Graphic design professor shows ‘Memory Palaces’ in South Korea, gives lecture in Japan
Standing inside a gallery on the other side of the globe a few weeks ago, Jennifer McKnight listened to the hubbub of different languages around her. Bilingual scholars patiently bridged the gaps in understanding as she and fellow exhibitors – hailing from China, Portugal, the U.S. and other far-flung places – got acquainted with each other.
By contrast, the visual art on the walls surrounding them required little such translation.
“The posters came from many different countries, but the images created universal communication,” said the University of Missouri–St. Louis associate professor of graphic design, who was thrilled at the invitation to show some of her work as part of the international United Designs Alliance Medallions exhibition on South Korea’s Jeju Island. “It was a very moving experience.”
Each of the solo shows from around the world had at least one major aim in common: an exploration of identity and the essential connections that visual communication creates between human beings across cultures. McKnight’s collection was also deeply personal.
Over the past year, she created a series of what she’s termed “Memory Palaces” – work designed in the wake of her father’s sudden death in November 2015. Describing him as a parent, craftsman, chemist, academic, writer, southerner and more, she found it challenging to distill all of that complexity into a limited number of images. But the result of her efforts is a set of silkscreen posters that reference cabinets of wonder, her family’s foibles, the “act of excavating” her parents’ house and more.
“My objective was to design work to help my sisters – and me – remember my very intelligent and eccentric parents,” McKnight said. “Design comes from such a practical and logical place that at first I wasn’t sure what I was making was even design anymore.
“But on the other hand, it seems we all end up balancing the professional and the personal, and this made me think there was room to talk about what a balancing act it is to stay professional but still honor one’s family. This show tries to illustrate that balancing act.”
During her time at UMSL, McKnight has been developing a connection with the design department at Hanyang University, including the program’s director, Albert Choi. Interacting with Choi and his students was a special treat during her trip.
“It was really interesting to try and pick out words in different languages and become curious about communication in a multicultural environment,” McKnight said. “I was also able to attend a related United Designs exhibition, which several UMSL graphic design alumni have participated in over the years. This one featured 100 beautiful designs on the topic of environmental awareness, and I thought is was really interesting to explore it with such an international group of attendees and see how so many people were concerned with some of the same issues about our environment.”
Following her stay in South Korea, McKnight traveled to Tokyo, Japan, to guest lecture at Temple University before returning home to St. Louis. She spoke about the ways in which expressive writing informs design – specifically the creation of elegant visual metaphor.
“That’s one of the big goals of graphic design – to create images that speak,” McKnight noted. “The talk really touched people, and I was pleased to have so many of them come up and ask me questions about the work and about how different kinds of writing inform design in different ways.”
She’s now working on a talk for her UMSL students that will focus on what she learned during her trip – particularly about just how much subtlety there is to communication – not just through oral and written forms but also through fashion, body language and more.
“We simply can’t assume our experiences are the same as other people’s – or that our environment is the same as others,” McKnight said. “I think there is a lot to be learned from the experience.”
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