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Bursting the Bubble: Creativity professor and students find inspiration in Special Collections and Archives

April 4, 2016

Inspiration and creativity are not bound by disciplines. Libraries provide a crossroads for the exchange of ideas and exploration of materials across subject matters. That thinking brought Berwyn Hung, who teaches creativity, and his students to James Branch Cabell Library.

“Students are very much in their own bubble,” says Hung. “They need as much outside exposure to things that can influence and inspire them as possible.” A professor of creative brand management at the VCU Brandcenter, a two-year portfolio school in advertising and communication, Hung is also a book artist.

He brought a dozen students to Special Collections and Archives, where they explored items--book art, comic arts and other materials--from the collection. “They really seemed to love what they saw. The art direction students [saw] different ways to think about how to create visuals for the ads and for branding. Even the writers got really inspired. I definitely will bring more students back.” VCU’s Book Art Collection is a teaching collection, he says. “It is for touching and experiencing and learning from.”   

Librarians Pattie Sobczak and Bettina Peacemaker talked with Hung about his path from printmaker to book artist to faculty member and how he finds that creative spark.

What was your journey to the Brandcenter?
I have a BFA in printmaking and book arts from the University of Georgia and then an MFA from the University of the Arts at Philadelphia.  After grad school, I found I had this love for teaching. I ended up in Atlanta at The Creative Circus and The Portfolio Center, both two-year portfolio schools. They wanted me to teach about the creative process, but also production, how to make things, make things look real and make things look better than they were. That was my path into design and advertising.

I taught for 14 or 15 years before I got to the Brandcenter. Through that time, I've evolved myself. I’ve had my own letterpress business. I was doing my own artwork. I was also teaching people how to run a press from beginning to end. It’s my fourth year at VCU. Brandcenter students sometimes ask me what I did before I came here, but I never actually went to school for what they are going to school for. I tell them, you find your passion and you find where that takes you, and you just never know where that’s going to end up.

What is your creative process as an artist?
As a child I got bored easily and was always looking for the next thing when I mastered something; I liked to take things apart and modify them. (My nickname was the “modifier”.)

With my creative process, early on a lot of it was dealing with a lot of internal questions. I dealt a lot with family, growing up as a second-generation American and self-identity. I co-wrote a piece with an Italian-American friend, where we both wrote about our second generation experience, and there was one line that still resonates with me from that writing: I am a tourist in the country of my ancestry and a foreigner in the country of my birth.

Then, I started to think about more communications, how people look at the world. I was trying to look at the world and figure out why does something work the way it does. Do we do things just because we’ve always done things that way and don't want change? Or, do we do things that way because it’s the right thing to do and the correct way to do it? I’m always challenging my assumptions and some of that comes out in my artwork and that definitely comes out in my teaching.

How do you approach teaching?
I push my students to challenge their assumptions and to think differently. I love teaching people in different disciplines. When students get outside their comfort zone they can come up with anything and the most interesting ideas come out of that.

I give my students a lot of projects that are very conceptual in nature. My job is to challenge their minds and the way that they think. I can help them with their skills, of course, but I prefer to push their minds and then as they work on it help them with their individual skills and bring their vision into reality.

How do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in observation, in identifying the “why.” I’ve always challenged not just society’s conceptions but my own conceptions of things. Whenever I’m exposed to something new, it starts a crazy new thought process, and sometimes that turns into art.

As a book artist and a teacher of communication in the digital age, what is next?
So, how do we look at what is the future of publications, specifically, and how do we still assign value to something that you have to pay for yet we feel like we get information freely or cheaply most of the time. There’s so many things you can do in an electronic world that adds so many different levels or layers of interaction but yet there is very deep emotional connection to paper and the words on the page that this generation still holds on to. But I think it might be a matter of time for the generations coming up to have that same appreciation. … The mass production of books may slow down but the beauty of the book as an object, as something beyond just words, will become more revered.

I went through a period of challenging what is an artist book. Does it have to be in codex form? Does it have to be true to the word book? When I was exploring it, I was thinking more about the book as figurative passing on of knowledge or ideas from one generation to the next and how does that take form.

* * *

Special Collections and Archives at James Branch Cabell Library works with community groups, students and faculty members from all disciplines. The department’s staff collaborates with instructors to incorporate materials tied to courses or objectives to inspire innovation, creativity or raise cultural awareness. Holdings include the nationally significant Book Art and Comic Arts Collections, both popular sources for teaching, research, and inspiration. Contact: Yuki Hibben, assistant head and curator of books and art, Special Collections and Archives, (804) 828-8837.

 

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