In addition to being a founding editor of Design Observer, an award-winning graphic designer, partner in Winterhouse Studios, and a senior critic for the Yale MFA program in Graphic Design, Jessica Helfand has taught the freshman seminar Studies in Visual Biography for the past five fall semesters. This spring, she’s trying something new.
YH: You’re teaching a freshman seminar entitled “Blue”—how did you come up with the idea?
JH: Last winter, George Levesque [Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs] and I were having lunch and he said to me that he would love someone to teach a class based on an idea that meant many things to different people. He gave the example of water. I immediately thought of blue.
YH: What do you hope students will get out of the course?
JH: I have a very agnostic way of living my life. Writer, artist, and teacher: I sort of swirl through these different roles. I like the idea of teaching something conceptual that can open the door to other things. In the class, we’re looking at the etymology of blue. We’re comparing usages from “blue blood” to “blue collar;” we’re examining the difference between cobalt and aquamarine. All of these ideas are going to be given equal weight.
YH: Why “Blue”? Why not “Red” or “Green” ? What is it about “Blue”?
JH: It was just such an obvious choice to me. I was really interested in the language—in the fact that you could talk about the bluebird of happiness or the bluebird of depression. It seemed like in literature there was so much. Just this morning, I was looking at this perfume Guerlain came out with in 1912, called “L’heure Bleue” which means “the blue hour.” Joan Didion writes about that same blue hour—the blue night when her daughter dies, that moment between dusk and evening. And Chanel, about 100 years after “L’heure Bleue,” came out with a men’s fragrance called “Blue.” I am likely to give a project where the students have to write about a sensory memory that has to do with blue. For me, it’s a way into social history through this simple idea. I don’t know—could I have done red or green? It never occurred to me.
YH: Does blue have a personal resonance with you?
JH: I like the idea that it has been Yale’s color forever and yet we don’t stop to think about it. There’s this symbolism that it means royal or aristocratic or it’s “Yale blue.” But what does that really mean? It’s the world’s favorite color—there have been studies on that. And yet why might the cultural reference for someone in Slovenia be different from someone in Sweden? How could something so ubiquitous be so personal?
YH: Do you have a favorite blue object?
JH: Well, we’re meeting this semester on Wednesdays at the Yale Art Gallery. Last week we spent an hour just looking at three Hopper paintings. There’s a Christian Marclay cyanotype that is so beautiful I could look at it all day. There’s a Michael Graves collection he did in the 1980s that looks like it could be from the 19th century—it’s a teapot with big blue balls on it. What’s funny is that when you stop and look at all of these blue things, you think you can’t possibly be surprised. But I am constantly surprised. In the exhibit at the Beinicke, they have Edith Wharton’s driver’s license and it’s blue. Her photograph is brown—it’s so Downton Abbey. It couldn’t be any more different than a teapot, but I love them equally.
YH: Your last book Scrapbooks: An American History looked at how people use scrapbooking to express who they are through tangible objects. Do you think a course like this, focused so much on physical objects, touches on those same ideas?
JH: My last book really attacked scrapbooking as a modern, commercialized craft activity. But blue is also a concept. I tend to be serially monogamous as a person with weird quirky interests. So I wrote a book about the circular wheel chart in 2002 and then gave the collection to Yale. Then I wrote Scrapbooks, and after the press tour, I gave that collection to the Beinecke. Now I’m teaching “Blue.” Will I write a book on it? Will I build a collection on it? Probably not. But I do like social history through visual history. I like that the relationship between thinking and making is very coarse. I like the idea that blue is what I come back to. It’s tough when you go between thing and idea sometimes.
YH: You received your BA and MFA here and have taught at Yale since 1994. What have you noticed about Yale students in your classes? What has changed?
JH: I began “Blue” by saying ‘If you are the kind of person who wants to know what is expected of you, the door is over there.’ “Blue” is a complete experiment. But pedagogically, I think it is a really interesting way to teach. The older I get, the more opinionated I get about art education. I think you can’t take smart Yalies and just teach them how to mix paint. You can’t take smart kids with incredible promise and willingness to open up their eyes and not give them a class that allows them to do just that. You have to be the author of your own experience. Why is there a need to feel safe in your education? Is it for grad school? Does everyone really want to be a doctor or a lawyer? You need to own your own education. I hope that with “Blue” people will understand that being safe is not the answer. You’re already safe in this place. Mary Miller’s got your back. You can now buckle down and be who you hope to be and take chances. I even have a color blind student in “Blue”—think how brave that is.