State of the Arts: The bigger picture

Mandy Moe Pwint Tu poses in front of the Faces of Sewanee exhibit in duPont Library. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

Maria Ramirez (C’20) first noticed the portraits of Sewanee’s founders, early trustees, chancellors, and vice chancellors during a graduation ceremony held for Latinx students in Convocation Hall. The event was organized by the Allies Determined to Empower Latinx Ambitions Now Towards Excellence (ADELANTE).

It was her sophomore year, the day before Commencement. As she stood in that space, one of her professors, Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Arturo Marquez-Gomez, said something that would stay with her for years to come.

“[He noted that] we were Latinx graduates, graduating in Convocation Hall, while all the white portraits are staring down at us,” she said. “We had declared our space. That’s what I think about every time I go to the library now. It’s really powerful.”

Ramirez, of course, is referring to the new exhibit that graces the halls of duPont Library. Faces of Sewanee, spearheaded by Associate Professor of Art Jessica Wohl, and executed by her students in her Topics in Contemporary Painting class, actively engages in the conversation about visual representation. Portraits of students, faculty, staff, and community members are presented in tandem with those of the chancellors and vice-chancellors directly above them.

“I’ve had a lot of people email me and tell me that they feel that it’s made a really big difference in the space and that it’s changed the space for the better,” said Wohl. “They’re very excited about the change and the project in general.”

Al Bardi, chair of the psychology department, is one of the faculty members who have been pleasantly surprised by the exhibit. Bardi recalls that when he first heard about the project, he was a little suspicious. Unsure of whether putting the portraits under the existing ones of the chancellors and vice chancellors would have the right impact, Bardi wondered what the end result would look like.

“I was very pleased when I saw them,” he said. “It really surprised me, in two ways: one, they’re fully in command of the dialogue between the portraits above them and themselves. You don’t feel like this is somebody answering to these portraits; they stand on their own. Another interesting juxtaposition is the color and the lack of formalism. The color and the subjects communicate a lot of positivity, which is also very well done.”

It is the color that both Ramirez and Shirley Li (C’21) first noticed when they entered duPont after Faces of Sewanee was up. Prior to the exhibit, both were firm proponents of the Academic Technology Center (ATC), stating that the ATC was where they tended to work whenever they were in the library. But now that has changed.

“A library shouldn’t just be a serious place that you go to when you need to study,” said Li. “It should be a place that you can calm yourself down and then study. The reason I love [the new portraits] is that they make me feel peaceful when I’m there.”

Before, when there were just the portraits of white male leaders, Li often felt pressured. The portraits were dominant, giant, and realistic, and she felt that they were watching her, which made her “feel uncomfortable.” As a result, she studied in the ATC. 

“Now I’m more likely to study on the first floor with those portraits around me,” she said. “They make me feel better and more comfortable when I study there.”

The sense of calm is also iterated by Ramirez. Drawn by the vibrancy of the new portraits, she remembered feeling “overjoyed, seeing the representation,” stating that “these were not the kind of portraits that you would see around campus.” But more so, she felt calm within the space.

“It just set the tone,” she said. “[It felt] like we’re finally getting to the point at this institution where we’re finally realizing how important representation is and diversity is in order to move forward with our relationships and communications, and realizing that we’re all human beings.”

“I definitely feel happier, more motivated to actually be in the library,” she continued, “because here are people of color, here I am. We’re making progress.”  

However, it is not only individuals on campus who have expressed their admiration for the exhibit. Faculty members on sabbatical have gleaned information about the project on social media platforms and have reached out to Wohl to express their regret that they will not be able to see them. Wohl was then able to give them the good news. 

The portraits, which were originally meant to adorn the space until the end of the academic year, will now remain permanently. The provost’s office has extended an offer to the student artists to purchase their work, and to have Faces of Sewanee in the University’s permanent collection. It is now up to the students to decide whether or not they want to sell their portraits to the University or to give the piece to the subject’s family. 

Whether or not the portraits will be framed to demonstrate the sincerity their permanence remains to be seen. Wohl plans to teach the class again in four to five semesters and feels that there is no reason for her not to do a similar project every time she teaches it. Of course, the new portraits would serve a different purpose and would grace different spaces on campus. Then, when the class is taught again, she would find a way to rotate them out. 

Due to budget restrictions, subsequent portraits will not be purchased by the University. 

“I’m just grateful that [the current portraits] will be here permanently,” said Wohl. “I think it’s a really big win for the students.”

But is it enough? Will the knowledge that Faces of Sewanee will permanently remain on the walls of duPont Library make us complacent? Will this become a checkbox on diversity and inclusion in visual representation that is ticked off and never addressed again? 

According to Bardi, this is an existing concern not just for Sewanee, but for institutions as a whole.

“For people in the majority, the default is always looking for that thing that they can say they’ve done and then maybe they don’t have to think about it anymore,” he said. “So anytime you change anything, anytime you make any progress, there is always the danger that instead of it becoming a step on a long path towards justice, it becomes not much more than virtue-signalling.”

Wohl agrees with Bardi that it is not enough, and notes the “warm reception” that Faces of Sewanee has received as evidence of how badly that the community has needed something like this. The impact it has had, particularly on students, but in the broader community, speaks to the need for more work and more conversation around this topic. 

“I encourage people to really have the bigger picture in mind,” she said. “I’ve heard sentiments pop up that they want the portraits of the chancellors and vice chancellors down, and I think that’s a different conversation. Putting up art to be inclusive is different from taking down in exchange.” 

“It’s important to recognize that there’s more than one way to be active, there’s more than one way to protest, to express dissent, and part of it has to do with creative problem solving,” she continued. “It’s really important to keep those things in mind.”

For students—and especially students of color—the impact of Faces of Sewanee on their mental wellbeing is undeniable. While Li used to feel watched by the portraits of the chancellors and vice chancellors, she now feels that she is not alone, but in a different way. 

As an international student and a psychology major, Li describes the feeling as “higher social belonging”. 

“[I feel] more connection and belonging because the thing is, when you study, you feel alone,” she explained. “When you look at those portraits of students and faculty, you feel you’re not alone. They’re always with you.”

Ramirez, now the co-director of ADELANTE who will attend her own Latinx graduation in Convocation Hall in May, agrees with Li. 

“I feel more of a connection to the institution because of the portraits,” she said. “It gives me more motivation to do my work because I’m like, they’re there for a reason, and they’re successful people. If they can do it, I can do it too. And ultimately, that’s the goal, right? For all students to thrive here on campus, of every race, every color, every background, and every orientation.”