ABOVE: Kirk Warren, Winnipeg Trail Association sign, serigraph on metal.
Cliff Eyland: MAZE is an exhibition that features new tenure-track and one recently tenured faculty. For people who don't know, could you tell us what "tenure-track" and "tenure" mean, and could you tell us about how you became a tenure-track professor?
Kirk Warren: I was freelancing in the mid-90s and Winnipeg was going through a recession. My partner, a teacher, was working term contracts. Things were tough financially. One day, late summer, the phone rang and the School of Art Director of the day inquired if I'd be interested in teaching a class (just the first term until they could find someone with more experience). That was the night before the first class and I've been there ever since!
I taught as a sessional instructor in both the School of Art and the Faculty of Architecture and around 2000 I became the Area Chair for Graphic Design.
I began a masters in 2001 (MA in Illustration at Syracuse University) and was the successful tenure-track candidate in 2004.
I have experienced little difference between working as a sessional and being tenure-track. There is more committee activity and the Area Chair responsibilities have increased but I was already fairly active. The most positive aspect has been the affirmation of what I do and the ability to focus on concerns pertaining to Graphic Design and the Graphic Design Area. It is more about moving forward and less about survival.
Cliff Eyland: Do you identify primarily as an "artist" or as a "professor" or both?
Kirk Warren: Both, one doesn't exist without the other. The work I do, my creative research, immediately goes into my class. The experiences related to my class become teachable moments. The act of relating these experiences as class content initiates a sense of perspective that causes me to reflect and be critical of my own experience. Ideas derived from analyzing my own experience are used on future projects where the cycle begins all over again.
For me the connection is seamless and organic.
Cliff Eyland: Can you tell us about how you became a professor? As a young artist did you think that you'd become an art professor?
Kirk Warren: I had no intention of doing this. I was planning on future as a professional graphic designer, possibly as a partner in a studio. Of course, as a student, I thought of becoming a professor but only because I thought I could do the job much better!
Like most other students, I've had negative academic experiences and, at one time, the design program had a lot of problems. I thought that if I ever had the chance to teach that I would jump at it and do whatever I could to foster a positive academic experience for students.
In my studio I have the hardhat that I had when working in Flin Flon to make money for university. It reminds me of where I come from, where my family comes from and that I could always end up back there! It prevents me from getting cocky. It keeps me honest.
Cliff Eyland: What is it like to be an art professor in Winnipeg?
Kirk Warren: I think my experience here is much the same as professors elsewhere. I've had this conversation with friends that teach at Pratt, Parsons, FIT or wherever and it seems the same concerns and issues come up: students slacking off, not enough funding, etc. We are quite fortunate that we do have strong students that get into some of the best masters programs. It does say something about who we are and what we have to offer.
Yes, it would be great to be in New York or London but I never feel at a deficit when talking to other professors from other art programs.
Cliff Eyland: Art professors teach, serve on administrative committees and do research. Their research -- that is, their art -- is part of their job, but research always competes with committee work and teaching. How do you reconcile all that?
Kirk Warren: Don't sleep. Add two small children into the mix and you really don't sleep!
You juggle. You prioritize. You try to be as productive as possible in all the little nooks and crannies of a day.
My secret is that I work late (and I have for the last 15 years). Its quiet. The phone doesn't ring and I have no one to call or anywhere to go. My most productive time is between 10:00 PM and 3:00 AM. However, it is beginning to catch up with me.
I just do what I can when I can and accept the fact that not everything is going to get done.
Cliff Eyland: How is your art related to what you teach?
Kirk Warren: I emphasize function (particularly the emotional and aesthetic aspects) of a design and that a successful design is appropriate to the problem context. I teach this and practice it.
Cliff Eyland: What happens are will happen if your art leads you away from what you teach?
Kirk Warren: What I experience professionally and what I teach have evolved together. By interconnecting the two I believe that I've been able to keep fresh as a teacher while avoiding stagnancy as a designer. I can't imagine not changing over time. I think it is like being a shark, if you stop you die.
I'm hungry. I constantly read. I'm terribly curious. I'm interested in new technologies and how they can connect with the traditional. I want to know what is next and what is possible. The little boy in me is very alive.
Cliff Eyland: Can you talk about your art and your own history as an artist?
Kirk Warren: I've always been interested in poster design from the early 20th century and mid-century modernist design especially where illustration is used (particularly WPA work). I also have a love for Japanese prints and the design within the compositions. Elements of these influences can be seem in my most recent work.
As a designer I've taken on a broad range of clients and projects. Recently I've begun to focus on corporate identity and iconic imagery. I discovered a long time ago that I'm not the type of designer that can layer imagery like the post-structuralists/deconstructionists that I followed while doing my under-graduate work. The process I developed was to take the complex and make it simple.
I'm at the point in my career where I'm not afraid to be confrontational and stick to my vision of what a design can be and where it can go. Any design can go through a number of people or committees, the vast majority of which are visually illiterate, and you have to be tenacious to see it through. It is shocking that we live in a milieu shaped by design where people lack the most fundamental skill set to understand it. Education has become an important part of my design practice.
I started off at a design studio where I took on large projects immediately and where my employer saw my employment as another level of my education. After several years I felt it was time to go off on my own. It was often a struggle but I learned a lot along the way.
My creative history is scattered. I constantly want to go in another direction. I get bored of my successes. I'm interested in challenge and in change. It is better to be lost than found because when you're lost, you're looking and aware.
Cliff Eyland: Can you talk about your art in this exhibition?
Kirk Warren: Design projects like this don't come along very often. The Winnipeg Trail Association requested the design of a sign system for recreational trials in and around the city of Winnipeg. The system uses iconic illustration that pertains to either a historical or natural (flora or fauna) aspect of a trail. Although I wasn't conscious of it at first, the series shows an influence of depression-era WPA (Works Progress Administration) posters.
My desire was to produce a series of consistent yet unique designs that were contemporary but referenced a period of design where the work was produced "for the people" and "the greater good". The designs are functional in that they adhere to universal design principals but are also aesthetically pleasing and interesting from a formal perspective.
The colours are not representational or are a couple of steps removed from what they should be. I didn't want the system to be dated or cliched because of the colour pallete.
I've been amazed by how positively these have been embraced by the various trail groups and my client (who has been wonderful). It is a good thing we're all happy because we're going to have to live with these for the next twenty years!
Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605