Shaped by Art
Alumni exhibiting in College’s 2013 Alumni Art Exhibition discuss how F&M experience influenced their vocations and perspectives on life
The single eye of a female figure— her hair drawn wildly across shades of violet, blue and slate across the canvas—appears to stare at herself inwardly in a painting hanging in the gallery of the Phillips Museum of Art in Lancaster.
In another piece in the gallery, the striking image of a seated man, clad only in folds of cloth around his waist, mystifies the viewer with his focused concentration on an unknown object in his hand. And nearby, duplicated layers of a young woman's fragmented image run, skip or flee in black and white across another piece.
This is the work of alumni artists whose creative identities were formed, nurtured or cultivated in the classrooms of Franklin & Marshall. They come from backgrounds in sociology, banking, history, communications and a wide range of other fields, but what ties them together is F&M’s role in helping them discover successful callings as artists in a variety of disciplines.
Exposure to the arts has changed the academic paths, and sometimes the career paths, of generations of students, with many saying that it is the College’s particular integration of art and art history that had the power to “change their lives.”
For them, art has been a foundation for life—their inspiration, means of expression and a launching pad.
Behind each painting, each photograph, is a story of a journey from a small classroom to a life of artistic appreciation that has earned many of them local, regional and national recognition as artists.
“The works stand for themselves, and the artists behind them,” says Phillips Museum Curator Claire Giblin in her curator’s statement for the spring alumni artists exhibit. “This selection represents those who gained technical understanding at Franklin & Marshall. They also learned about intuition, the drive to create, and awareness of their conviction while working with colleagues and faculty who challenged them, encouraged them, coached and sometimes forced them to be honest with themselves.”
Art as Inspiration
“It was a spiritual journey for me,” says Gabby Jiayin She ’11.
She arrived at F&M from Beijing planning to pursue a more traditional career than one in the arts—business or marketing—but that plan changed within a semester. In keeping with the College’s Foundations program that calls on students to take inquiry-based courses outside of traditional academic disciplines, She selected a first-year course that would expose her to something new: art—specifically, Asian art.
The experience sparked something within her and launched her on a new trajectory.
“Instead of thinking what career would make me socially and financially important, I started thinking what career would help me make a difference in the world,” She says. “I discovered what is meaningful and important to me.”
Her parents were skeptical. “They couldn’t believe I’d travel all the way to the U.S. to study art, especially Asian art.”
But that first course opened her to new possibilities. She secured an internship with the fashion design firm Ralph Lauren and then a job with the company after graduation. She has been with Ralph Lauren for more than a year, working in its global headquarters in New York as a production assistant in the firm’s Women’s Blue Label department.
Her work requires her to collaborate with teams and offices in Hong Kong and Italy, ensuring production flow from conceptualization to fabric selection, from model fittings to production revisions, and ultimately to the showroom. Her specialty is “roughwear,” the bulk of which is vintage fur and distressed leather that “very much resembles artwork,” She says.
Her path to an artistic career was unexpected, but has something in common with that of Jon Mort, a Class of 2006 alumnus who also credits a Foundations course for inspiring his life’s work. One difference is that Mort arrived at F&M knowing he wanted to pursue art.
With a working studio artist as a father and an interest and skill in the field himself, Mort seemed to be a prime candidate to enroll in an art college. But as a high school student, he wasn’t sure if that was the educational direction he wanted to pursue.
“My father is an artist, but my mother is a teacher,” he said. “She was a strong advocate for a broad-based liberal arts foundation. It proves mother knows best.”
Mort enrolled at F&M, and although he was an art major, his Foundations coursework opened his mind to classical archaeology and ancient history, a field that became his minor. It was archaeology that propelled him further into the art world. As a student he participated in an archaeological dig in Florence, Italy, as part of Franklin & Marshall’s archaeological travel course to Poggio Colla.
