Bachelor of Fine Arts alumna Angela Schwab launched a successful career in the arts after graduation and now is designing spaces that inspire community engagement through history, environmental resourcefulness, and creativity. We sat down with Angela and talked with her about her time at CU Boulder and her career trajectory.
I’m from West Virginia and knew I wanted to go to college someplace mountainous. I just couldn't imagine living someplace with only a big sky, I needed a diverse topography. CU Boulder with its hilly campus, green spaces, large trees and charming stone buildings had the right feeling for me. I had taken some ceramic classes in high school and wanted to study art; when I started taking art classes at CU, I was truly inspired and I knew that I wanted to take every class and get to know all the instructors.
The Undergraduate Experience
I loved how the undergraduate and graduate students worked together. As an undergrad I had access to the grad students and as a 19-year-old, that was really exciting. Seeing the graduate students working, I knew that I could keep going with an art practice and their work inspired mine. One of the things I loved about the ceramics program was that as a student, you were encouraged to work in whatever material you wanted, for example, one of the ceramic grad students worked with fabric. Learning from my classmates and being inspired by the work around me was my CU Boulder experience; the studio culture of togetherness kept me invested in the program.
After my undergraduate BFA degree, I had a studio space in Denver and started a ceramics production shop making slip-cast tableware. While my work was well-received - it was published in Dwell magazine, shown in exhibits worldwide, and Umbra produced a plate I designed - it was a lonely practice. I missed the camaraderie of working in a creative studio, and especially the critique of my work that I had gotten in school. My BFA degree had prepared me to receive critical feedback, and I learned how to listen and accept criticism and grow from that insight. Having a solo studio practice helped me realize that I couldn’t work in a vacuum and that I thrive with a social studio culture.
Switching from a studio practice to an architecture practice was easier than I expected. They each have their own unique systems and you have to create a process for thriving within those existing systems. The process of creating - whether with clay or designing a building - is time-consuming and can be all-encompassing; it’s what fills our days and ultimately defines the rhythm of our lives.
The Eternal Optimist
In both ceramics and architecture the work needs to be full of coherent ideas and that becomes the real artistic practice; taking ideas and making a work of art that is beautiful, concise, expressive, and functional. One design principle that we have at AB Studio is to make a building project fit to its physical place and also its place in time/history. We strive to understand the past and the context of the site and adjacent buildings while designing into the future, remaining conscious of construction practices and the use of green materials within a realistic budget. There are so many details and components in architecture, and the challenge is distilling everything down into just the essentials, while keeping it beautiful and expressive. That's where I'm an eternal optimist, there's so much creativity and opportunity to learn and adapt, within every project and also within a career in the arts.
Using what I learned from the ceramics program, the practice of making multiples and iterating ideas, informed my work in the field of architecture. I was making kinetic work, snapping cups together and apart, there was a tactile, moving quality to the work, they were experiential. I took this concept into my architectural work, specifically, how we experience space, as something you move through and occupy with other people, and the materials and textures and light within a space, which is essential to the human experience.
Currently, we are helping a local art center expand their programming space. Working on this project I often think back to the experiences I had at CU, in the galleries, artist studios and classroom spaces and want to create similar opportunities for contemplation, creation, discovery and delight. I think that artistry is essential in design projects. Artists often have an intuitive understanding of proportion, form, material, experience, color, and light, and that knowledge should be applied to any building project or any project really. Designing with experience in mind requires a human touch, an artist’s touch.
Fine Arts and Beyond
I think one of the biggest lessons I learned from ceramics is that there are so many ways it can go wrong! Despite my best efforts, there’s only so much I could control, which forced me to learn to pivot in order to keep moving forward. The fragility of ceramics definitely made me more resilient, and making art is a good way to practice resiliency. You have to be able to release, let go, and move on while continuing to make new work.
By studying fine art and ceramics I realized that it all applied to architecture. These art practices opened me up to accessing a wider range of tools, materials and building methods that impacted what I did in graduate school and even in my practice now. In school when I made my art projects I felt I needed to work with many different materials, but it meant that I needed to figure out how to do it and do it safely. My instructors connected me with other departments so I could access the metal milling studio and glass-cutting equipment; getting to work with other makers exposed me to new and inspiring methods and processes. I then used this knowledge to my advantage in architecture graduate school and beyond. In grad school I was using the laser cutter to cut felt and fabric. I made paper pop-ups of my building designs. I quilted drawings for my architecture projects - not exactly the given assignment - but doing it my way and I'm so thankful that my instructors were open to me working this way. When engineers and designers and crafters and artists trade techniques, it makes everyone’s work so much more interesting.
What’s on the horizon for AB Studio?
My business partner Ben Heppe and I have some really exciting adaptive reuse projects underway. We just wrapped up a remodel and new branding for a motel in Idaho Springs, and we’re in the early stages of helping friends open a neighborhood bike and coffee shop in a converted house. These are our favorite types of projects - working with clients who want to breathe new life into existing buildings. It’s such a fun puzzle to see how to take an existing space and adapt it to a completely new use - again with optimism!
We’re also working with Foothills Art Center in Golden to expand their gallery and artist studio spaces into a historic boarding house. The 150-year old stone building was historically an important gathering spot in Golden, and with the improvements, we’ve designed - accessible bathrooms, an elevator, code-compliant stairs - the building will be able to adapt to continue to serve as a gathering place for generations. It’s the project of a lifetime, and we’re so excited about creating a space that our entire community will get to use!