Edward Collings, art professor and the longest-serving professor at Columbia College, shares almost everything with students.
This spring, Collings was invited to exhibit his photography at the Landmark Visions photography exhibition, a celebration of Columbia, Mo., landmarks. He had snapped a series of photos of now-departed Columbia landmarks in the last month of the country's bicentennial year of 1976 using a 6x9cm Horseman field camera.
So when pondering which photo to submit, Collings thought, why take another photo? When I have whole series?
But which one?
His students voted for "Zesto," a stark black and white photo of a Zesto ice cream stand that stood on the business loop. The show's judges awarded him $300 for it, too.
His students wanted him to share the bounty, or at least take them out for breakfast, a suggestion he successfully resisted.
This bicentennial series consist of deceptively simple photos of small commercial buildings. Straight lines slash the horizon in a classic, formal composition made stark in black and white. These portraits are more poignant because these vanished landmarks are not halfway around the world but in Columbia, Mo.:
- a Davison gas station, gas 52.9 cents a gallon
- a Clark gas station with a uniformed attendant filling up the tank of a 1970s Detroit behemoth from the rear
- the Shack, a University of Missouri-Columbia dive immortalized in the comic strip Beetle Bailey
- Jim's paint store on South Ninth Street, with girls in bell bottoms.
Is her métier photography, ceramics or painting?
“No,” says Collings. “She is going for a degree in forensic science. I think she got interested after watching the CSI series.”
Collings earned a bachelor's degree in art education and master's of fine arts in ceramics, both from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He initially taught high school in Higginsville, Mo., and in the St. Louis area before deciding he would rather teach at the college level.
A ceramics show at the University of Missouri caught the attention of art professor emeritus Sid Larson, who hired him to teach the young women of Christian College in 1969. Collings says Larson was looking for a “3-D” man, someone with mastery of ceramics and other plastic mediums.
Larson got a whole lot more than that. In the past 40 years Collings has taught, created and advised three generations of Christian and Columbia College students as art chair (10 years); in a funeral home, in what is now the St. Clair Hall mail room and in Wightman Hall, once a virtually unfinished warehouse.
Although a ceramics man by education, Collings always had a knack for photography. And details: He established the Columbia College photography program with a $2,000 federal grant, not a trifling sum at the time, enough for a darkroom and 12 cameras.
He has seen art photography transformed from an expensive, elite practice to a wide-open field courtesy of the digital revolution. He is now teaching both digital and analog photography, but says traditional camera supplies are getting harder to find, and that the writing may be on the wall for teaching analog photography.
But ceramics has been so important in his life that he built a log cabin in the early 1970s and a very large kiln near the Lyceum Theater in Arrow Rock, Mo., both of which still stand. He lived in the cabin on and off for years in the summer until the early 1990s. “I became the town potter,” he says, helping create that town's very successful art fair which attracts people from all over the country. “I must have put on hundreds of demonstrations.”
When driving time and other expenses became too much, he sold the cabin and kiln. He says he relished the peace and solitude; he had no phone and took calls at the nearby country store.
Nowadays, Collings' house south of Columbia on a lake has become that retreat. He has access to a pier and a boat. “I can go out on the lake and fish, just get away. It's peaceful.”
And Collings keeps pushing his artistic horizons. His latest pursuit, fusing and slumping glass in a superheated kiln (there are three in his home basement) may require more delicacy than photography. “You do get a lot of breakage,” he admits. In fusing, more akin to ceramics than traditional glass-blowing, glass is cut up into patterns, then placed or slumped into a mold. This mold is then placed in a kiln to anneal at 900 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. The resulting vessels combine different colors and textures of glass that recall Medieval stained glass windows.
Former student Mandy Hagedorn '08, former assistant graphic artist in the Public Relations department and herself a talented photographer, says, “One of the best things about Ed Collings is that he is incredibly knowledgeable about all things photography. He has been doing it for so long; he has seen different trends come and go... One of the things I enjoyed most was taking a special problems class because it allowed me to experiment with mediums that weren't taught in the traditional photo class. I tried to soak up as much information from him as possible because he just knows so much about the medium.
“I don’t think Ed’s classes are only about learning in the classroom — I think they are about getting out and doing what you love while using the tools from class to make it work. It’s easy to see that Ed loves photography, and by teaching, he can share that with his students.”