Friday February 3, 2017

And. Or. Not.

By Eric F. Spina

When Karen and I first saw the expansive walls in the gallery room at the president’s residence, we immediately and simultaneously expressed our dream: “We have to hang student and faculty art here.”

Living in Syracuse, New York, for 25 years, we had no idea about the exceptional quality of the visual arts program and the fabulous work of the students and faculty. After a semester of planning (and a lot of hard work by students and art faculty), we were overjoyed to welcome student artists at an opening night reception on Wednesday and feel blessed that their work will hang in the “gallery” through early May.

As I remarked to the students how impressed we are by their art, I joked, “My mom was an artist and art teacher. I have trouble drawing stick figures.”  But I do know quality and relevance. And it is hanging in the gallery of the residence.

Judith Huacuja, chair of the department of art and design, called these young painters, photographers and fine artists “scholars of human relationships.” For me, they’re that — and more. They’re storytellers, who interpret the world around them through the lens of the human spirit.

The exhibit “And. Or. Not.” features an eclectic display of 30 pieces of artwork that illustrate various dimensions of diversity — racial, ethnic, gender, (dis)ability, geography, sexual orientation, national affiliation, religious tradition and cultural background.

In “Watch Your Step,” art education major Ria Gordon depicts a haunting image of a young homeless woman in a cardboard box on the floor. In another piece called “Dreaming,” graphic design major Intisar Alrasheed creates a striking silhouette of a man, who, she quietly told me, represents her father dreaming of her graduation. One piece, titled “Marriage,” literally jumps off the wall. Graphic design major Marie Cossins’ wooden box of roses features two outstretched hands — one white, one black. One hand holds a small box with a diamond ring. Photography majors Brooke Tinsman and Annie Denten capture the economic divide in Dayton with images of a rusted door and the sun glinting off a house in a neighborhood past its prime. 

The students’ art makes me appreciate anew the creative muse that inspires artists to use their talents to illuminate our times. As I strolled around the exhibit with the students, they described, with such passion, their artistic process and what inspired them.

Dr. Huacuja praised the student artists with words that resonated deeply with me. “You students stepped forward, took action, gave thought and created significant expressions in support of understanding difference and diversity,” she said.

“Every generation faces new challenges tied to fear and misunderstanding. Each of you, as your world expands, as you study history, philosophy and religious difference, each of you stands to help peers, family members and others understand the complexity of today’s world.”

I expect that perhaps a thousand people between now and May will attend various events at the president’s residence.  At each one I will be asked to say a few words, and I will speak with great pride about these students who stretched themselves artistically to make us think deeply about our shared humanity.

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