State of the Arts: The lack of a public arts space in Sewanee

Pictured: Professor Shelley MacLaren. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Executive Staff

Luke Williamson (C’21) came to Sewanee intending to major in visual arts. He took an art specific tour, and saw the Nabit Art Building and the University Art Gallery (UAG). But there seemed to be something amiss.

“My biggest impression was feeling that the art community is internal,” recalls Williamson. “Things just felt secluded and art was very disconnected from the rest of campus.”

Given that the UAG is tucked away in Guerry and that the Nabit Art Building is a fair walk from central campus, the disconnection that Williamson feels is not unwarranted. Architecturally, the buildings in Sewanee are inwardly driven, which practically ensures that the activities that occur within these arts spaces are contained.

“More and more is about relationship building,” says Dr. Shelley MacLaren, director of the UAG; “and comfort level.”

Knowing where the Gallery is and understanding that it is a place for students, MacLaren notes, helps students utilize the space more, outside of the Gallery Walk, the hot chocolate parties, and artist talks.

Currently, the UAG is home to Jiha Moon’s Familiar Faces; the Carlos Gallery in the Nabit Art Building to Carris Adams’ Sweepstakes Red; and the University Archives, which Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, associate professor and department chair of art history, considers as Sewanee’s third formal arts space, to Historic Homes. Thompson notes, however, that the Archives was constructed to hold rare books and documents pertaining to Sewanee’s history, but has since taken up the task of serving as another arts space on campus.

But is it enough? All three of these spaces do not receive enough foot traffic, and barring events that are hosted in these spaces, the Sewanee community seems to pass by them without a second thought of entering the spaces and engaging with them. MacLaren also notes that most of the works of art that hang around campus are primarily decorative and do not invite or inspire meaningful conversation.

“It’s an interesting problem,” says MacLaren; “we don’t have yet a space that everyone passes through.”

Bringing art pieces to places like Fowler, McClurg Dining Hall, or the library presents its own set of problems, not least of them the reactions that certain art pieces prompt in different people. Thompson and MacLaren both recall the CLITERACY controversy of 2015, where a sculpture of a clitoris by conceptual artist Sophia Wallace sparked both outrage as well as a dialogue on sex-positivity. The event and its consequent conversations were previously covered by The Purple.

The CLITERACY sculpture, brought to Sewanee by then-residents of the Bairnwick Women’s Center, was set up on the first floor of duPont Library, which ascertained that the sculpture would not only be seen, but talked about.

Referring to the CLITERACY sculpture, Thompson says, “When public expression has taken place, it’s come with a lot of hand-wringing. It became a kind of a more hot-button issue because of the anxiety around having art as a centerpiece for discussion.”

He continues: “It probably makes some who remember it a little gun-shy to take up the issue of public sculpture for whatever that’s worth.”

What Sewanee might benefit from is a featured piece of architecture that invites students, faculty, and community members to “come see the visual arts.” According to Thompson, a building dedicated entirely to the visual arts, housing a gallery, with a glass atrium and projected pieces that continue on a loop 24/7, would provide an additional external opportunity for students to engage with the arts.

“I’m curious as to why in the course of some hundred-odd years that there hasn’t been an initiation of this kind of thing,” says Thompson, “and a lot of it has to do with that component of the campus which people don’t want to fracture.”

Thompson remembers how, when Rebel’s Rest burned down in 2014, there was a push to tear down Fulford Hall to build a student center. The indignation that followed that suggestion resulted in the “Save Fulford Hall” campaign, and today Fulford Hall retains its function as the Office of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Marketing and Communications.

“I’m not one for tearing down historical buildings,” says Thompson, “but it’s a college campus, and evolution is [necessary].”

The hesitance with which the Sewanee community approaches change can be attributed to the seductive beauty of the campus. The Neo-Gothic stone structures that give the university its “Hogwarts” epithet serve as a draw for prospective students, which brings a contingent of people to the University who love and enjoy the general aesthetic. While deeming it a remarkable place for contemplation and for study, Thompson wonders if Sewanee might benefit from something – a piece of art, perhaps – that “might rupture that homogeneity.”

Williamson agrees: “I don’t think [the arts piece] needs to match the aesthetic that Sewanee tries to extend, but I think we can find art that neither furthers Sewanee’s aesthetic nor comfortably chafes against it. [Something that] fits in but doesn’t fit in too much.”

Because a sculpture program at Sewanee would be a challenge to curate and would be costly in terms of maintenance and upkeep, Williamson, an English major and an arts history minor, suggests a monument or a space where students can express themselves through art.

“At a lot of college campuses, [for example] when the Hiroshima bombing happened, as a way of protesting or voicing concerns, [students] would paint,” he says. “That would cost next to nothing for Sewanee to implement.”

But Williamson is aware of the mentalities that surround the disruption of Sewanee’s aesthetic. The loveliness of the architecture and the natural beauty that surrounds the Domain demands that whatever art piece that ends up in any of the spaces around campus be engaging as well as different: something that would rupture the “homogenous, very ecclesiastical, ‘Oxford’ type space,” according to Thompson.

The answer, according to both Williamson and Thompson, might be in student-initiated projects. Thompson describes the “two realms” of a college education: one concerning the events and projects initiated by faculty and staff members, which students do not connect as strongly to, and the other where students take the initiative and create projects that “generate ripple effects across campus.”

“I’ve seen arts senior presentations packed with people cheering their classmates on with an energy that’s never there when a professional artist comes to give their talk,” says Thompson. “I wonder if the secret sauce is somewhere in that mixture.”

Williamson echoes his sentiments.

“Putting the power in student hands is something you have to do if you want to make change [in Sewanee] which is frustrating but also empowering,” he says. “Art should be a priority. We’re a liberal arts institution and our arts should be a strength.”