Kathleen Sleboda’s work traverses disciplines, often involving acts of making, curating, collaborating, and documenting. Sleboda has been teaching at the University of Connecticut since 2020, and at Rhode Island School of Design since 2017, where she co-designed the stand-out course Newly Formed with her partner and frequent collaborator, Christopher. Sleboda is a principal of Gluekit, where her collages and illustrations grace the likes of media publications such as The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and WIRED. Sleboda is a co-founder and design director of Draw Down Books, an independent publishing house and bookselling platform making printed material of interest to graphic designers and design aficionados more available. Between 2013–19, Sleboda curated the website Women of Graphic Design.
Prior to her design career, Sleboda worked as an archivist at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, focusing on the preservation of audio and visual materials and on improving community access to collections by and about American Indian and First Nations peoples. Sleboda currently splits her time between Boston and Connecticut, on the traditional homelands of the Quinnipiac, Pawtucket and Massachuset. She is Nlaka’pamux and a member of the Coldwater Indian Band of Merritt, British Columbia.
You just started in on a new term, how did the first week go?
It’s teaching during a pandemic so I think I set my expectations around where they should be. I’m focused on creating a trusting relationship with students, providing structure as well as opportunities for them to flex their creative muscles.
I’m currently teaching visual systems and exhibition design at University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts and at the Rhode Island School of Design I’ll be teaching an elective I regularly teach called Newly Formed, an advanced experimental form-making course that is flexible, open-ended, and reshaped anew each time we teach it.
The work that comes out of Newly Formed is gorgeous.
Wow, thank you very much. All credit goes to the students—we’ve been able to work with incredibly gifted designers over the years. Usually there’s such a wonderful dynamic in the studio. There’s an explicit focus on experimentation, on learning through making, and on finding new ways to work with analog materials and tools as well as in a digital space.
Newly Formed was originally started by Christopher Sleboda, my partner. He taught the first class—which had around eight students—while he was Director of Graphic Design at the Yale University Art Gallery. I came to a lot of the classes as a guest critic, and the following year, RISD invited me to co-teach the class. We had a full cohort, and a really long waiting list, so eventually we shifted to teaching two full sections of the class. We now work with between 24 and 30 students each spring.
The class is a mix of seniors and MFA students. Students may be in different stages of their thesis development and final projects; some have clear trajectories that they’re focused on exploring while others are moving in multiple directions. In Newly Formed, everyone brings together their interests and formal explorations and we engage in a kind of collective mash-up. When we’re in person, the class ends up packed to the gills with visual stimulation, and so many different perspectives. We really want everyone to explore and try new things. We want them to be okay with making mistakes and with sharing formal failures as well as form-making successes. Newly Formed often ends up being a wonderful last hurrah for the students.
And the structure behind the magic: what prompts or assignments do you give to guide the course?
There’s an emphasis on making, experimenting with materials, and finding new ways of connecting the conceptual interests of students with hands-on explorations. The number of projects shifts each year. Initially we were doing two per week. This year, called “ZZZZZZZZZZZ”, we’ve constructed a new approach to the course with new syllabus and eleven new briefs with all Z prompts (or an N turned sideways?). For the first project, ZYX, we tasked the students with creating an object-based alphabet, a system-based alphabet, and one conceptually variable alphabet. (For comparison, you can check out last year’s syllabus and briefs).
Newly Formed stands out from the other classes we teach because we are not teaching specific skills in the class. We’re facilitators, building a structure where students can self-direct their own form-focused design research, and where we organize feedback sessions where students articulate their explorations and can learn from each other. What’s really cool is seeing the different directions the students are moving in—we have some students exploring computer modeling, motion, and code; others drawing on RISD’s Nature Lab and biological forms; object-based and material explorations (working with rubber, Risography, 3D Printing, the form of the printed and bound book); as well as students using photography, textiles, and food.
