This semester, University of Missouri–St. Louis Art and Design students got the chance to mix arts and politics.
On Friday evening, swirling around the modernist contours of the Kranzberg Arts Center Gallery and the industrial Suite 300 art space, a blissful gaggle of student artists celebrated the opening of their exhibition “Role as Citizen.” A collaboration among students from UMSL, Washington University in St. Louis and Maryville University, the group show had an unusual genesis.
At the end of the summer, UMSL Associate Teaching Professor Michael Behle received a curious offer from the Kranzberg Arts Center – how would he like to turn his fall semester “Expanded Artforms” class into a political discourse experiment?
The gallery was taking part in the 50 State Initiative, a project designed by For Freedoms, an artist-run Super PAC that aims to encourage artistic and civic participation based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” address: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of worship and freedom from fear. From Oct. 11 to Nov. 11, the Kranzberg, along with curator Modou Dieng, presented “Cry of Victory and Short Walks to Freedom: Over you / you,” a solo show featuring the work of the Colombian political artist Oscar Murillo.
The Kranzberg Arts Center was also organizing a second 50 State exhibition, a group student show featuring work created in response to Murillo’s art and wanted to know if Behle’s students would participate. He agreed immediately and molded his fall semester around the forthcoming exhibition.
Murillo gave an artist talk on UMSL’s campus, and the students visited his show and another For Freedoms exhibition put on by the projects+gallery in the Central West End. Murillo got his point across powerfully with an installation of nontraditional materials and found objects such as metal crowd control barriers and political placards. For some students, this was a new way of thinking about art.
“This is my first publicly political-type project,” said Kaitlyn Swartz, a senior BFA student. “Art is used for activism all the time and in lots of ways, so that’s something I’ve always been interested in, and I think it’s really important. I’m really grateful to be able to participate in something like this.”
For the exhibition, Swartz started with the discrimination she’d experienced as a young woman and reached for an unusual material – cardboard. She created a life-size chaise lounge and decorative screen, which she then covered with a velvet-like fabric.
“I decided on the chaise lounge, and that implies the historical reference to the nude female,” she explained. “I’m a painting major so I usually work 2-D. I knew I wanted to move into installation when I was working on paintings last semester. I needed something less detailed and more with my hands. But I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do it.”
Her piece, “Unsettlingly Settled,” continued themes that Swartz had been playing with in collage and paint, and she plans on continuing on sculpturally in the future. Moving into sculpture or installation was a common theme among her classmates as well.
One was senior BFA student Shellby Brannam who created “Ripple,” an egg-shaped sculpture embedded with slivers of glass that she displayed alongside a pen and pad of paper. She instructed viewers to write their thoughts about sexual harassment and assault and throw them into the egg.
“I started off with the sculpture piece itself, making an egg form because I wanted to represent nature and womanhood, then birth,” she said. “When we start off in the world we are so pure, but when you’re born things happen to you, and you can’t go back into that shell.”
Brannam, whose emphasis is painting, said the class encouraged her to expand her comfort zone both materially and thematically.
“I challenged myself, and this is the first piece of artwork that I made that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing,” she said. “It was actually something that stirred an emotion.”
Senior marketing and graphic design student Trista Lewis’s piece, “Present but forgotten,” honored her experiences in the military and as an Army wife. For her installation, she utilized an Iraqi soldier’s helmet, a tear-stained pillowcase and a grain of rice, all of which represented “the views, sacrifices and significance of the Iraqi war.”
“My idea of art has definitely been expanded,” Lewis said. “The class was so unique and it showed different ways that artists use their art and what they make their art from. I definitely have a better respect of the arts out of the whole thing.”
All the students came away with a broader understanding of the possibilities of art and media, and it gave them an opportunity to show their work off campus to a wider audience. The collaborative nature of the show had the side benefit of bringing together students from different schools.
“There’s been a lot of positive energy and just interest in that whole concept,” Behle said. “This is a great example of the arts serving as a bridge to create discourse between departments.”
The exhibition also was a professional development opportunity and allowed the students to experience the satisfaction of their work coming together in a unique way for the first time.
“I was helping a student install a piece, and until the work is installed in the space, it kind of lives in the studio at various stages of being produced,” Behle said. “When it all comes together, and you see it, and you step back, it’s like, ‘Wow. It came together.’ And that was the student’s exact response, so I’m just so happy that it was something we could do – that it was a really great opportunity for the students to have. They’re all excited at seeing their work out in the community, knowing that it’s going to have the opportunities to be experienced, to be viewed, by many, many people.”
“Role as Citizen” is on display at the Kranzberg Arts Center Gallery and Suite 300 until Dec. 29.
St. Louis Post Dispatch
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