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Portrait of the Artists

Working next door to one another, but painting in styles a chasm apart, two art seniors put “joyousness to the wall” in Olin Arts Center.

Story and photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen

Every winter I photograph one or two senior art majors working in their Olin Arts Center studios, preparing for the annual senior thesis exhibition in the Museum of Art. Sometime in January, I bump into studio thesis adviser Robert Feintuch in the Den and say, “Who looks good this year?” Choose this one or that he says. Any will make for interesting pictures. He’s always right.

Putting faces to names, I scan the facebook and pick two: a woman wearing notable eyeglasses and a guy with wild hair. This year, I learn, they work in adjacent studios and are in at the same time of day. How convenient. I’ll need to lug my lights and lenses across campus only once. The first turns out to be a famous juggler on campus, Brent McCoy, a veteran coach at Circus Smirkus, where kids train with circus pros. This Vermonter’s career goals include painting and performing (his work would be chosen for the juried Next Generation exhibit at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport). His thesis project comprises a series of self-portraits — lots of time in front of the mirror — in which he says he is “learning to paint.” Exploring the theme of masculinity, the artist is skimpily dressed in many of the paintings. Sometimes he appears fully clothed, because he would like to improve his skills in painting drapery. McCoy uses muted color. Relying on outdoor “cold” light for some three-dimensional effects in his painting, he huddles in a dark corner of the studio he shares with three other artists, as far away from the windows as he can get. He works by the light of a little, 40-watt lamp so ugly only a mother could love it (in fact, his mother used it in college), pausing now and then to compare himself with the canvas or to check the painting’s reflection in a mirror across the room. From a distance, you might think you are looking at a beautifully composed photograph.

Thirty minutes later I have more pictures than I know what to do with. (The woes of digital shooting: Rather than drop off film at a downtown camera lab, I will later transfer 535 JPEG images from a one-gigabite IBM Microdrive to my computer desktop.) Bidding McCoy farewell, I stroll next door and find Julia Stawiski. A Michiganite, she’s also trying self-portraiture, but with an approach that is day to McCoy’s night. “In his work Brent treats himself as a character who plays the central role in a humorous narrative,” Feintuch says. “I think Julia is more interested in using portraiture to explore formal elements like color and shape as expressive ends in themselves.”

Even in winter, a bank of south-facing windows overlooking Lake Andrews floods her shared studio space with brilliant sunlight. No photo strobes needed here. In a departure from traditional representation, Stawiski explores the geometry of brilliant greens, reds, and yellows that converge to form the image of her lanky figure draped over a chair. She follows herself in a mirror decorated like an exotic snake, slapping paint to paper on her right side. A CD of cheerful mid-’60s pop music (think “More Today than Yesterday” by Spiral Staircase) keeps her spirits in tune with the bright ambience of the room. (I am instantly nostalgic.) She sings as she paints, lending what Pierre Auguste Renoir called “joyousness to the wall.” It’s exciting but a little scary too, she says, with her thesis deadline only weeks away. Unsure of her final outcome, she’s confident the show — representing the hearts and minds of 15 majors exhibiting in the museum’s upper and lower galleries — will be a hit. The museum’s most heavily attended show, it always is.

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