School of Art + Design grads print with a purpose
When Elisa and Shawn Smith emerged from Ohio University with the ink still wet on their bachelor’s degrees in fine arts, Elisa’s in photography and Shawn’s in printmaking, they couldn’t possibly have known that one day they would co-found an arts organization and collaborate with their alma mater. Ten years ago, before they went on to earn their respective graduate degrees, before they were married, and well before they opened the doors of the Columbus Printed Arts Center in the Hungarian Village neighborhood, the future was just a blank sheet of paper, waiting for them to make their mark. After all, they met in a lithography class: Mark making was something of a specialty for them.
Although originally from Columbus, the Smiths tried out different parts of the country before returning to Ohio. The first location was Tucson, Arizona, where Shawn completed his master’s degree in fine arts, with an emphasis on 2D studies. Next up was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Elisa earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania.
Life was good in the City of Brotherly Love, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a plethora of other cultural opportunities to enjoy. Still, they knew Columbus was the place to be.
“In Philly, we were always hustling, and working, and looking for work, and for ways to get back here,” Elisa says. There seemed to be more opportunities in Columbus, and they missed being close to their families. Most importantly, the idea of building something new together, an open print lab for print makers, photographers, and the local community, was emerging, and Columbus was a city without anything of the sort.
“It was a couple of months [of] just murmuring the idea,” Elisa says, “and several more [months] of [talking] about it. But before we moved back, we had to physically tear ourselves from all these obligations, to leave our jobs, our friends, our studios…but we took the dive. We wanted to put this where we wished it had been when we were growing up,” she continues. “Here, we could help the city retain artists and provide employment experiences for younger people.”
Throughout those months of murmuring and talking, the Smiths had drawn up a mission for their new organization: to foster a supportive printed arts community by providing affordable access to communal workspaces and professional studio facilities, comprehensive educational programming, and critically engaged exhibitions. They also had settled on a name: the Columbus Printed Arts Center (CPAC). They didn’t, however, have a space. They spent 18 months searching for the perfect location before touring The Fort, a large mixed-used warehouse on Columbus’ south side whose managers were wholly enthusiastic about their plans. The Smiths moved in September 2018 and, after building out the space, gathering equipment and supplies, and constructing heavy-duty plywood tables, they opened in December. The response has been strong, Elisa says.
“When you become part of a larger community of artists, you realize being an artist can mean a million different things.”
–Elisa Smith, BFA ‘09
“The community has been so supportive and so accessible. There’s been an amazing snowball effect since we opened,” she says. “It’s exciting to see people come in, get excited, and start working.”
The Smiths tell CPAC’s story far and wide. Elisa teaches at the Columbus College of Art & Design and spreads the word directly to her students and fellow faculty members. And the Smiths collaborated with OHIO’s School of Art + Design to host News from Golgonooza; Æthelred Eldridge and Instructions for Imaginative Living at CPAC, a companion exhibit to the University’s fall 2019 celebration of former longtime faculty member Æthelred Eldridge and his work.
OHIO’s welcome has been both a surprise and a blessing, she says.
“I didn’t expect them to be so open,” she says. “It’s easy to feel like you’re indebted in a number of ways right after school. It’s great to be able to go back and reconnect now, to find things in a different form at this later stage of life.”
In turn, School of Art + Design faculty welcome CPAC. Area Chair and Professor of Printmaking Art Werger, one of Shawn’s former professors, visited CPAC with graduate students for them to see if and where they could plug in. For students who move to Columbus, CPAC will provide affordable access to specialized equipment, letting their work continue in an affordable way.
And those students will be in good hands, says Werger, who says Shawn was “a stand-out student in every way.”
“I taught Shawn for a year of introductory drawing and then in various printmaking courses,” Werger says. “He had amazing observational and dedicative skills, coupled with a level of effort and determination that resulted in his work being a stand-out in class. He took a great interest in other students’ works, their varied perspectives and points of view.”
Area Chair and Professor of Photography + Integrated Media Laura Larson worked closely with Elisa during her undergrad years. She recalls her ability to combine creativity and authenticity.
“Elisa was very bright, very impressive,” Larson says. “Her sensitivity looking at personal history and being able to tie it to other interests was pretty remarkable.”
When Elisa asked for Larson to serve on CPAC’s board, Larson happily accepted.
“I wanted to get involved because I adore her and am very impressed with how she’s thinking about growing the space. Obviously, they want to be a sustainable project, but the fact that they’re also thinking about bringing diverse communities to the space was the hook for me.”
Serving through artmaking
CPAC is in the Hungarian Village neighborhood on Columbus’ south side. The Smiths saw that opportunities for any age group to make art as a community were rare. So, they embarked on a survey project to learn how CPAC could integrate art making into the tight-knit community.
“We’re thinking about how we can use print to open up communication between our direct neighbors and ourselves,” she says. “We wanted to gather information about how we can best serve them here in their neighborhood. We’re very interested to see what these types of long-term projects can do.” Plans for exhibitions, family workshops, and print exchanges are in the works.
Taking risks and serving others through art has deeply affected the Smiths.
“When you’re in school, you might look at your professors and think that artists just make work in a studio,” Elisa says. “When you become part of a larger community of artists, you realize being an artist can mean a million different things.”
Larson points to the example Elisa and Shawn set with finding their own way as artists.
“The challenge is to teach students that we don’t have these traditionally set paths on how to find a career and be successful. Not just in making art, but in finding something that’s going to be your career, on finding a sustainable life. What they’ve done really embodies that,” she says. “It’s a real privilege not only to have taught a student like Elisa, but to be able to start a relationship with her working as peers. I’m always excited about opportunities to work with former students, and I’m thrilled to have Elisa and Shawn as part of the Columbus art community.”