“This really launched me into a whole field that was a rediscovery for me,” he said of his archaeological experiences. “As a child, I’d loved myth. Those studies were a keystone of my F&M experience and a huge part of what informs my artistic identity.”
After graduation, Mort went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, earning a master’s degree, and today is a working artist like his father, represented by Somerville Manning Gallery in Delaware.
But to this day, he says he owes the richness of his learning experiences in the arts in large part to the accessibility of the F&M faculty. “Those relationships really helped me grow a lot.”
Learning Art for Life
What Mort and other alumni talk about is an approach to the study of art at F&M characterized by a focus on the individual—faculty working directly with students to explore how art is a “visualization” of values that have relevance and significance in a particular time and place.
Alumni describe lessons that deepened how they understand the ways in which art represents and promotes shared beliefs. These lessons became part of a lifelong journey of applying critical analysis to what they encounter in their everyday lives.
“Art study isn’t just about acquiring skill. You have to have something to communicate,” says Michael Clapper, associate professor of art history and chair of the Department of Art and Art History at F&M. “I think that's a crucial advantage of studying art in a liberal arts context. You have a better chance if you learn as a college student ‘What are some of the things in my own life and the world to which I can speak?’”
Clapper believes F&M’s commitment to the combined studio art and art history major helps students make those discoveries. The department educates students both in the making of art and also in art’s historical analysis. While the program in studio art focuses on the planning and production of works of visual art and how various decisions of composition communicate with the viewer, the art history program complements this by examining artistic works through the lens of the objects themselves and the historical or contemporary social concerns embodied by the works.
“I’ve taught at other places where art and art history are different departments or they’re in separate buildings or the faculty doesn’t communicate,” Clapper says. “At F&M, we’re an integrated department.”
Since 1966 generations of F&M students and would-be artists have worked one-on-one with working artists active in writing art criticism or teaching art history, with faculty evenly assigned between the two disciplines.
“We’ve designed our curriculum so that the two areas reinforce and support each other,” says Associate Professor Virginia A. Maksymowicz of the way in which the historians and the artists work together. “For example, we teach printmaking and the history of printmaking, photography and the history of photography.”
Students who concentrate their major in art history must take studio classes; students who concentrate their major in studio art must take history classes.
“It’s going to sound schmaltzy, but my F&M experience changed my life,” says Frances Donnelly Wolf ’96 of her experiences with this approach. “It made my life so much richer.”
“I wanted to go to a really good program where I could learn not just how to do it, but to learn about the ideas behind art,” she says. “Looking at art criticism, I wanted to know, ‘How do I make my way to an understanding of these pieces?’ I wanted to know, ‘What are the smart ideas out there?’”
She found this at F&M.
Art as Life-Changer
Wolf, an F&M Trustee who majored in studio art and art history, enrolled at the College later in life, after pursuing other education and work experiences. She was a nontraditional student, commuting from her home in a small town about 35 miles from campus.
While she had always been an avid illustrator and painter, when she was earning her degree in South Asian history from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, the rigid curriculum didn't allow her to take many courses beyond her major’s field of study. When she returned home, she still itched to learn more about art, but she needed a program that would allow her to balance coursework and family life.
F&M accommodated her schedule, and she enjoyed the interplay between studio art and art history.
“I’d come away completely mentally spent,” she said of discussions with James C. Peterson, associate professor of art. Other faculty members inspired her with their patience and kindness.
After F&M, Wolf went on to Bryn Mawr, where she earned her master’s degree in art. When she was asked to stay on for a doctorate, she decided to become a working artist rather than continuing to study art further. She began painting and showing in the region and in Philadelphia. Her paintings are inspired by poetry and prose and represent a transcription of her response to the texts.
“My interest is not to illustrate what I read,” she says in her artist’s statement for the Phillips Museum exhibit. “Rather, at a fundamental level I want to create pictures that are grounded in the persistent and inevitable nature of the visual. I want to make images that emphasize the aesthetic presence of their subject matter.”
