Our Colleague Katherine Fries

by Michael G. Cartwright
Vice President for University Mission  

This academic year we are exploring the lives and work of UIndy alumni, faculty, staff and students

Katherine Fries ‘07 ‘11: Member of the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences

It is not hard to come up with adjectives that describe why Katherine Fries is an unusual person. The fact that she drives a Ford F-150 truck really has nothing to do with it, I suppose. (But have you seen how brightly the metallic blue paint job shines even on a dull gray wintry day in Indiana?) The fact that Katherine completed an apprenticeship in Letterpress printing comes closer to accounting for her singularity; after all, she is member #927 of the Amalgamated Printers Association. But, then, that doesn’t really explain her membership in the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences at this University, does it? What many of us know is that Katherine is a wonderful colleague. Indeed, she is an outstanding exemplar of the very first line in the UIndy mission statement: “The mission of the University of Indianapolis is to prepare its graduates for effective, responsible, and articulate membership in the complex societies in which they live and serve.”

Let’s take each of these adjectives in turn before I attempt to explicate the latter part of this segment, which acknowledges the complicated nature of our relationships on and off campus. Indeed, the word “membership” is immediately qualified by a 10-word prepositional phrase that throws a shadow on the three adjectives. It is almost as if the authors of this initial segment of the University’s mission statement were trying to create an envelope into which they could put the other 94 words. However much we may experience our social relationships as complicated in 1993-94, I don’t know of anyone who would contend that it is less so in 2018. The challenge may be to articulate our daily experience of complexity in ways that help us to negotiate the daily hurdles in our respective lanes of parallel endeavor.

Effective: Katherine Fries is not alone in this respect. Many faculty and staff on this campus are effective. Most of us can say that we (at least) “meet expectations” when our supervisor renders judgment on the work that we have done during the past year. Where we find ourselves in disagreements about how to evaluate our work, the problem often stems from the changing environment in which we carry out our tasks. Few of us go about our work today in the same way that we did even five years ago.

In the midst of change, Katherine Fries certainly gets stuff done. And in a timely way to boot! Follow through and efficiency are by no means the only criteria for effectiveness, but in my experience, they are critical expressions for cultivating collegiality in universities like UIndy. Indeed, some would say that they are necessary preconditions for sustaining a meaningful sense of membership in the schools and colleges of a comprehensive university like ours.

Responsible: Nor is there a shortage of responsible faculty and administrators at this university, although some of us may be neater than others about how we carry out our daily work. (Some of you have seen my office!) What we sometimes experience is a lack of responsivity from other precincts of the university. Where we are used to getting our work done unilaterally, the mandate to be a networked university may feel onerous. After all, I might say, if I don’t have to wait for you to respond to my email, I can get my work done more efficiently. Isn’t that “good enough?” But if I am honest with myself, there are times when the product is better simply by virtue of taking the time to engage folks on campus who have valuable input to offer. Our work can be better if we are willing to be responsive to others’ feedback.

Katherine Fries is both responsive and responsible. I have had the privilege to work with her over the past few years in the University Series Planning Committee. We are co-chairs of this working group. She is unfailingly polite and courteous, but she is also refreshingly down-to-earth. For those people who knew Katherine when she was an undergraduate from 2003 through 2007 and subsequently when she worked as an administrative assistant for five years before leaving UIndy for her Master of Fine Arts degree at Miami University, this is no surprise. Katherine has always worn courtesy with authenticity. Dissembling is simply not one of her strong suits. I suspect she takes pride in her work. I know that she is encouraging to her co-workers. What I also know is that she does not take her responsibility to mentor students lightly. Indeed, when Katherine Fries talks about the students she teaches, the determined sense of resolve that she feels is almost palpable.

Articulate: Because Katherine is the founder of the Printmaking Program (including letterpress printing), which is now one of the concentrations for Art & Design majors, I have chosen to use several paragraphs she wrote for internal purposes here at UIndy: “The teaching and practice of letterpress is multifaceted and provides an excellent platform of intersecting skills sets.” Katherine went on to convey that she hopes that “some of her current and future students will find great joy and a productive artistic practice through letterpress.” However, she is quick to also say, “It is not my primary goal to train students to become letterpress printers.” For her purposes, that is a “rather narrow goal. While the transformation of new letterpress printers is a pleasant side effect that ensures the survival of the craft, the true primary goal is to use letterpress as a tool to engage my students on a number of levels.”

