Behind the scenes at the Senior Exhibition
We dropped in at the Bates College Museum of Art one recent afternoon as Bates’ graduating studio art majors were putting the finishing touches on the 2012 Senior Exhibition.
First impressions were misleading. Although the artwork was all in its place, the museum’s sunlit main gallery was deserted. Dust dulled the floorboards and gear was lying around like it didn’t care — hammers, electric drill, extension cords, photo floodlights, a scissors lift.
But the ghost town aspect was quickly dispelled when we went downstairs and found the 14 artists, all women, having a final meeting with Robert Feintuch, senior lecturer in art and visual culture. Feintuch, himself a well-respected painter, advises the studio art majors during the winter semester. Also a well-established exhibiting artist, associate professor Pamela Johnson is the autumn adviser.
For Deb Mack, finishing touches included cleaning up broken glass scattered around her work. There was even more broken glass contained in this sculptural installation, combined with terracotta sculptures of fallen leaves — about 200 — and three terracotta human hands, all on a white platform rising about six inches off the floor.
“It’s a commentary about humans and nature” — specifically, the human assault on the natural world, explained Mack, of Irvington, N.Y.
A double major in art and biology, Mack hopes to attend medical school after Bates. Her route to this artwork began with an interest in anatomy and in sculpting human hands, which led to leaves.
She originally considered melting glass to use somehow in the piece, but “broken glass seems to better emphasize the fragility of the situation resulting from human-nature interactions.”
Also OK with breakage, up to a point (sorry), was Catherine Elliott of Edina, Minn. A double major in studio art and politics, Elliott is a ceramicist whose stoneware bowls show a kind of rough elegance, or elegant roughness, and a subtle hand with color.
Elliott has studied at Bates with Paul Heroux, widely known for his exquisite ceramic vessels, and she shares his dedication to making work both beautiful and usable. This attitude accepts the possibility of breakage in the line of duty.
“If my mother calls and says she’s broken the cat bowl” — that is one pampered cat — “I just say, ‘Great, I can make you a new one.’ ”
One thing Kit Sheridan of Providence, R.I., learned about her art during 2011-12 is to make less of it. Robert Feintuch, the senior lecturer who works with the studio art majors during the spring semester, at one point jokingly accused Sheridan of “horror vacui” — Latin for a fear of empty space — which led her to crowd her canvasses with pigment.
So she eased up and left more white space. “That was one of the best things I got from him,” said Sheridan. In fact, though her works aren’t hung in the order of their making, you can see the progress from dense to open to happy middle ground.
Always self-conscious about making abstract art — was her work “just doodles,” she sometimes wondered — Sheridan turned a corner this year thanks to Feintuch and Johnson. “I’ve become far more confident with abstraction.”
A Mainer from Belfast, Claire Banks compiles paint chips, Mylar, wallpaper, newspaper and paint into abstracts that explore interactions between colors and between hard and soft boundaries. Like Sheridan, Banks too got transformative guidance from her advisers.
Johnson encouraged her to consider the long tradition of using found objects in art. Feintuch “had confidence in me and encouraged me to push forward and trust my gut, just to try things out and see what happened,” she says.
“It’s been a process to push myself to my limit and then let go of control. That’s when the artwork starts to happen.”
Two of the exhibiting seniors are photographers. Katharine Maxwell of Newton, Mass., belongs to the cult of the Holga, a low-cost, low-tech camera cherished for the wayward focus, light leaks and other unpredictable effects it imparts to an image.
Maxwell’s Holga explores the obscure yet compelling interplay between emotion, memory and physical spaces. Her mother’s work as an architect sensitized Maxwell to the forms of created spaces — “but instead of how architecture can be designed, what interests me is how it can be experienced and interpreted,” Maxwell said.
Sometimes quite representational, sometimes not so much, Maxwell’s evocative images at first seem depopulated. But once you really look, “there’s a clear presence of people,” she says. Yes, that is a foot, and yes, she did shoot it while taking a bath.
Where Maxwell explored inner responses to outer places, a photo installation by Liana Blum from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., layered up external references like pancakes.
In her black and white images depicting mostly women, somewhat undressed, Blum looked to 14th-century painter Simone Martini for his treatment of haloes; to fashion photography for both emotional and print-surface tonality; and to early religious symbols — moths, dragonflies, flowers — of “temporality, preciousness and transience,” she says.
“The thing I love about creating art is that I can keep putting different thoughts and references into a piece, and then see how they all play off each other,” she says. “In the end, people pick up on different elements and are able to derive meaning from the work that is individual to them.”
Ellie McDonald of Manchester, Mass., was more linear in her artistic time travel. In pencil and charcoal, she drew two images for each piece: a copy of a portrait by a master artist such as Dürer or Degas paired with her own interpretation of that image, drawn from a live model.
For McDonald, the project was explicitly about strengthening her eye and hand. “Doing the copies helped me immensely,” she said. “It helped me understand the idealization of the subject. And it helped with my draftsmanship and articulating parts of the face I hadn’t noticed before.”
It was an exercise in rigor for her models, too, who had to hold poses for long sessions. Two hours was the longest she would push them, McDonald said. And while she was drawing, if the pose permitted, “I’d let them watch TV or sleep.”