Faculty expertise on display in new publications

By Kim Catley

Faculty in several VCUarts departments have recently published books that offer their innovative practices and expertise to the fields of dance, music and design.

Dance Professor E. Gaynell Sherrod illustrates the pedagogy of Black dance artists in the 1930s and 40s. Rex Richardson, professor of trumpet and Jazz Studies, outlines a routine for a semester of deep, focused practice. And, Graphic Design Professor David Shields serves as researcher, writer and designer for a new history of early American typography and the work of Rob Roy Kelly. 

“Each of these books embody a profound investment of scholarly attention, time, research and practice in service to the authors’ respective fields,” said Lea Marshall, Director of Research for VCUarts. 

“The depth of insight and information collected here will be a treasure for researchers; enriching the foundations of our collective cultural knowledge and understanding in dance, music and design.”

The Dance Griots – Reading the Invisible Script by Elgie Gaynell Sherrod

In The Dance Griots – Reading the Invisible Script, Elgie Gaynell Sherrod examines how Black dance pioneers in the 1930s and 40s melded modern ideas with old traditions to create a dance movement that is foundational to teaching to this day. In particular, she looks at 13 prominent dancers, including Katherine Dunham, Asadata Dafora, Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield.

Sherrod explains how the Black dance movement ran parallel to the white modern dance movement, which often borrowed from Black culture.

“They were using [Black dancers] to understand how to move to certain pieces of music, understanding how to interpret pieces of music and aspects and aesthetics of African American culture that they wove into their work.” 

However, these Black artists were often marginalized and had to learn an invisible script to move their dance forward. This provided a foundation for their own schools and the preservation of African-derived dance. Most notably, luminary creator and choreographer, Katherine Dunham, started a school of dance and developed her Dunham Technique, which is still used today.

“One of her aims was to validate herself and others, to educate the world about the value of African-derived dance and music forms,” Sherrod said. “And to create a company of dancers who would have a place to train, perform, do research, teach and just go out into the world and do this kind of work.”

100 Days of Trumpet Practice by Rex Richardson

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, trumpet and Jazz Studies professor Rex Richardson went from spending months on the road touring to an empty schedule. To fill his newfound time, he tapped into a trending social media challenge, #100DaysOfPractice, which encouraged musicians to develop new practice habits. He started digging into the pedagogy and science of practice and, after talking to his publisher, Richardson realized he had the subject of a book.

100 Days of Trumpet Practice explores the attributes of a successful practice routine, and includes essays about the philosophy of deliberate practice, the importance of careful listening and how to address stage fright. He also identifies 10 skill areas—from good articulation to finger technique to sound production—and compiles a series of progressively more challenging practice routines for each area. 

“The book addresses these important skills,” Richardson said, “but with a variety of exercises so that you keep creative engagement involved in the process and avoid stagnation over time.”

While the book is based on the #100DaysOfPractice challenge, Richardson said the timeframe aligns with the structure of a typical semester—and often reflects his own approach to teaching trumpet students. 

“The book is honing and formalizing the way I practice,” he said. “It forced me to develop my own ideas and improve on the general system I use.” 

The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection: A History and Catalog by David Shields

In the 1950s, Graphic Design educator Rob Roy Kelly started fielding questions from his students about 19th-century wood type. In searching for the answers, he realized little research existed—so Kelly set out to fill the gap. His book, American Wood Type, 1828-1900, was published in 1969 and was the first attempt to uncover the origins of the decorative type that was often used in early American advertising.

Kelly also assembled a comprehensive collection of 18,829 pieces of wood type that he sold to the Museum of Modern Art, and was later donated to the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). In 2004, VCUarts Graphic Design Professor David Shields became the custodian of that collection while teaching at UT Austin.

Shortly before Shields left for VCUarts in 2012, UT Austin Press approached him about producing a book about the collection. Shields published The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection: A History and Catalog in the summer. The book expands on Kelly’s work with more historical information about the types, and details his process for acquiring the collection, including the networks of librarians, archivists and collectors he brought together along the way.

In addition to researching and writing the manuscript, Shields was also the book’s designer. “It’s rare to have that sort of experience,” Shields said. “It was a fantastic process to touch every single part of it.”