Explore and Create Stories #15: Alke Groppel-Wegener

I’m so excited to be introducing Alke for this #exploreandcreatestories. I’m excited for many reasons, two of which are that I’m currently in the UK (hanging out with one of her great buddies and inspirations who introduced us (shout out Katy Vigurs who you'll connect with again later in the interview but did meet in the #exploreandcreatestories #9), and secondly for the way Alke describes what it is that she does. She does it in such an organic way. On her blog called Tactile Academia, Alke introduces herself as someone who is about living, breathing, and inspiring others to explore ways of teaching and learning in. She is focused on designing the learning opportunity particularly, but not exclusively, in Art, Media and Design as a way to link creative practice with academic research. That is, getting the right side of our brain in on the act and ready to party as part of academic research and writing.

I do hope you like this latest interview that really draws together how creativity and being present can align to what we do in our everyday life and the communication of this in visual, textual, spatial, written gestural and audio ways.

Tell us about what you do.

I think the most straight forward way to describe what I do would be to say that I design learning opportunities. Technically I have a job as an Associate Professor of Creative Academic Practice at Staffordshire University in the UK and as part of that I teach Contextual Studies to Animation students - so we explore the history and theory of animation. I also teach first year media students how to research and write basic evidence based essays. But really what is at the core of what I want to do most is to find the best ways to communicate content in a way that allows people to turn information into knowledge, so I design learning opportunities.

What are you passionate about?

Artist's books and theme parks. I love artist's books, because they are fascinating combinations of visual and textual communication within a book structure. They allow you to explore the artist/author's thinking and become part of the story that is being told. I love making them, although I don't seem to find much time for this at the moment, and I love going to artist's books fairs to look at them and buy a few. I have a lovely collection that I treasure. I'm also passionate about theme parks, and the reasons are probably similar: I love the idea of designing an environment that allows the visitor to live and experience a story just through the environment. You need clever design for both artist's book and theme park if you want them to work well, and I appreciate that, I guess.

What are you working on at the moment? or What’s inspiring you at the moment?

At the moment I am working on a series of 'educational furoshiki'. A furoshiki is a Japanese wrapping cloth, basically a square piece of fabric with a whole range of traditional ways to tie it that used to be the bag equivalent in Japan. I got introduced to them two years ago on a trip to Tokyo and immediately loved this idea, because you can use these cloths (which come in beautiful colours, fabrics and with wonderful patterns) not just to wrap gifts to present to your loved ones, but also as scarves or hand-towels (depending on the fabric, I guess). My favourite is a 'Tenugui-Bon' - a handtowel that can be used to wrap things, or displayed as a hanging, but it is designed and was presented in a book format, maybe one of the more exotic pieces in my artist's book collection. Last November I was organising a workshop on using genre as a pedagogical resource and I thought that it would be great to use a furoshiki instead of the more usual tote bag you get at conferences for a delegate pack, because the wrapping of it embodies the idea of how something changes depending on what genre you use it in. So you can wrap things, using it as a bag, or you can use it as a scarf, or you can use it as a poster, etc, - but whenever you use it in one of these forms (genre), you lose some of the functionality of the other ways to use it. So if you are using it to wrap things, you don't see the whole of it, so it can't be a poster at the same time. This was what the workshop was about. I used a theory by a friend and colleague of mine, Dr Fiona English, who was presenting at the workshop, as a starting point to design a visual representation of her regenring theory, and had them produced as scarves (well, really furoshiki) and gave one to all of the workshop delegates. And I really loved that whole experience, and this format as an artefact that I want to make more of them.

What led you to your latest project or focus?

So the idea of the furoshiki itself came from that trip and got tested at the workshop, the subject matter for the first one I am working on is going to be the idea of what the process of writing an essay would look like if it was visualised as a board game. A big part of my job used to be teaching essay writing to first year art, design and media students, and as part of that I collated a lot of the ideas I had for them into a workbook, Writing Essays by Pictures, which was published last September. what was missing in it was an overview that showed how much researching and writing an essay is a linear process, and I have been trying to explore this with students by using the board game genre. So I thought, I might design one that complements the book, but producing it as an actual board game didn't quite make sense. If I produce it in that furoshiki format, it could be used as a 'board' game, but more importantly you can put it on a pinboard and show where you are up to in your essay writing at the moment (or a teacher could show students where abouts they should be), and of course you could also use it at a scarf or to wrap things. So that's what I am playing about with at the moment, and once I have it figured out properly I might put it on Kickstarter and see whether I can raise the money to have some made.