“First, there is a practical vocabulary and familiarity across disciplines that few, if any, medium can lay claim to. There is a rich history that resides in the graphic design field; there are communal and socially conscious practices that speak to the pre-art therapy students; the process driven components are engaging and familiar to ceramics and printmaking students; and lastly the formal aspects of color, composition, and layering speak to my drawing, painting, and photography students. There is a gateway for all of my students—equal parts familiar and new.”

“Second, letterpress is also a practice that teaches and reinforces problem solving/critical thinking, thriving within limitations, craftsmanship, material concerns, formal concerns, engaging the history of making, and understanding and engagement of the artist’s voice or conceptual approach (all transformational and transferable skills). It forces the student to be in command of the process and the results. Letterpress is also a process that students can be creative with limited hand skills (drawing, etc.). Letterpress engages/enhances my practice as an artist and educator while reinforcing the value systems of said practice.”

Finally, it produces gratifying and tangible results that can be assessed and shared.” 

This explanation articulates multiple dimensions. Some of the sentences in this description register in multiple frameworks. Those of us who have only a limited literacy in the fine and graphic arts probably do not grasp all the references in Katherine’s word choices, but we cannot read this text and miss the fact that she is serious about pedagogy and takes pains to ensure the creation of accessible pathways for students to develop skills that build on artistic talents that they bring to the curricula offered by the Department of Art & Design. I suspect that virtually all members of the UIndy faculty applaud the fact that Ms. Fries keeps the student’s perspective in focus as she goes about her work from day to day. But what I can say with assurance is that this is highly valued by faculty of the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences since that is my own academic home in the University of Indianapolis. In that respect, Katherine and I have both been shaped by with a wider group of 95 colleagues, which in turn houses several subgroups.

Membership: This is one of those “Old English” words that combines Latinate and Old French pieces to form a whole. Indeed, it is a compound that imagines how various parts of a body come together with a sense of wholeness. Most of us are members of multiple organizations. For example, Dr. Perry Kea, who teaches religious studies at UIndy, is a longstanding member of the American Association of University Professors, including serving in the roles of secretary, vice president and (currently) treasurer of the Indiana Association of AAUP. He is also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and North United Methodist Church here in the city of Indianapolis. Kea is also a longtime fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who advocate rigor in scholarship about the historical Jesus.  Perry Kea currently serves as the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Westar Institute. These are the groups that I know about. I take it for granted that Perry is a member of associations with which I am not familiar. Even so, I feel confident in saying that many of us at UIndy would have comparable patterns of memberships.

Katherine Fries holds one membership that you are not likely to find at many other universities. She is a letterpress printer. Once upon a time, someone who sought to complete an apprenticeship in the printing trade would not have expected (or been expected by his or her peers) to go to college. These would have been mutually exclusive paths. Not in 2018. As Katherine patiently explains to those of us who find this puzzling,

“I am a member of the APA—the Amalgamated Printers Association. My membership number is 927. There are only 150 members at any given time and you apply to become member. Your membership is contingent on your participation of various duties and print jobs. This group has professional printers, educators, and serious ‘hobby’ printers. We exchange works, meet once a year for a conference, and have physical and digital means of networking and assisting each other with letterpress exchanges, needs or curiosities. In many ways, this provided a formalized way to bring people from all over the world together regarding letterpress in a climate of defunct unions and professional organizations due the changing technologies and methods of printing.” Katherine goes on to give several examples: “Erin Beckloff, Dave Peat, Stephanie Carpenter of Hamilton, and Celene Aubry of Hatch are all members.” 

What makes Katherine’s membership in APA fascinating for my purposes is the fact that people from “defunct printing [trade] unions and professional organizations” are now part of a reincorporated community of learning and practice due to the changing technologies over the past half-century. Indeed, as she patiently explains, letterpress is simply one of several outdated industrial processes that have become incorporated into the fine art practices of today.”

Some observers believe that something comparable is happening in the world of higher education. That will have to be a topic for some other occasion. I simply want to remind readers that the changes in letterpress is but one of those circumstances that led our faculty predecessors back in 1993 to highlight the importance of enabling students to develop into “effective, responsible, and articulate membership in the complex societies in which they live and serve.”

