State of the Arts: What we leave to the students

Visitors view the senior exhibition in the University Art Gallery. Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Executive Staff

The week of Reclamation, Ivey Dahlstrom (C’19), Violet Hoagland (C’19), Barton Perkins (C’19), and Brianna Young (C’19) arrived at the University Art Gallery (UAG) armed with their respective artistic pieces. Together, they set up their senior exhibition, having discussed beforehand how each of the pieces would be showcased in a cohesive manner. The process took them the better part of the day and the next.

“It was tricky,” said Perkins. “We talked for a while and we came up with ideas. We decided that since Ivey and I had both done honors shows that we’d put more emphasis on Bri and Violet’s work, so we let them take the reins.”

The result was a wonderful blend of artistic talent. From sculpture exploring the human body to reclaimed objects, the exhibition utilized a series of mediums ranging from photography to collage to multimedia painting.

Students, faculty, staff, and family members of the artists trooped into the UAG almost as soon as the exhibition opened. Over the next hour or so, the conversation showed no signs of stopping. Visitors left their coats on the chairs in front of Guerry Auditorium and spent ample time observing the different art pieces and congratulating the respective artists on their work.

Mac Bouldin (C’19) marvelled at the energy in the room, remarking especially on the composition of the people who were there. Usually, for UAG exhibition openings, the visitors tend to consist of community members, but here and now, for a student-led project, the gallery had drawn its desired demographic: students.

In a previous State of the Arts, Dr. Jeffrey Thompson and Luke Williamson (C’21) both mentioned the importance of the role of student projects to promote artistic engagement. According to Thompson, student-led projects, whether it is dance programming, or theatre shows, or art exhibitions, “generate ripple effects across campus, which can be very positive and very popular”.

Perpetual Motion, Sewanee’s student-run dance organization, for example, is a staple in the school’s calendar. Entirely student-run, student-funded, and student-led, Perpetual Motion, affectionately known as PMo, showcases a diverse range of performances which is often the highlight of the spring semester.

“I think it’s an inspiring thing that PMo is entirely student led,” said Sadira Hayes (C’21), who took part in a performance this year. “I think it helps transform students into leaders, enables artistic creativity, and brings together the entire Sewanee community.”

Certainly the turnout for Perpetual Motion is consistently high, with students cheering on their friends from the audience and with faculty members attending to support their students. PMo is also an event to which the Office of Admissions regularly brings prospective students, as part of their Perspective Sewanee experience.

Perhaps its appeal as a student initiative makes it an ideal event to draw prospective students to Sewanee, to demonstrate that there is a platform for students to participate in when they arrive. However, it fosters a false hope that perhaps every student initiative will attract the same the kind of energy and turnout.

PMo differs in that it involves the entire Sewanee community. It was Hayes’ first time performing in PMo, and while she went into it not knowing what to expect, she considers the experience “an absolute delight.”

“It is one of the most supportive and inclusive organizations on campus that I have been a part of,” she said. “I am very happy I was able to be a part of it this year.”

Over on the other side of campus, the Theatre Department is currently showcasing its own share of senior projects. The first was Lydia Klaus’ (C’19) The Fate of the Fork, a play about the marital troubles of two fork trillionaires, Felix and Felicia Fourchette. Klaus, who co-wrote, co-directed, and performed in the show itself as Felix Fourchette, found the process “highly rewarding,” but at the same time “very time consuming and intensive.”

She began planning the show a year in advance, since she wanted to produce an original piece. Speaking on the challenges that she faced while trying to mount the production, she had to coordinate with other theatre artists over the past few months and noted the busyness that is rampant towards the end of the school year.

“I was very fortunate to have a great network of support,” she said. “Everyone involved in the project brought so much enthusiasm and creativity to the project. I could not have done it without them.”

The Fate of the Fork drew decent crowds, especially on their closing night, when friends, faculty members, and community members came to the show. The next two senior projects are Balazs Borosi’s (C’19) production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens, followed by Karissa Wheeler’s (C’19) Dreaming on a Starry Night the week after.

While these senior projects tend to be successful, the time and effort it takes to mount a student production cannot be understated. Weeks of rehearsal, set building, artistic collaboration and coordination demand a lot from the directors, the actors, and the stage crew. Klaus notes that there are six shows being produced in the theatre department this April, and that each demand “so much time and dedication.”

The concentration and the engagement of the arts that comes with student projects at the end of the semester begs the question as to how this energy can be maintained throughout the school year. It makes sense that most of the student-led artistic initiatives culminate at the end of the school year, since most of these productions require extensive planning and schedule workarounds, especially for events like PMo.

For art exhibitions in particular, Perkins believes that students can benefit from more venues on campus for student art. Since the UAG and the Carlos Gallery at Nabit tend to feature the work of visiting artists or professors during the school year, there are few spaces around campus that will exhibit student work.

Perkins would like to see the University put funding in a venue where every few weeks a year, there are different students putting on art.

“Having a formal space would be very helpful,” he said, mentioning Stirling’s as an arts space where student work currently hangs. “It’s just my pipe dream though.”