From Rubik's Cube to Roller Coaster: Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Winter 2017

For the last 12 years, Chrisstina Hamilton has been working out a puzzle of sorts for thousands of people to enjoy. As director of visitors' programs for the University of Michigan's STAMPS School of Art & Design, Hamilton organizes the school's popular Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

"It's sort of like this 3-D Rubik's Cube kind of thing when you're trying to put it together, and it's incredibly difficult because you lose pieces here and there," Hamilton said. "People want to line up, and you think, 'We can't have this come after that.' But somehow, miraculously, it ends up all coming together."

The free guest speaker series takes place Thursdays at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre (with a few exceptions) and features artists that represent a spectrum of media, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

The winter 2017 season gets underway this week and follows on a successful fall 2016 run, which included a surprisingly chatty Mark Mothersbaugh (Hamilton had been told the artist, composer, and Devo frontman could be shy in front of crowds, but not so here: "He just told story after story," she said. "We could barely get him off the stage") and the series' first foray into hosting satellite events in neighboring Ypsilanti.

Hamilton said the big challenge every season is making it "incredibly diverse" in terms of mediums people work with and perspectives they offer, as well as gender, and race.

In addition to breadth, the series goes for depth, Hamilton said, poking at the big questions of gender issues, race, science, and technology, and how those affect all of us, "so we can have a conversation about it, before all of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of everything."

For example, the biohacking work of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who creates portrait sculptures based on analyzed genetic material left behind in public spaces, like old gum or cigarette butts.

"This work using people's DNA is really sort of cutting edge and making people start to think about things they haven't thought about before in terms of what we're unlocking with all of this," Hamilton said.

And then there's stuff that's just really cool, like Jonathan Barnbrook, the graphic designer best known for his work with David Bowie over the last 30 years.

Barnbrook designed the critically acclaimed art for Bowie's last and final album, Blackstar, which was released on Bowie's 69th birthday, January 8, 2016. The iconic rockstar died two days later from liver cancer.

"I'd actually been talking to him before Bowie passed, but in that moment, all of a sudden the whole thing takes on a whole nother meaning," Hamilton said.

Blackstar's artwork is nominated for a Grammy, and Barnbrook's talk is the Thursday before the awards ceremony.

"We always love it when those kind of things line up, and it feels like the Penny Stamps season has got the pulse of the moment here," Hamilton said. "Some things are planned, and others are just serendipity."

Another serendipitous moment comes this month, when comics journalist and graphic novelist Joe Sacco talks about "Galvanizing Social Justice Through Comics" on the eve of president-elect Donald Trump's inauguration.

Best known for his foreign correspondence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Sacco teamed with author Chris Hedges for 2012's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Documenting the plights of America's Indian reservations, inner cities, manufacturing centers, farmworkers, and coal miners, the book could have been a collection of headlines from 2016.

Hamilton said a similar, unexpected connection was made by chance last November, when Stamps hosted three events by Athi-Patra Ruga, all during election week. The South African performance artist's playful, colorful, work explores themes of cultural identity, utopia, and dystopia.

"It ended up that Athi was sort of the perfect antidote to all of the topsy-turvyness of what happened at the election," Hamilton said. "I think people that attended those events really got a lot out of that."

For some lesser-known names that shouldn't be overlooked this season, Hamilton points to Andrew Logan, an art scene veteran and something of a creative guru to the likes of Bowie, Brian Eno, and several other musicians and celebrities over his long career.

"He's really just an incredible, eccentric individual who has lived a very creative life in art and has inspired a lot of people to follow their creative path, and I'm super pleased and honored to have him on the season," she said.

By chance, Logan's talk is followed by Saya Woolfalk, who Hamilton sees as a sort-of spiritual successor to him. The New York-based artist is said to "create worlds" using science fiction and fantasy to reimagine societies.

More surprises and unexpected connections are sure to come, but you may have to forgive Hamilton if you put her on the spot to name them when the season's wrapped, especially with a new one around the corner to tend to.

"Once a season starts it's like a roller coaster," she said. "By the time you get to the end of it, you feel like you've got whiplash or something."

Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Winter 2017
Events are free and held at Michigan Theatre on Thursdays starting at 5:10 p.m. unless noted otherwise; each speaker's name below is hyperlinked to the Stamps' page for the event:

➥ Jan. 12 - Robert Platt, interdisciplinary artist and STAMPS assistant professor of Art & Design,
➥ Jan. 17 - Meredith Monk, composer, singer, director, choreographer, and filmmaker (Tuesday)
➥ Jan. 19 - Joe Sacco, graphic novelist and comics journalist
➥ Jan. 26 - Hank Willis Thomas, photo conceptual artist
➥ Feb. 2- Sara Hendren, artist, designer and researcher
➥ Feb. 9 - Jonathan Barnbrook, graphic designer
➥ Feb. 16 - Ping Chong, director, playwright, and pioneer of media use in theater
➥ March 9 - Andrew Logan, artist and "scene maker"
➥ March 16 - Saya Woolfolk, multimedia artist and "world builder"
➥ March 20 - Tracey Snelling, installation artist (Monday, at UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium)
➥ March 23 - New Negress Film Society
➥ March 30 - Karim Rashid, product and commercial designer
➥ April 6 - Heather Dewey-Hagborg, transdisciplinary artist and educator
➥ April 19 - Doug Miro, screenwriter (Wednesday, at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit)

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.