Wolf is one of two alumnae exhibiting in this spring’s show who entered the College as nontraditional students and have been successful as artists.
The other is Conrad Nelson ’81, who laughs when she looks back on her early academic life, a hodgepodge of stalled attempts. Like Wolf, she loved art but needed the affirmation of study to nudge her toward her career.
The namesake behind the College’s Conrad Nelson Fellowship that brings artists to campus, Nelson started at Skidmore College after high school, then worked in banking in Philadelphia and, while there, took some art courses at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She thought of quitting banking and going to art school full time, but said she lacked the nerve.
She ended up back on the family farm in Lititz, entering F&M as a continuing education commuter student, but she was still thinking about art: “I would go home on Friday afternoons and draw all weekend,” she recalls.
Nelson majored in sociology with a minor in psychology and planned to continue her studies in her major field in graduate school. But then art truly ensnared her. She took an art course while at F&M and participated in a student art show. “It changed my life,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can do this.’”
With growing self-confidence, Nelson went on to earn a graduate degree in art from Millersville University. Her abstract expressionist works have been featured at several locations in her current home state of Colorado, including the Old Courthouse Gallery in Buena Vista, the sculpture garden at the Salida Steam Plant in Salida, and the Morlan Fine Art Gallery in Manitou Springs. She also has exhibited at the DeMuth Foundation in Lancaster. She draws, makes prints, paints, takes photographs and does sculpture and mixed media.
She has set up endowments at F&M and Millersville so that working artists can come to campus to interact with faculty and students. “I really felt F&M changed my life,” she says. “So I was very grateful.”
Art as a Launching Pad
Christine Batta conveys similar sentiments of gratitude when she speaks of her experiences at F&M. But distinct from the many painters, photographers, sculptors, printmakers and mixed media artists who started their artistic paths at F&M, the 2009 graduate’s path led her to a field sometimes considered outside the artist's mainstream.
Batta’s journey to an arts career began when she enrolled at F&M interested in art, but with a healthy curiosity about many other things, including anthropology, a subject that ultimately became part of her double major. It was her non-art pursuits that put her on the path to her ultimate destination: graphic design. Batta works for SW Creatives, a design firm in Silver Spring, Md.
“In my sophomore year, my anthropology teacher caught on to the fact that I was interested in graphic design,” she recalls. With encouragement, she pursued that interest, landing internships in F&M’s Office of College Communications, where she began to look at visual communications and design history.
Batta had been considering a communications-related career, such as journalism, before beginning college, but she was wary of committing to a specialized field so early in her college career. At F&M, she knew she would be free to take a variety of courses and experiment before determining her path.
“I felt there was a lot for me still to know about myself,” she says of her decision to attend F&M.
Once she learned she wanted to pursue studies in graphic design, her desire to communicate meshed with her love of visual arts, facilitated by the College’s studio art and art history approach.
“The history of art is really the history of design and how visual communication fits into the history of the world,” Batta says. To further her understanding of that history, she took a wide range of courses—everything from anthropology, to the study of economic systems. “Graphic design has this marketing side,” she says, “and human interaction is very important. I never felt I could only learn the visual, technical side.”
But with her knowledge of the history of design as a foundation, she did go on to deepen her technical training, earning a graduate degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The two pieces she is featuring in the alumni exhibit come from her SCAD days.
One, titled “Leap of Faith,” is a photographic montage, a self-portrait with a message that will surely resonate with many arts alumni. They took a leap and have found themselves in a career that many of them could not imagine when sitting in the classrooms at F&M five, 10, 30 years ago.
As Giblin says, after curating the works for the Phillips Museum exhibit, “Their years since that time—no matter how few or how many—point to the excellence, growth and dedication of those who went from the classroom to the art community; who wake in the night to work out a solution; who risk all by offering their work to harsh criticism or uplifting acceptance; who prod and push the rest of us toward an experience that can affect and change us absolutely.”
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