Whatever our colleagues may have had in mind 35 years ago, the language they chose to use felt as if they were referring to external circumstances. Part of the reason why the challenges we face today feel as if they have greater magnitude is because we experience them in our primary relationships more so than in the past. It is no longer just “out there.” To speak in a more straightforward manner, many of us register such complexity in our relationships with our colleagues here on campus, in our departments as well as in the schools of our university.

No doubt about it, universities enfold complexity by design. I also know that they have become more so during the 30 years that I have been a citizen of academe. At least some of that has to do with the way we experience communication. As Linda Corn reminded us earlier this year (see Mission Matters #39), once upon a time her job as Adminis-trative Assistant in the College of Arts & Science involved using a desk phone multiple times each day at work. That is no longer the case. When she mentioned this, I remember feeling a bit surprised. (This was something that I had not noticed in my own work given that I initiate many phone calls to people on and off campus.)

I know some people who have told me that their phones never ring. Indeed, I recently talked with an administrative staffer who was hired in November 2017 and has yet to receive a call using his desk phone. That is not because he isn’t working, and I know for a fact that his work is important because I am one of the people who has come to rely on him for his skill as a wordsmith. Much of his work as faculty takes the form of email communication. But that is not always the case with the students we teach. They are more likely to “text” one another via Instant Messenger, etc. All of which means that we engage one another in parallel but often largely segregated task groups despite the fact that we and our students are supposedly members of the same school or college of the university.

Collegiality: These days, collegiality is a precious commodity in the world of higher education. This much-prized virtue is not so plentiful that we can expect it to be a feature of the reality that greets us when we arrive at work on Monday morning any more than it can be guaranteed to be present when we leave campus on Friday evening.

Upon reflection, we know that we are sustained by collegiality. We dare not try to do without it even when we may be puzzled about how to re-create it. I applaud the efforts of Brad Neil and David Styers-Barnett et al. for taking the initiative to bring us together on the first Friday of each month for lunch. It is hard to have collegiality if we don’t ever experience conviviality with one another. Certainly we need times when we can gather to play. Doug Woodwell’s leadership in the annual UIndy Trivia Night events also comes to mind. These are good examples of things that take place beyond our daily work.

However important such things are, we also need people who have the capacity to enjoy the shared work that we do from day to day. That is what Katherine Fries does. She relishes her work and she cherishes her colleagues. And she loves this university in ways that are unmistakable. You can’t miss her sense of delight any more than you can miss that bright blue Ford F-150 she drives.

Unbeknownst to me, that vehicle has a storied existence in relation to the work she does at UIndy. The bright blue vehicle has made quite a few trips, out to Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, and Wisconsin (to name a few) to transport printing presses and wood and metal type for use in the print shop. Once upon a time, Katherine had a load of letterpress equipment that needed to be unloaded. She rushed back to campus in the rain. When she got here, students from the printmaking concentration had gathered students from elsewhere in the building. Well over a dozen people formed a human chain to get everything out of the truck as soon as possible. When Katherine tells this story, her voice burbles with laughter and affection for the students and colleagues with whom she works.

Although it is certainly accurate to use the words “effective, responsible, and articulate” to describe how Katherine Fries approaches membership in the complex world of work at UIndy, such a description lacks color. We need a more diverse pallet of descriptors to convey the richness of her character as a colleague. Her attention to details is obvious, but when you look at the check off list she puts together for University Series events, you don’t see her passion for excellence and her deep pride in this university and its employees. On the other hand, “delight” is an apt word to describe the active way in which Katherine engages the world around her.

This is not to say that Katherine Fries never has moments of doubt or finds herself feeling down at the end of a particularly hard week of work in mid-winter. Indeed, she does her share of the “scut work” in her department and college as well as for the university more generally. She serves on committees like the rest of us, and she often struggles about when to find the time to paint works of art. From day to day, I have noticed, she brings an artistic perspective to our shared work. And when Katherine Fries takes delight in things great or small, you cannot help but notice. I laugh a bit more when I am working with Katherine. Indeed, the story of what it means to work at UIndy makes a bit more sense when you work with folks like her.

Now, about that Ford F-150 that Katherine drives. Have you noticed how bright it shines? Thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.

Remember: UIndy’s mission matters!