By Deborah Krieger
Andrea Packard is the Director of the List Gallery of Swarthmore College. In addition to curating several shows per year, she is also a practicing artist whose mixed-media works blend personal histories with lush colors and extraordinary texture. She creates each work by gluing scraps of fabrics atop and adjacent to one another, creating layers of varying dimensionality and depth. She earned her B.A. at Swarthmore College, a Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and her M.F.A. from American University.
Deborah Krieger: How did you get started on your career as an artist?
Andrea Packard: I studied literature, art history, and studio art at Swarthmore College, so I started out with a liberal arts background. Then I studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where there was an emphasis on getting an introduction to sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and painting. I tried to integrate aspects of all those practices in my mixed-media works. So I did a lot of printmaking and I often used scraps of my prints, together with scraps of papers and prints by other people, in my mixed-media paintings.
DK: Do you call your work mixed-media paintings?
AP: Yes. Some of my works are more multi-dimensional, more sculptural…but most of my works from the past 20 years have been flat, or have had relief-like surfaces that are built up over time. I add papers and prints, and I often excavate layers of paint or pasted material until I get to a surface that feels evocative in a painterly way. But I also very much enjoy the tactile experience of adding and subtracting.
DK: How have you seen your practice change since you were in school?
AP: It’s becoming increasingly relief-like. The surfaces have become more and more built up. And it just so happens that over the years I met with a group of friends to quilt once a month, and gradually scraps of fabric started entering my practice. Whereas previously I may have just put paint onto paper and used that, or used scraps of a print, increasingly I began to find swatches of fabric that felt like they provided the right color or texture for the picture.
As I started to do that, people began giving me scraps of fabric or textile that they thought might be inspiring. I ended up with bags of these things. A former designer friend gave me access to high-end fabrics, and people gave me clothes from their own wardrobes. A friend whose partner was a hand-weaver gave me hand-woven materials that were very special. So all of these different materials have a history and resonance for me that really energized my practice. When I’m working with these things they’re not just shape and texture, they’re also communicating to me a sense of time.
DK: Do you sew the fabric onto the canvas, layer by layer?
AP: No. I’m interested in the way the scraps of fabric meet, the way the edges become pronounced, whether they overlap or dovetail or so on. But I use glue mostly, or use matte medium.
DK: What kinds of subjects inspire you and from where do you draw your visual language?
AP: I started out with a very strong interest in the figure, but I soon returned to the landscape of my imagination, which was nurtured growing up in a very wooded area of Connecticut. And while I was in art school at the Academy, I had the chance to go to Costa Rica. My mother was teaching at a Quaker school in the rainforest and consulting there so we went to visit her, and it was like walking into a dreamscape or an enlarged version of my imagination. It fueled a lot of experimentation where I felt like I could draw from both nature and imagined settings, so I would take photographs of things I saw in the home landscape or on travels, and then create a hybrid.
DK: It was both real and imagined?
AP: Yes. I don’t always distinguish between the two. Science is teaching us that our memories and observations are very interpretive from the outset, and then we’re constantly revising our memories, continually blending them with our own fictions. In a way, it seems perfectly natural to exaggerate that process of invention and to come up with landscapes that combine different points of view. Whereas that kind of practice used to be associated with the disjunctive and sometimes violent distortions of surrealism, I think the experience of a hybrid reality—the experience of a world where we imagine things from multiple points of view—now seems more natural. You often see this hybrid concept of reality in the art of diverse cultures. So to me, hybrid materials and viewpoints reflect an intuitive, integrative, and open-ended experience of the world.
DK: How did you get into curating?
AP: My introduction to curating came in 1981, when I was a summer apprentice in the American Paintings Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, when I studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and participated in the annual student exhibitions in the museum, I became even more attentive to how viewers’ perceptions of art are shaped by choices about work selection, spacing, lighting, and location. In 1989, with a group of PAFA graduates, I co-founded Protean, an artists’ cooperative that thrived for a few years on South Street in Philadelphia. In 1995, shortly after receiving my M.F.A., I was invited to direct the List Gallery at Swarthmore.
DK: How do you decide whom to show at the List Gallery?
AP: I program List Gallery exhibitions in conversation with studio and art history professors, and other Swarthmore College faculty. By generating ideas collaboratively our gallery programming reflects a broad and evolving aesthetic. In addition to serving the Greater Philadelphia region, our exhibition schedule directly informs our studio art curriculum. For example, we scheduled Kevin Snipes’s exhibition for January and February 2015 to coincide with a course taught by Syd Carpenter: The Container as Architecture. In the past, I’ve also collaborated with professors of other disciplines such as history, sociology, and foreign languages to curate exhibitions with broader concerns. For example, one of my first projects at Swarthmore, History, Memory and Representation: Responses to Genocide, was integral to a course focusing on the history of the Holocaust.
DK: What is your vision as a curator?
AP: I am especially interested in mixed-media or hybrid art forms (such as the print-based installations of Orit Hofshi), and the art of social engagement (such as Daniel Heyman’s portraits of survivors of torture). However, I do not try to focus on a particular medium, subject matter, or style so much as to find works that are conceptually clear, relevant, well-crafted, rigorously composed, and inventive. I see curating as a creative analytical process akin to painting and sculpturing. To varying degrees, curators become collaborative partners with artists—facilitating and sometimes completing, or even enhancing, artists’ works in unexpected ways.
DK: What do you like about running a college gallery? What are the challenges?
AP: I love working with artists who inspire me—artists as diverse in background and approach as Emmet Gowin, Sedrick Huckaby, and Orit Hofshi. The friendships and professional associations I have formed with artists that continue to energize my art. When I was about to leave graduate school, one of my teachers, Rackstraw Downes, advised me to live and work where I could surround myself with artists and people of the highest caliber. That’s been easy to do here at Swarthmore, where my colleagues are accomplished artists and we all try to nurture a dynamic creative community.
One of the challenges of my job is that it can be time-consuming. As an alumna of Swarthmore, as well as director of the List Gallery, I feel especially committed to the ongoing success and evolution of the gallery and the institution as a whole.
Like most artists, I’m always striving for more uninterrupted time in the studio.
Deborah Krieger is a student at Swarthmore College studying art history, with interests in foreign languages, film and media studies, and making art. She writes her own arts blog, I On the Arts and is interested in going into curatorial work or into arts and culture criticism.