It’s all a work in progress. It’s always our expectation that we’ll be learning as we go about what works and what’s not as successful, and the paired teaching also supports this sort of self-critique because we’re giving feedback to each other throughout the term. We also enter the classroom with separate voices and sometimes contradicting opinions!
Your work seems to be everywhere. I’m guessing if others are like me, they’ve seen so much of it without necessarily connecting that it’s by you.
You know, that’s sort of purposeful. For a long time, I didn’t want to have a super large public profile. That reticence expands to joint projects that I’ve launched with Christopher as well. There are a number of projects (“Part of It”, begun in 2005, which is pretty erased at this point, and Yale Graphic Design Tumblr) we’ve worked on over the years that exist independently of us and live simply as their own entities.
After learning early on that some clients and managers prefer to feel like they are the one and only focal point, we hit upon a strategy where our projects and formal employment were partitioned. That idea, of our work being separate, was pretty central for a long time, mainly out of caution and anxiety related to job security. But this also lets them live in the world without our relationship to them coloring how they are seen or interpreted. We’ve always been interested in the way people respond to these projects. I think it served our purposes well because by not having a strong personal imprint, the work achieves a little bit more stability and latitude.
Has that come with any drawbacks? It seems that today the personal and professional often get so intricately linked, even just in terms of announcing or promoting a new project.
Though it was intentional, it was hard to feel like things weren’t integrated. At this point Christopher and I are more securely situated—further along in our careers—and we feel it’s a real privilege to talk about the sort of hybrid practice that we have. I feel quite lucky, and I’m excited to be moving into a time when we can publicly celebrate both the projects we’ve done and the future collaborations that we hope to be part of. And we now have opportunities to weave more complicated narratives about our work, which gives us the chance to observe common threads.
It’s interesting that you frame it as a position of privilege.
It definitely feels like a privilege to have a body of work that we feel confident about presenting to the world and to be able to straddle the different fields that we work in (commercial illustration, publishing, teaching, writing, and a curatorial practice) and begin to weave them together in a way that makes sense to others who haven’t been with us along the way. We’ve had so many opportunities over the years due to good fortune, hard work, and happenstance. I also know people sometimes feel really bound by client relationships and aren’t able to share their commercial projects because of contractual obligations. I’m grateful that at this point we’re in a less restricted position. But there’s also a sense of security to simply let some of the work exist in the world as is. I’ve been illustrating for almost two decades and sometimes I look back at those early illustrations—well, I’m glad my name isn’t associated with them! I like that I can select and present work now with the gift of hindsight.
This makes me think about online memory. I feel like what exists and what can be found changes surprisingly fast.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the impermanence and instability of digital materials. They simply just aren’t that long-lived unless deposited in a well-funded repository. Online materials evaporate; there are a lot of broken links. In general, I think there’s a pervasive sense that everything is online but in fact, the internet is quite unstable and I’m concerned about looming gaps in the cultural record. It’s really one of the reasons I love print so much, because we have materials dating back hundreds of years. Preservation of online materials is a lot more hit-and-miss in our current moment.
Your early experience working in archives is seeping through.
I’ve always been interested in history and stories and literature. Originally I was really interested in uncovering the past through archaeology. That’s actually how I came to books. I’m in love with print culture because of the way that materials can live on and appear in unexpected ways in people’s lives. Printed work carries voices and ideas through time and across geographic spaces—it can literally become a tangible companion to oral traditions, a vessel of knowledge that transcends generations.
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of the ephemeral for ages. And preservation, of course, ends up being really critical: why do certain things get preserved? This immediately links up with my concerns about digital preservation (a concern shared by most librarians and archivists, I’d wager). So many people think, “Oh, I put my work up on the web, I preserved it.” But without many copies in many places (the LOCKSS strategy: “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”), your work online isn’t stable at all. When it comes down to it, digital preservation is a field still in flux. Digital materials, if not preserved in an online repository, may be the most unstable media after nitrate film.
Digital materials, if not preserved in an online repository, may be the most unstable media after nitrate film.
