In his soundproofed office, on the dark wall behind Professor of Art Bryan Springer, hangs a single piece of artwork: a Civil-War-style banjo he built himself. The wood for the instrument came from walnut trees on an abandoned farm.
Springer, who instructs Graphic Design courses, participates in Civil War Reenactments, a hobby that led him to discover pre-Civil War secular banjo music, which was considered the rock-and-roll of the time.
“It was a little politically incorrect, but interesting, sort of a novelty,” Springer said, laughing.
This discovery led him to build the entire banjo — save the original pot. His oldest son, who now joins him occasionally in the campouts and reenactments, accompanies Springer on the violin as he picks his walnut banjo.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Springer, who is currently working with the president’s office to create maps for Volume 20 of Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn’s Churchill biography, described his discovery of Hillsdale as a “twist of fate.”
“I was really interested in communicating visually,” Springer said. “I had a relative who was a Hillsdale grad at the time, and introduced me to the school. And I really loved it, of course, like most people do who come to our campus, it’s really alluring and beautiful.”
Springer has been Hillsdale’s graphic design professor since 2008, but his connection with the school goes further. After graduating from Hillsdale with a bachelor’s degree in 1994, Springer pursued illustration with pastels at Savannah College of Art and Design, where he earned his master’s and got into graphic design.
While he didn’t intend to stay at the college for his full academic career, Springer said professor of art Sam Knecht played a major role in influencing him to stay all four years.
“I was just amazed at his instruction and how much I didn’t know and still needed to know in terms of foundations of art,” Springer said. “At that point I realized I would go to graduate school because I wanted more schooling, but also the possibility to teach somewhere down the line in my career.”
His love of history doesn’t end with Civil War Reenacting — Springer indicated a lot of his design inspiration comes from the same angle. “I get really excited when I see beautiful typography, or illustrated type. And I love historical typography: old things, textures of old paper…examples like that,” Springer said.
Fellow art professor Barbara Bushey described Springer as the one who “always keeps everything together.” Springer balances his time teaching with freelance work for Hillsdale’s marketing department, branding the online courses as they are released, and working with External Affairs to develop slides for the Center for Constructive Alternatives.
“He’s got all kinds of interests, from Civil War reenactment to — well, maybe they’re related — bourbon,” Bushey said. Springer confirmed he always drinks a bourbon neat, occasionally with a drop of water, and though Hillsdale County doesn’t always have a huge variety available, he admits to enjoying many brands.
While history inspires his design aesthetic, Springer’s passion is to “educate people in visual literacy… There is so much [material] out there…And how do you present that information well? Good design is necessary in a world with so much information,” Springer said.
Springer did not come here with immediate family connections, yet Hillsdale has become a significant part of his personal history: It’s where he met his wife, a 1995 graduate, who is now pregnant with their fifth child.
Springer did move out to California briefly, but returned after about six months.
“We decided to come back because we thought that family was more important,” Springer said. They moved to Ann Arbor and have remained in the area since.
“He is a marvelous colleague,” Bushey said, “He’s always ready to help in the department in any way, shape, or form that he can, so I certainly appreciate it from that perspective. In the classroom he does a really excellent job, he’s got really strong standard drawing skills. He also does lots of freelance work on his own, so he is actively designing stuff, so he knows what he’s talking about…And of course he was a student here, so he certainly understands the college in a way that not everybody does.”
Not all of his designing is for work — Springer also makes clever family Christmas cards, to the enjoyment of the other faculty.
“Every year he does his own Christmas card, and it’s always something spectacular,” Bushey said. “I seem to recall one year was like, headshots of the whole family, but individually fit into things… I don’t know, it was just cool.”
In a true liberal-arts spirit, Springer encourages his students to diversify their interests, too.
“I encourage my students to be able to take the drawing to learn how to see, and have that inform their digital work,” Springer said, emphasising the importance of housing the study of graphic design under the framework of the Fine Arts.
When Springer was at Hillsdale, the art courses were predominately Art History, Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture.
“The main thrust,” Springer said, “was learning to see, learning how to draw from masters’ work, and also putting the history of art into perspective in terms of the Western Heritage, and how Naturalism, or Realism, is important in the classical education of an artist.”
Though much has changed in the art since then, the focus is still the same. “I talk about as a creative person, having a cup, and…you’re constantly pouring it out, for yourself and for other people,” Springer said. “And it’s draining, right? So we have to find that creative influence or inspiration to fill it back up.”