A conversation on my work

Interviewer | Matthew Clay-Robinson

MCR: Anya, your grandmother was a big influence on your senior body of work that earned you the Appell Fellowship. Can you tell me a little about your background and the importance of family to your work?
I grew up in a military family, so as a child we moved every three years. For me this meant never growing deeps roots in any one community: I have no childhood home or long term friendships, but what I do have are deep family roots. I have a really special relationship with my parents and two younger brothers. We grew up doing everything as a unit and as big kids now, my brothers and I still travel home all of the time to go to arts and craft fairs, take road trips, and just catch up. So naturally, my family is a big influence on me and my work.
My parents brought us to all kinds of arts and crafts fairs growing up. They believe strongly in supporting the arts, but also the craftsman: the basket weaver who cuts and splits his own wood the traditional way; the carver who understands every grain in the wood he handles; the weaver whose yearn is spun using the wool from her own sheep. From a young age we learned to appreciate those who work with they’re hands, especially those who use traditional methods that have been forgotten or replaced by the more “efficient” methods.
My dad learned to appreciate the handmade from his mother, my grandmother, who, as a homemaker, was a traditional female craftsman (or craftswoman). She cooked and baked from scratch, knitted, embroidered, sewed, and watercolor painted—skills, much like those of the craftsman at the fairs, which are being given up for quicker, cheaper methods of younger generations (including my own). My dad, without realizing it, subliminally raised me to be a woman just like her: there are fragments of my grandmother all over our home, like the sweatshirt she embroidered for him, photos of my grandfather wearing the sweater she knitted, and her old cookbook with notes scribbled in the margins. All of the mementos and stories I have of her are a huge inspiration to me as both a woman and a maker.
Do you think your family’s love of arts and crafts, with it balancing of asthetic and functionality, is what led you to choose graphic design as a major? And why did you choose to remain in college for a fifth year to complete a fine art degree in addition to your graphic design degree?
To be honest, graphic design just kind of happened upon me by luck. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to focus on in college when I graduated high school, but I wanted it to be something in the visual arts. I had no idea about graphic design until my dad suggested it to me as an alternative to a fine art degree because, like most parents, he was a little concerned about my job security as an adult. And so, I took a leap of faith and applied to the program during my first semester at York College then long and behold, I fell in love with the major.
It was suggested to me by my professor/academic advisor, Ry Fryar, during one of my early years in school that I stay and complete a second major in Fine Art. I loved this idea from the start! During my free time as a student I was always picking up small personal projects: quick watercolors of the apples I snagged from the dining hall, tedious self-portraits completed using the mirror in my dorm, things like that. I really love making stuff and I really loved school, so the idea of staying in college longer to learn how to make more stuff was like a dream. The deeper into my degrees that I got to, the more I realized the significance the dual majors had on my work. Each played a key role in my thought processes and approaches to making. By the time I graduated, I felt like my college experience would not have been complete if I had not been able to participate both the fine art and graphic design majors and am forever grateful that I was able to.
Considering your love of the academic environment, you must have been thrilled to be named the 2015/16 Appell Fellow. This fellowship is a great transition or bridge from undergraduate studies to the next chapter, whether it be graduate school or a career in graphic design, fine art, or both. Will you please describe what the fellowship has meant to you?
Words cannot describe the incredible happiness I felt when I found out that I was going to be the next fellow. York College had been such an important influence on my young adult life and I was really excited to continue to be a part of it all. For me the fellowship was a chance to explore my voice as a graduate vs a student. I had, what I jokingly refer to as, my early life crisis. When I started my fellowship I was stumped; I didn’t know what I wanted to say as a creative in the real world. I needed to refined purpose in the work that I made and the fellowship gave me the time and opportunity to do just that. I explored lots of forms of art making from papercutting to embroidery, signage style painting to spray-painting. In the end I circled back to themes I focused on during my college years dealing with my relationship with my grandmother, but found new purpose in them. I took what I learned from my grandmother, this idea of working with your hands within the home (cooking, baking, sewing, embroidering, knitting, etc.) and focused on what that meant to today’s generation, the generation that I am a part of. I found new purpose in speaking to my peers about what if means to be a human vs a consumer in a culture that is becoming increasingly more concerned with instaliving and mass-produced convenience, and less concerned about the authenticity of the handmade.  During this exploration I was able to exercise my skills and voice within the studio, and found a new sense of strength in both, giving me the confidence to move forward in my life as a creative.
As the fellowship progressed I really tried to push myself to improve my lettering. It was something I had just started to become interested in while I was in college, but I was really able to study it and dig in during this past year and has been one of my favorite parts of this adventure. And it only became more exciting when I began to apply it to the antiques I collected. My family has been antiquing for many years, but when I started walking into our local antique stores here in York with my new feminine lens, I saw new life in it. You never have any idea what you are going to find when you walk into these places—they’re walls are just cramped with things you never even realized are a part of our history. It’s unlike the kind of history you read about in text books though, it’s more tangible in a way. You can see time in these object: it’s the faint cut marks in the bottom of the pie tin; the stains in the soft wood of the old ironing board, causing subtle variations of brown tones; the fading marks of graphite that once embodied the notes in a well-loved cookbook. These time worn “imperfections” are evidence of humanity that lived before my time. I find inspiration every time I walk into an antique store. If there was still one more month left in the fellowship I would continue to explore ways to integrate typography and antiques and how the relationship between the type and the object can change the meaning of the words in regards to my current theme.
 I am interested in hearing more about your love of typography, which, as you know, is a major focus of the graphic design program at York College. During your gallery talk you likened typography to figure drawing, saying that ultimately you are dealing with form and the many ways form can be used to explore different ideas. In many cases the form of typography or the figure is the idea (form for form’s sake,) while at other times it is used in service of communicating a narrative or concept. Do you consider one of these goals as having more merit than the other? Also, can you identify a piece in your show in which typography is featured primarily for the beauty of its form and another piece in which typography is used to communicate something beyond its own form? 
I believe, like with most art, there is equal value in both purposes, for the sake of beauty and the sake of communication. When I work I try to use a combination of both: I enjoy creating the letterforms, guiding my pencil over my tracing paper to form the arches, slopes, and lines that make up the shapes of my letters, but I also keep in mind the connotations and suggestions those forms make. For example, the painted, antique ironing board “Get Your Damn Hands Dirty”. While hand-lettering the forms for the word Dirty, I wanted to create a word that visually suggested plasticity—something that was shiny, stretchy, and a little skeevy. I wanted to create something that would contrast the beautiful, aged texture of the antique wood board as well as the literal meaning of the word itself. How would people interpret the phrase and word if it visually represented something completely different (I am heavily inspired by Ed Ruscha who challenges his viewers in the same way using the backgrounds and surroundings of his words)? On the other hand, I still wanted the typography to be visually appealing, so while drawing I also focused on creating balance within the typographic composition, consistency between the letters spacing, weights, and sizes, as well as how the forms interacted with one another. Just as a figure drawer has an anatomic base on which to create his forms, the letterer has a framework from which they work, rules in which ground they’re work. Drawing the accentuated curve of a hip as muscle and flesh over a bone structure is much like emphasizing and altering the arch of an “m” as it slopes downward into the foot of the letter. Form and the beauty that comes with it is always a focus in my work. I want to communicate narratives and concepts based on the visual representation and illustration of my typography, but I also want to create forms that are beautiful. Both purposes are important to me when it comes to typography.