Discovering, defining the graphic arts

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at 

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

I was talking to a recent college graduate and asked what she had majored in. When she said her degree was in graphic arts, I wasn’t really certain what the term meant or what she was going to do with such a degree.

I contacted Douglas Dowd at Washington University. He is a professor of art and American culture there as well as the faculty director of the Douglas Dowd Modern Graphic History housed in special collections at the university library. He said that the term “graphic art” is too broad to be as descriptive as it should be. Graphic arts point to a wide range of art forms that are usually two dimensional and can include calligraphy, photography, drawing, painting, printmaking, lithography, typography, silk-screen painting and even more.

When walking through the Craft Alliance studios in Grand Center a while back, I noticed a department of graphic design. When I asked the instructor, Aaron Holderman, about what he was doing, he said, “Graphic design and computer-aided design are defined by using technology in the production and reproduction of human artifacts. Historically this has taken on many forms, changing with emerging technologies. In my current work, I use computer design software to create 30 models.”

Thinking more about the original question, I looked up definitions of graphic art on the internet and found that throughout history, technological inventions have shaped the development of graphic art.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Going back to Egyptian times, hieroglyphics on papyrus were used to communicate. In the Middle Ages, scribes wrote manuscripts preserving the religious belief with room for drawings as inserts. Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical device known as the printing press in 1450.  His printing press facilitated the mass production of text and graphic art and eventually, replaced manual transcriptions altogether.

In later years, the invention and popularity of film and television changed graphic art through the additional aspect of motion as advertising agencies attempted to use kinetics to their advantage. And of course, the inventor of the personal computer changed the entire scene.

At a talk given recently by Professor Dowd at Washington University, he discussed the Modern Graphic History Library. In it is the Walt Reed Illustration Archive, which features more than 1,400 artists in 140 artwork pieces, 8,000 periodicals and 250,000 tear sheets from popular magazines from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. Dowd called the Walt Reed Illustration Archive “a goldmine of exploring visual culture.”

Within this collection are the periodicals that Al Parker’s family donated to the collection. Nowhere is there a place for periodicals such as those of Al Parker, who was considered a rock star among illustrators of this nature.

Also, at Washington U., is the Kranzberg Illustrated Book Studio, directed by Professor Ken Botnick, who is a nationally recognized book artist. His students take a leap back from computer-generated graphics, instead using equipment of 100 years ago to make letterpress handmade books. One of the students in the book studio said that he was a communications major at first, but wanted to take a course in graphic design to better understand the field of communication.

St. Louis is also home to two nationally recognized comic book artists, Ted Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch. And let’s not forget David Steward ll’s Lion Forge, which employs many comic book graphic artists. 

So, what does all this mean and does it answer the question, “What does a degree in graphic arts mean?” 

To me it means that this young graduate has a multitude of options to use graphic art to communicate ideas and make an impact on society in one way or another, whether it be on a poster, creating a logo, hand creating an art book, or illustrating a magazine. The sky is the limit in the field of graphic arts.

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at