Visiting Faculty Elizabeth Travelslight recounts the unusual trajectory that converted her from mathematician to artist, and how both practices still inform her work and teaching.
SFAI: Tell us about your path to becoming an artist, especially because you started out with a BA in mathematics.
Elizabeth Travelslight: Art making wasn’t part of my family’s cultural history. Both my father and my stepfather are engineers and my mother worked in biotech. My bachelor’s degree was in mathematics, where I researched the feminist histories of math and science. That put me a bit out there compared to other math majors. It wasn’t until several years later when I was enrolled in a MA program at the European Graduate School, that I started to make art.
The MA program was in Media and Communications and the approach was deeply steeped in continental philosophy and media studies. In one of my classes, a teaching assistant assigned us to write an essay comparing and contrasting Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller with Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author. I thought the assignment was stupid so I printed out both of the texts, cut them up, and wove them together to create a weaving because both of those essays explore the relationship between craft, text and writing. That particular object was a turn for me, and for the first time, I thought this is where I should be. Making things felt like a way of contributing to conversations about knowledge production and community building that could emphasize the role of materials.
You have an interesting story about how you came to teach at SFAI. Tell us about that.
European Graduate School is a distance-learning program with three-week intensives in Switzerland. So when it came time to write my thesis, I started camping out at different libraries around the city—SFAI being one of them. One day I took a break out on the quad, with that stunning view and I thought, this would be a great place to come to work. I wonder if they need a math teacher?
A few days later, one of my mentors Ralph Abraham—a math professor at UC Santa Cruz– immediately encouraged me to apply to the university’s Digital Arts|New Media Program. With an MFA, I’d be eligible to teach at a fine arts college. Once I began immersing myself in the art making, establishing myself as an artist, I lost track of the whole idea teaching math to art students.
It wasn’t until three years after I finished my MFA, deeply into my art practice, married, and now a mother of a six-month old, that Nicole Archer, a good friend of mine called and said, “You have a math degree. I need a math teacher. By Wednesday.” And then there I was four days later teaching math. Sometimes your lost daydreams come looking for you.
So has teaching at SFAI lived up to your dream?
I joke with my students that it’s the one thing in my life that I am perfectly and uniquely qualified to do—everything comes together in a math class at art school. I love it. And it’s what makes working and living in San Francisco as an artist possible for me.
You teach a variety of math classes from the history of geometry to ethnomathematics to the economics of art. What is one your students’ favorite courses?
The class I’m teaching in the fall, Does This Add Up?: Art and Economics, is about the mathematics of personal finance: balancing your checkbook, managing your students loans. We put art careers into the context of the art market, and then look at contemporary issues in art like labor and global economics. We’ve visited a local private collector with an amazing collection in Potrero Hill and a commercial contemporary art gallery. We’ve had visitors with a variety of art careers that make it “add up” in a multitude of ways. The students seem to get a lot of practical perspective from it.
Tell us about your more recent work, which might be described as mix between art, technology, and social activism.
I have a research-based art practice where I get curious and excited about a certain set of questions and then explore them through art. For The Dissidents, The Displaced, and the Outliers, a group exhibition in 2015 at Random Parts Gallery, Oakland, and Incline Gallery, San Francisco, I created a series of security blankets to show how various technologies shape feelings of security. These pieces involve my awareness as a mother thinking about the kind of worlds we bring our children into, concerns about gun violence, digital surveillance, and housing security.
I made them from different kinds of materials, combining traditional security blanket materials that children attach to—flannel, cotton, fleece, satin—with material from contemporary security technology like bulletproof ultra high weight molecular polyethylene or EMF shielding metallic fabrics. Worked into the blankets are excerpts from Beyond Vietnam, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s more radical speeches written in 1967 toward the end of his life about the economics of war and poverty.
Image credits: 1) Photo by Stephanie Smith; 2) Elizabeth Travelslight, Textile, 2007; Courtesy of the artist; 3) Elizabeth Travelslight, Bulletproof, 2015; Courtesy of the artist; 4) Elizabeth Travelslight, Bulletproof, 2015; Detail, Courtesy of the artist; 5) Elizabeth Travelslight, Elsewhere postcard, 2010; Courtesy of the artist.