students from UArts because I’m an alum and that’s how I started. About eight or ten years ago I conducted a survey and about 60% of the grad students who had graduated from the program were working in conservation because there were jobs there. A lot more than teaching jobs and not that they weren’t still artists but, they enjoyed conservation enough that it was a way for them to make money and be with inspiring stuff. I just hope people walk out (of the APS) with a little bit of what I experienced and how excited I was. And some do, and others just come and are just there for the experience and never do it again. I have students now (working) at Harvard, Yale, Huntington and other top-notch places and liking their work, working with great collections, and they are still artists.
JP: So you definitely would say the institutionalized practice of internships is useful…?
DC: Yes. It should be mandatory. Whether you do an internship with another artist, whether you do an internship with a print shop, publishing company, conservation lab … because of our program there are many different ways that you could branch out. I think the school tries to search out places and find internships for people anywhere from fine press printing to conservation, and for you as a student it’s important. I know it’s a short amount of time but suck up as much of that as you can and experience it, because this is the opportunity for you to do it.
JP: And to meet people too!
DC: And to meet people, right!
JP: Some would say our program is trade or craft oriented–definitely high levels of hand skills are needed in book arts and printmaking. Do you think a more traditional approach is better, like a traditional apprenticeship, rather than classes and credits?
DC: Ideally, if you really want to be bookbinding, or a metal worker, glass smith, whatever … you can’t learn that in two years. You can learn fundamentals in a classroom but, then you actually have to go work with somebody to get full experience and skill. And if you can work with more than one person or company all the better! Because then you’re learning from many people. Sometimes I’ll say to students, “Why waste $60,000 on a graduate degree when you can take a shit ton of workshops?” But it’s not going to be the same. You are not going to have that consistent community and you would not produce the high-end work you’ll create for a thesis show. So, my answer to that is: graduate school is a stepping stone to continuing your education. Because there is always something to learn.
JP: Perhaps the internships are that first step, showing people what that apprenticeship could look like?
DC: Oh yeah. And unfortunately, in the US there aren’t any apprenticeships anymore. Maybe you can find a few left in Europe but even those are dwindling because they’re trying to push people to go to these two- or three-year programs–even conservation programs–a lot of them are just lectures and note taking. Not a lot of hands-on. Those people are getting their skills once they get a job as a bench technician (an entry-level position for many in the conservation field). Starting low, learning and working your way up. You just can’t learn everything you need to know in two years. I’m sorry. It just doesn’t work out.
JP: What would you suggest to any young artist, such as myself, trying to further their professional skills and practices?
DC: Well, if they’ve already gone to college and have a BFA or a business degree and they want to branch out … I would say the first thing you do is take some workshops. See what interests you and what you like: printmaking, book binding, or any creative art. And then once you find it you either find that community or a school that will foster that community, and then within that you should find places like the APS or residencies or whatever to continue your growth and … that’s not an easy task, it takes a lot of work and organization and time but, hopefully it will benefit you in the end.
JP: So it sounds like the key is to begin by asking. Going to your advisor or a community center and asking, “Do you have a printmaking class? Or a book binding class? Do you know someone I can go to?” And then all of a sudden it branches out to finding places like the APS or UArts and it just goes on for the rest of your life.
DC: Yeah! Asking a question is not going to hurt anybody. It never has, it never will.
JP: Thank god.
DC: I always say there are no stupid questions. Even in class somebody might have asked it and you feel like you have to ask it a second, third, or fourth time because you’re not getting it and that’s okay. Because there are a lot of things that I don’t get and I have to ask two, three, or four times and they have patience with me. So, I feel like I should have patience for my interns and students just like people have patience for me. And hopefully we’re all learning from each other.
JP: This sounds like a great ending spot — Thank you, Denise!
DC: Thank you.