How do you approach creativity in your life (personal/professional/or both)?

Creativity isn't really anything I approach. It just seems to be there and I can't NOT use it. I think I am very open to learning new techniques or crafts when the opportunities present themselves, because I really enjoy that. Some people like sunning themselves on a beach, I'd much rather learn how to weave or print and see what happens.

We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?

I think 'being in the moment' is not the right way to talk about what I experience when creating. 'Being in the moment' is something I do when stocking up experiences, just experience what is happening around me and paying attention to it. Often this happens to me when I am either walking or on public transport. When I'm creating I'm focused on the process.

What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?

I have to admit, I have never thought of this in these terms.I focus on a project and then flow either comes or it doesn't. I guess one of the strategies I use is to swap from drawing to writing and writing to drawing initially, and then move on to making when I have a better idea of what the process will be. But writing helps me a lot.

What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours?

Making time for them.

How do you find your zen?

Walking. A friend of mine has a space in her backyard where she mows a labyrinth into the grass in summer and walks one with snow shoes in the snow in winter. this might sound odd, but when I need to find my centre, I walk that, even if I'm not there (she's in Massachusetts). I have a really strong sense of this process, I don't need to be there.

When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.

I think flow provides a productivity that is not necessarily measured in quantity, but in quality for me. It allows me to focus on the detail. I forget to pay attention to time and things like food or drink. I might also end up with some scribbles for new ideas, that i can't necessarily decipher the next day...

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?

Visual artist, print- and artist's book maker, teacher and wonderful friend Melanie Mowinski. I love her work, I admire the way that she manages to balance her teaching and her creative work. She is wonderfully generous with her ideas and advice. When she invited me to be an artist- and- scholar-in-residence at MCLA (where she is a professor), she opened up this opportunity for me to start thinking of myself as an artist, which I hadn't really done before. Plus she regularly remakes the aforementioned labyrinth in her garden.

Colleague and friend Dr Katy Vigurs. From literally the first moment I met her she has been very enthusiastic about my work, but maybe more importantly, my approach to work. She has opened my eyes to thinking about my way of teaching as not just confined to art, design and media, and has given me real confidence in developing it further and introducing it to a larger audience.

Sarah Williamson, another friend and colleague (albeit working at a different university). Sarah uses reflective bookmaking in her training of soon-to-be teachers and as part of her own PhD studies. Meeting her made me realise that I wasn't alone in my approach within teaching, and has encouraged me to develop my own style.

Artist Sam Winston. Again, I love his work and feel privileged to own some of it. Some of his work is very word based, which speaks to me. I am also constantly amazed by his approach to data, some of his stuff is a very visual approach to quantitative data collection, which I find fascinating. I have been lucky enough to have met him a few times, and he is beyond lovely and has given me some very good advice.

How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)

Maybe an 8. I wish I would be able to devote more time to it.



Tell us, who are you clicking on at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Nick Sousanis' website spinweaveandcut.com because it is a treasure trove of information and resources if you are interested in visual literacy. I love his book Unflattening and really appreciate his approach to education.


Tell me, who are you are reading at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I'm looking a lot at books that are centred around visual communication and particularly sketchnoting at the moment (Dan Roam, Sunni Brown, Martin Haussmann). This is a particular interest of mine, so I have had these books for a while, and it is always a good idea to revisit them to refresh the ideas (and criticisms I might have of the ideas in them). I am working on becoming a better sketchnoter myself. I'm also taking my time and enjoying the journey through Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, again very linked to visual communication and an absolute delight to relive the Dear Data project (which I followed on twitter, and am so glad that they turned it into a book).

What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark? or What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative?

Don't try to force it, so don't put yourself under pressure trying to make something happen. You probably already are considered creative by the people around you, but even if you are not, that's not the end of the world. Just enjoy what you are doing, that is way more important then whether you fit the 'creative' label or not.

Stay connected with Alke via her blog and with her on Twitter (@alkegw)