Rites of ArtGAMBIER, Ohio (April 10, 2004) If it's April at Kenyon, it's time for the annual senior art exhibits, a delightful rite of spring for the campus--and, for the art students, an intense but rewarding rite of passage that few undergraduates outside of conservatory programs ever experience.
This spring, there are 14 studio art majors, each of whom has devoted a full year to producing a thematically focused body of work as part of the required Senior Exercise. In addition to taking two courses that help them prepare, they hone their ideas, create and refine the art, submit works-in-progress to critiques from their classmates, return to their cluttered individual studios to create and refine some more, write artist's statements, mount the shows in the College's Olin Art Gallery, do all the publicity, and discuss their work with each member of the art faculty in an "oral defense."
The shows have been running since late March, with three or four students exhibiting at one time. There are four week-long shows in all, with the final exhibit scheduled to run through April 17. They're among the most popular shows of the year, with the artists' friends and families packing the gallery during the opening receptions to offer congratulations and support. The Olin Gallery, located on the ground floor of the Olin Library, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
"After this experience, the students are ready to go out and contact a gallery about exhibiting their work," says Professor of Art Claudia Esslinger, cochair of the art department. "They know what it takes. They know how to build a body of work; they know how to think about its connection to the broader world. They know how to present a portfolio to graduate schools or in a work situation."
They also learn much more than they would if they simply mounted a retrospective show of work they'd done in their four years of college-the practice at some schools, according to Esslinger. Instead, they push themselves to more sophisticated levels of expression and formal presentation. Above all, they explore and develop a unified theme, perhaps a long-time personal interest or a concept that melds art with their other academic pursuits. "It's an ideal liberal-arts experience," says Esslinger, "a way of integrating insights from different disciplines."
Cynthia Brinich-Langlois of Bethel, Alaska, for example, who is minoring in environmental biology, created a show called Divergent Evolution, producing both intaglio prints and sculptures that evoke the wonder, amorphous appearances, and scientific intricacy of marine life as well as the forms by which land organisms preserve water. She used materials ranging from electron-microscope scans of diatoms to water-related objects like spoons and ladles. Pablo Poffald of Crawfordsville, Indiana, produced a show called Bodies of Light, a series of eight large splatter paintings that reflect his interest in Buddhism, explore light as a spiritual metaphor, and suggest cosmic forces.
The work can be challenging and tedious, the oral defense scary at first. But the students find the whole process immensely fulfilling. "It's not an assignment; it's something you design for yourself." says Brinich-Langlois. "It's what artists have to do in the real world."
One of the nation's leading liberal arts and sciences colleges and home to the Kenyon Review, Kenyon College offers 1,594 students a challenging educational experience enriched by a culture of friendship. Graduates of the College have included actor and philanthropist Paul Newman and author E. L. Doctorow.