Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Conversation with Colleen Plumb

Today we have the pleasure of presenting a conversation with artist Colleen Plumb.
A good photograph lingers with you, makes you pause. Colleen photographs unflinchingly investigate life and death; guiding the viewer to contemplate the intangible and the concrete.

© Colleen Plumb

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

CP: I grew up in Chicago, in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of the city, which is actually near where I live now. I have made it a little further south by about 2 miles. I always thought I would live in the mountains out west or Paris or something by now. Or California! But here I am, in Chicago. I am glad about it, but sort of surprised.

I teach part-time in the photography department at Columbia College Chicago, which is where I went to graduate school. I have now been teaching there for ten years. I am lucky to be involved with such a strong photography community in Chicago.
My husband and I have two daughters: Ruth will be 8 and Elsa is 3. That is Elsa next to our dog Jack right before we buried him. He was fifteen. And Ruth, last year with the mold-a-rama dinosaur from the Field Museum. We have a lot of fun around our house. I am truly blessed. I like that I am an artist and a mom, though balancing both worlds is challenging. Seeing the documentary "Who Does She Think She Is" really hit home.

© Colleen Plumb

NP: How did you discover photography?

CP: I had a job at a graphic design firm after college and I was restless, I felt like I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. One day after work I was driving home and it literally struck me all at once: "I will go to grad school in photography". I had taken a lot of photography classes as an undergrad and that planted the seed. When I was younger, my grandfather always encouraged me as an artist, with my drawings. He really impacted my identity, gave me confidence. I remember vividly: on that drive home, I looked over at a building with the sun shining--glowing--brightly on an old Chicago brick building and I felt so sure about this new idea. I was so excited. I scheduled a meeting with the dept. chair at Columbia and two weeks later I was a graduate student with no job! It was freaky. I was able to freelance at different design firms in Chicago while in school.

AND: I do feel like I still am discovering photography all the time. It keeps getting better and more interesting to me. It is such an intricate language and my goal is to become fluent.

© Colleen Plumb

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

CP: I think I get the most inspired by looking at art, or hearing artists speak. Or by going to the library or a bookstore and looking at books. That is probably one of my favorite things to do. Thankfully my kids dig a good bookstore too. We just all disappear into ourselves for a while. Of course there are a lot of things to put away once the trances end.

© Colleen Plumb

NP: How do your projects come about?

CP: By picking up a thread of an idea and following it along, and in turn uncovering a bunch of other threads. This happened recently when I started thinking about tanneries. I called one listed in Chicago and wound up having the most amazing, informative conversation with a man named Bob about the history of tanning leather, the tanning industry in Chicago, sheepskin boxing gloves, pollution, you name it. I am going over to the their warehouse basement next week--the beams and hooks where they hung sheep are still intact. The tannery went out of business during the implementation of the Marshall Plan after WWII. And wool from sheep: there are these little notches on the fibers that lock together to form long fibers for spinning wool. The sheep has to be alive in order for the notches to remain open and hook one another. I think it is so interesting that they close up and will not work if the animal is sheared after it is dead.

© Colleen Plumb

NP: What’s next?

CP: Continuing my Animals Are Outside Today project. I also have begun a video project having to do with elephants. I am part of a new and still-forming collective of Chicago women photographers. I'll have work in Jen Bekman Gallery's winter show: 'Mix Tape' and a few other things are on the horizon.
And of course getting my kids to school on time with lunches in hand.

NP: Thank you so much!

To see more of Colleen's work please visit:

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