But what’s most interesting to me is the connection between people: how we understand the past, how the future might understand us, and how we relate to each other right now. I’m mixed in terms of my identity. I move through the world, people look at me and they see a white woman—but the way that I understand myself is that I’m also Nlaka’pamux. I’m a Native woman as well. That claim, with its political and personal dimensions, is a really important part of my identity and it’s rooted in my relationship with my mother; my mother’s relationship with her mother; the impact of residential schools on successive generations of family. I think about the way people—and especially in my family, women—have acted as bridges between cultures. My ancestor Theresa Klama Voght is credited with quelling settler disputes in the 1870s in the area where she grew up, and my mother’s cousin, Shirley Sterling, undertook important research at the University of British Columbia into Nlaka’pamux oral tradition, with a focus on the stories of women, grandmothers, being central.
I’ve come to see the work that I do, from the very beginning, as being invested in amplifying and expanding the stories that are told, looking away from the center to the margins, and building bridges between different communities. This is as true to the work that I’ve done in graphic design and publishing as it is to earlier work I undertook in libraries and archives. I’m attracted to hybridity and countering binary approaches and thinking. Especially as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there’s a certain resonance between these abstract conceptual themes, my interest in plurality and multidisciplinary practice and my identity as a bi-racial woman.
Can you talk more about these ideas around plural histories?
There’s a way of thinking about history as one linear strand, a sort of singular and objective chronicle of events. When I read this type of history or hear it referred to or sense it in the way people might refer to the past as a sort of impersonal progression of events, I’m struck by the way personal experience has been leached away. I think about all of the voices that have been lost.
Because of the way history has been traditionally structured and taught, I’m also keenly aware of how it can seem like a one-way communication to students, something they might not find entirely relevant. So I find efforts to widen the narrative—to build in a capacity for voices that haven’t always been heard or recognized—incredibly encouraging. Looking at and creating space for this multiplicity of perspective, a project that de-centers singular authority—that literally flattens and rolls over it—these are ideas that have been really important to me, especially in my teaching. I’m interested in projects that allow students to connect the past with the present but also look to the future.
Towards these wider narratives, what are you publishing right now? What conversations are you excited about?
Draw Down has a number of projects on the horizon. We’re just about to release a publication that features all of the posters that we designed for Draw Down activities over the past eight years, “I Got Something to Say — Poster Inventory, 2013–2021.” Christopher and I were originally drawn to artist book fairs because of the great community. The publishers, artists, and designers had the same love of print and passion for making books that we share with each other. As time has gone by, we’ve also realized that so many of the spaces, events, and organizations that are celebrated by the posters we created (given away for free at various fairs and events that Draw Down participated in, and meant to gift visitors with a printed memento they could hang up or pass on or even recycle) are no longer around. Getting back to that idea of ephemerality, we’ve enjoyed how the posters we created circulated in unexpected ways, eventually going out of print; as well as how they map our activities, and ultimately create an idiosyncratic frame of the artist book publishing world. We’re hoping this release, like our previous works Is the Internet Down? and these posters are fireworks: graphic design on display, ends up bringing together an array of collaborators.
We’re also really thrilled to be in talks with designer Zhongkai Li for an exhibition of Newly Formed work at a gallery space he’s launched in Shanghai, China, called IS A GALLERY. The gallery is located in the Jing’an District, inside the Shanghai Printing Technology Research Institute. Kai told us that the area occupies an important place in Chinese graphic design history, that it’s considered the birthplace of modern Chinese fonts and was the location of one of the first type foundries in China. IS A GALLERY has four rotations, or seasons, each year and we’ll be occupying a rotation that’s focused on education. The exhibition, “ZZZZZZZZZZZ: Excavating Form in Educational Spaces”, is scheduled to open in June 2021 and will feature graphic explorations by current Newly Formed students. There are plans for related talks and programming as well as a printed catalog, so we’re very excited to see where this trans-Pacific collaboration leads.