The newest exhibits at the Faulconer Gallery merge art with science and a Haitian influence.
Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery has two new art exhibits free and open to the public seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The first exhibit—Making Life Visible—explores the processes of visualization and description in art and biology through work by 16 contemporary artists and scientists. The second exhibit—En Voyage: Hybridity and Vodou in Haitian Art—displays the creative brilliance of Haitian art.
Clay & Milk talked to Faulconer Gallery Director Lesley Wright about the exhibits, the inspiration behind them and how teachers utilize the gallery in their classes.
Our Q&A is below, it has been edited for clarity:
Talk first about Making Life Visible, how do art, biology and visualization tie together?
LW: Many scientists were trained as artists or they hired artists to work with them. The example that everyone goes to is Leonardo da Vinci. But many artists were skilled at drawing and capturing their research. At the same time, for centuries, artists’ training was centered on drawing the human body, which made them superb at absorbing the natural world, because that’s what they were trained to do. The two disciplines have diverged in a lot of ways in the 20th and 21st centuries, but when we dove into work on this and wanted to find artists who still were thinking about visualization, we found a lot of people still working in that area. Albeit, a lot of them were using new technologies to do it—photography, video, electronic microscopes.
Are there classes at Grinnell that teach biology through visualization?
LW: My colleague Jackie Brown, with whom I co-curated this exhibition, always does a lot with observation in his classes. He doesn’t do as much with drawing, but his collaborator Idelle Cooper, who is a Grinnell alumna, teaches at James Madison University and is an artist in the show, does teach drawing for scientists. There are art classes in drawing that certainly help students gain skills. Every year, we’ve got a couple of students that major in both studio art and biology, so it’s not an unusual cross-fertilization for our students.
What is the theme of the show?
LW: The theme is that artists and scientists, working together, can richly inspire one another’s work. Scientists can learn from what artists see, and artists learn from what scientists are investigating.
What does the work depict?
LW: When you first walk in, the first section is about the process of observation, so there are drawings and photographs of everything from the leg of a fly to a dolphin’s skull to microscopic depictions of the tissues of insects. The next section has to do with collections, because both artists and scientists are great collectors.
There is thermographic video of a hive of bees, which picks out certain individuals based on the heat being generated in the hive. There’s a video about images of the wind and how, by putting multiple videos together, you see the wind in a different kind of way. There’s a section about ecology and organisms, where you see multiple organisms together in paintings and prints and one installation piece.
The back wall has a huge piece of an artists’ interpretation of tiny creatures that live in the water called copepods. These ones are made out of seaweeds, photographed, and made large. There are several works in the show about neuroscience and the neurons in the brain and how artists are finding ways to visualize those things that we cannot see normally.
Now let’s talk about En Voyage: Hybridity and Vodou in Haitian Art. What makes this exhibit special?
LW: En Voyage was curated by nine students at Grinnell. Every three years, we do a seminar where a class of students takes a body of work and has the opportunity to create a professional exhibition. They work with a faculty member in art history, and then the staff of Faulconer Gallery helps them realize their vision for an exhibition, giving them space, professional art handling, and help publishing a catalog.
Is having students curate their own exhibit unique to Grinnell?
LW: It’s not unique, but it’s quite unusual, particularly because they are creating a large exhibit with a published catalog. A lot of colleges have students curating very small exhibitions, which is a great learning opportunity; but to have a whole class do a larger exhibition is both a challenge and unusual.
Are the student curators art majors or planning to enter the art field?
LW: Some are art majors. Most are art history majors, but others include studio art, sociology, classics or women, gender, and sexuality studies majors. There is a range of students represented, which is not unusual for Grinnell students.
What is the theme of this show?
LW: The class decided to take four paintings by a Haitian-American artist named Edouard Duval-Carrié. One comes from the Figge Museum in Davenport, and the other three are from Edouard in Miami. They explore two issues—hybridity, the way Haiti is a country made out of immigrants from Africa, Europe and North America, and voodoo, a syncretic work of art that brings together many influences. They picked art that talked to the ideas of the hybrid and voodoo to bring alive Edouard’s four paintings.
Were the students able to work with the artist in the collaboration?
LW: They were. The professor, Alfredo Rivera, got special funding to take the entire class to Miami for a long weekend. They met the artist, and then he came to Grinnell this fall to meet with the class and go to the opening. He travelled with them when they went to the Figge Museum and the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, which is the source of many of the works in the exhibition. Waterloo has the largest collection of Haitian art in the world.
Why is that?
LW: My understanding is that there was a physician in Waterloo that got very interested in Haitian art. I suspect he had been doing outreach work in Haiti, fell in love with Haitian art and started collecting it. Then, he gave it to the Waterloo Center for the Arts, which then became known as a place that had Haitian art, and people from all over the country started donating their art to Waterloo.
What does the exhibit depict?
LW: Haitian art is large, vibrant and full of voodoo gods, which are called loa. There’s a lot of vegetation and food in the show. The title En Voyage is about setting out on a voyage because people had to set out on a voyage to get to Haiti and a lot of refugees have taken off from Haiti—Haitians tend to be travelling people. There are a lot of boats in the show, but it’s sort of an exuberant celebration of life in Haiti. There is a voodoo alter in the exhibition, borrowed from the Waterloo Center for the Arts. There’s a range of paintings, sculptures and beaded voodoo flags, in addition to Edouard’s large works.
In your opinion, what is the most striking piece from the exhibit?
LW: There’s two I think. One of Edouard’s paintings, called Cargo Bounty, stands about seven feet high and looks like a man completely made out of foodstuffs in Haiti that have come from all over the world, including yams, bananas and all foods we think as fairly common. He’s on a yellow background, he’s huge and he’s very imposing. Then there’s a boat right at the beginning of the show that comes from the Waterloo Center for the Arts. It is a full-size canoe kind-of-boat filled with various figures and a large cross. It makes them look like underworld figures headed off on a journey. That is the opening piece of the exhibition.
What inspired this exhibit?
LW: Prof. Rivera is from Miami. He knows Edouard very well. Rivera is an alum of Grinnell College; he graduated in ’06, got his Ph.D. and is back teaching with us. He wanted to do the exhibition seminar, and when he realized we had the resource of the Waterloo Center in Iowa, and that he could take classes there, he decided it was a fantastic opportunity for his students to dive into a new subject matter they wouldn’t be familiar with and have the chance to get some wonderful curatorial experience without having to go very far away to explore a rich collection.
Have the students enjoyed the experience from what you’ve seen?
LW: Oh, I think so. They’ve worked really hard, they wrote a great catalog, several came back early to be here to install the exhibition with us and they did a great job. All around, it was a very successful class. Prof. Rivera said it was a wonderful group of students to work with.
At the end of the exhibition, we are going to have a ringing-in of a man from Haiti. He is a singer, drummer, and voodoo priest. He’s going to perform in the gallery on March 14. It’s listed at on our site with our other programming events.
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