Visiting Instructor of Art Angela Dieffenbach grew up in rural Illinois and has received multiple degrees in art and education from Bradley University and the University of Iowa. She has also taught art at more than six institutions, including Chicago State University, and came to Knox in the fall of 2013. TKS sat down to talk with her about her artistic inspirations and experiences as an artist-in-residence at Knox.
The Knox Student: Growing up, what inspired you to pursue art?
Angela Dieffenbach: I did a lot of drawing as a kid. I went to a really small school, I grew up in a rural farm area, so I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to fine art. But I have a bunch of older sisters and one of them is a graphic designer. She’s 14 years older than me and so I kind of saw her when I was a little kid doing projects, videography. My older sister’s best friend’s mom was an artist too, and I feel like that was the first person I met that really was pursuing fine art. The weirdest thing is, she ended up being a student of mine later on. She took a night class at a community college I taught at briefly. It was really exciting to have her there.
TKS: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind your own art?
AD: My biggest interest when I was in high school was science. I’m really interested in microbiology. I also get really into quantum physics. But I’m particularly interested in strange experiments and the irony of medical treatments like [those based on] the hygiene hypothesis theory. One of the newer ways doctors are trying to cure people is by prescribing them different parasites and I’ve been following the progression of which parasites they’re using.
TKS: So that wasn’t spaghetti in the ceramic bowls that appear in a few of your sculptures, then?
AD: Well, I kind of wanted the art to bridge that gap between is it food, or is it worms? If you get really close to them they look like worms. Both [that piece and some others] are about the ironies of prescribing third world ailments as costly modern treatments. It’s $400 to infect yourself with parasites for a couple weeks. They had the first successful ear transplant not that long ago and they had to use a leech for it.
I’m also really interested in the changing roles of animals, and so mice, which used to be pests and carriers of disease, and now we do all our testing on them. They’re these creatures that we use to help people get better and I’m really interested in that change. And my [chromosome art] would be from this article called “Chromosome Painting: A Useful Art.” The article really wasn’t that interesting, but the title got me jazzed. I started painting chromosomes as a way to investigate the title. I’m also really interested in using scientific symbols and icons.
TKS: When did science start becoming a major part of your work?
AD: I think the science stuff really started happening when I got to grad school. I started looking at molecules and prescription medications and I got interested in skeleton formulas, which are drawings scientists do to describe a drug. I was tutored by an emeritus chemistry teacher who taught me how to decipher these drawings and then I would translate them into the three dimensions. I don’t know why we’ve put science and art in different corners; they are friends. I’m really into Vesalius, who’s the father of modern anatomy because I feel like his drawings render the body beautifully and correctly. The aim for him was to create beauty as well as knowledge. I think that’s a pretty important idea for me.
TKS: What brought you to Knox and what is your impression of it so far?
AD: It was a happy coincidence that my other class [at Chicago State University] was cancelled. Initially I came in during the fall because the chair of the [art department] was going to be on sabbatical. I always love residencies and I love teaching. I actually grew up about an hour away from here. It’s been nice to come back to the general area and to be at a small school. I feel like I’ve really been able to get to know my students and I’ve had some really fabulous students making great work. The students are really engaged and there’s a lot of voices, which you don’t always get at different universities. Most of my students were non-majors and sometimes the assumption is that their work isn’t going to be as strong, but it certainly wasn’t true for my former class and isn’t for this class. I like to assign projects that are general enough that people can have their own take.
TKS: What’s your class working on right now?
AD: We just transitioned from hand building to wheel throwing. It’s always a hard transition. You have to be okay with not being great at something right away. I’m having them create six-inch cylinders and then they have to cut them apart and assemble them into one cohesive piece. I like doing that because sometimes students think their pieces are so precious and they don’t want to do anything to them. There’s this assumption that whatever you make on the wheel is wonderful and you don’t have to touch it afterwards. I’m trying to break that. If something breaks and it isn’t successful, that is great. You have an opportunity to remake it and you’ll probably remake it way better.
TKS: What are your future plans?
AD: I’ll probably be at Chicago State University in the fall. I’ll be coming back to Knox for a solo show, though. It’ll mostly be a show of what I’m working on right now: I’m really into horseshoe crabs. The special thing about them is that they have a different type of blood that we use to test for impurities in pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. I think there’s a lot happening with their conservation right now, whether this is the right thing to be doing or not. So if you’ve ever taken any type of drug, thank a horseshoe crab.