After visiting the current exhibition at the CVPA Campus Gallery, my thoughts drifted to the late David Loeffler Smith, who taught drawing and painting at the Swain School of Design beginning in 1962. He continued teaching after the small private school merged with Southeastern Massachusetts University (one of the many precursory names to what is now the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth).
Smith was admired and well-respected by generations of art students. A former student of Hans Hoffman, he’d often remove a pencil from a pupil’s hand to show how to draw an ellipse, or he’d hang some novice draftsman’s homework upside down to make a point about perspective, while talking about Ingres or Cezanne or Durer. He was a formidable taskmaster but also one of a decidedly avuncular nature.
But almost everyone who studied with him remembers his most repeated bit of advice: “Know when to shut up.” He was referring to that absolutely imprecise and instinctive moment when an artist has overworked a drawing or a painting and something has slipped away, and there is little hope of retrieving it.
For many, “Know when to shut up” became a mantra, even a philosophy of sorts, that one could carry forth in many situations beyond the studio, as in one’s relationships, politics, workplace, and endeavors of all kinds, great and small.
In part, he role of a studio art teacher is to offer technical advice and to provide a link to the past, while freeing the students to consider untold creative possibilities. The best of them, like Smith, were never didactic monologists. They are dynamic speakers who listen carefully, ask questions, push boundaries and start dialogues.
The faculty of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UMD are of that breed. The exhibition “Conversations Between CVPA Faculty and Students” is an engaging look at the resulting artwork culled from the back-and-forth discussions between them.
Professor Anthony Fisher, who has been teaching at the university since 2008, is well-versed in the process of figurative painting with all that implies: easily recognizable subject matter, straightforward composition and the sense of a visual narrative. However, his work has shifted from readily recognizable elements to the more abstract as the very act of painting is now what he refers to as “very close to a meditative act.”
His “Some May Keep It Up,” oil on canvas, is a study in black and white, reaching every edge of the canvas with a visual hum that is difficult to describe but it glows like the static on an old television back in the mid-60s. His student, Madeline Gail Peach, displays “Portrait of Ira and the Bike,” depicting a thin man sitting on a translucent box, bicycle hanging behind him. Even though she is firmly rooted in realism, there is a similar optical vibe as dabs of pink, lavender and wasabi green dance on the surface.
Ceramics instructor Rebecca Hutchinson’s “3 Part Bloom,” constructed of fired and unfired porcelain paper clay, handmade paper and organic materials, is a sumptuous and colorful wall-mounted gathering of artificial bouquets. A few feet away, student Katy Rodden Walker exhibits “Blurring the Boundaries.” Clay slip on sixteen small plexiglass panels, studded an inch or so off the wall and illuminated as to maximize shadows, it is entrancing in its delicacy.
Ceramic student Jordan Blackenship displays a work that is both handsomely sculptural and possibly utilitarian. His “Interchanging Arrangements” is a pitcher atop a bowl atop a cup atop a saucer, and it appears (and the title suggests) that could be stacked in any order.
Elizabeth Pena-Alvarez’s “Resurrection” with curvaceous forms that resemble billows of black smoke, suggesting the rebirth of a phoenix.
Professor Elena Peteva’s crisp, elegant charcoal drawing “Of Smoke and Ash” is even more billowing than Pena-Alvarez’s ceramic work, as seemingly acrid black smoke arises from an open corrugated cardboard box. Whether intentional or not, those billows of smoke rising from something that for the moment is still structurally sound and intact, evoke the attack on the World Trade Center towers, a lifetime ago.
Peteva worked with fifteen students, too many to list all in this forum, from her AXD (a prefix for Art & Design classes) 325 Drawing: Time, Space and Meaning and her AXD 421 Advanced Drawing Concepts to create “Dollar Bill: A Collaborative Drawing Installation Project About Consumerism and the Environmental Crisis.”
A massive undertaking, “Dollar Bill” is an approximately twenty foot by eight foot loose re-creation of a George Washington single, done with an acrylic wash and Sharpie markers on the front surface. The backside is garbage, quite literally. It is an ugly collage of plastic bags- the kind that somehow end up dangling from trees or tangling up wildlife- from Target, Shaw’s, CVS and other local retailers.
Professor Suzanne Schireson presents two back-to-back continual shortstop motion animations- “Bullet Eyes” and “Moving Matter into Spirit”. She notes that the animations are inspired by a 1938 book “As Others See You: A History of Plastic Surgery,” written by her great-grandfather, Henry Junius Schireson. But to my eye, the animation was more about drawing itself…that is, the way things are created, the original lines that were, the erasures made, the attempt to make it more beautiful and the failure of that attempt as it was probably fine the way it was. Hmm, maybe it is about plastic surgery.
Schireson’s student Katrina Benner also present two animated shorts. They are bright, frantic and energetic non-narratives touching on the public sphere in “Street Conversations” and the intimate in “The Sexy Selfie.”
The show is rounded out by a series of posters collectively titled ”WE ARE” by ten students, inspired by visiting designer Rick Griffith to the classroom of graphic design instructor Michelle Bowers and by a series of graphic design history research projects by seven students in Laura Franz’s graphic design class. Good conversation and even better work by all.
I know when to shut up.
“Conversations Between CVPA Faculty and Students” is on display at the CVPA Campus Gallery, the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 285 Old Westport Road, North Dartmouth until March 28.