Modern spin on treasured art

UND artistic works become educational tool through student exhibitions

The 14 Introduction to Fine Arts students who put together the #InYourFace art exhibit pose on opening night together with UND Art Collections Curator Sarah Heitkamp (far left) and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom DiLorenzo (back row, third from right). Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections.

When Samantha Ripley, an aviation student at the University of North Dakota, enrolled in an Introduction to Fine Arts course last spring semester, she considered academics.

The Honors program class fulfilled the requirement that she earn art credits toward her degree. So, she registered. In the four months that followed, however, the class morphed into one of Ripley’s “most favorite courses.”

“I really learned a lot about how to analyze not just art but also life problems,” Ripley, a Blue Earth, Minn. native, said. “It helped me take a step back and analyze things without an opinion.”

In part, Ripley gained that aptitude through a rather unconventional means that few of her peers—let alone, adults—experience.

Together with her 13 classmates, none of whom pursue art as a major, and under the guidance of UND Art Collections Curator Sarah Heitkamp, Ripley partook in the arrangement of a full-fledged art exhibit at Empire Arts Center in downtown Grand Forks.

The endeavor, which claimed about eight weeks of work and is now on view until July 19, marks the first time UND students have curated art for display outside of campus.

Learning through art

The idea dawned on Heitkamp a semester earlier, when, in fall 2018, she tasked students with speckling the Honors department in Columbia Hall with artwork.

“The feedback was so positive from that project that I decided to do something similar [in spring] semester,” Heitkamp said.

Student-driven exhibitions, the crowning assignment of the course, are not just another avenue for UND’s expansive “living art” that animate various buildings and offices. They stride a step further in yielding the University’s sizable art collection as an educational tool beyond the realm of creative appreciation.

“[The course] also gives them an opportunity to practice really important skills,” Heitkamp said. “They get to practice critical and analytical thinking, decision making, and communication with peers. I hope that they leave the class with a renewed sense of their owned abilities.”

Takes a village

Most students, when told they are to put together an art exhibition, Heitkamp said, succumb to hesitation and intimidation. They have never done it before. They are not even majoring in art. They know virtually nothing about what it takes.

Heitkamp, however, doesn’t question their capabilities. An exhibition may sound—and often is—a monumental undertaking but broken into fundamental pieces, it is quite doable, she said.

And yet, “it was really eye-opening to see how much work goes into that,” Ripley said.

The first phase of the project: develop a concept.

After discussions, the students opted to explore the evolution of portraiture to its modern-day incarnation of easy-to-take, easy-to-share selfies. Thus, the title of the exhibit, #InYourFace.

Step two: choose the artwork.

This is not a feat to underrate given the sheer bulk of UND Art Collections.

“We can do portrait exhibitions for months,” Heitkamp said.

On every wall at the Empire Arts Center, the faces in the portraits gaze at a particular direction. Here, the artworks are oriented toward a board where viewers can pin their own selfies and, thus, become part of the exhibit. Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections.

Initially, she picked 60 pieces, whose print-out versions she presented to the class. The students, in turn, pared the selection into various categories – full-body portraits, abstract, “pieces we don’t know what to think of.”

Then, the class started meeting in Skalicky Hall where UND Art Collections resides.

“It is such a different experience to see a real piece of artwork rather than a printed out image or something digital,” Heitkamp said. “That kind of blew them away.”

A decision to focus on faces only—as selfies usually do—guided the ultimate art assortment.

Step three could be summed up as “divide and conquer.”

The class split into groups, each responsible for disparate activities – conducting research into portraiture, writing text panels, honing interactive components, preparing a presentation for the exhibit’s opening night, penning a curatorial statement.

Ripley worked on the latter, and everyone matted, framed and hung pieces.

“I thought we weren’t going to be that involved in it but then [Heitkamp] step back and let us choose everything, which I really liked,” she said. “It was completely our exhibition.”

And, albeit Heitkamp steered and assisted, the enterprise belonged to the students down to the tiniest of details, to the food served and tunes played at the opening reception in late April.

Exhibit for modern viewers

The inaugural UND student exhibit at Empire is also the first interactive showcase for Art Collections.

Painstakingly composed, the faces in the artworks intentionally gaze at directions that summon the audience to engage.

A centrally placed mirror lets viewers see themselves on the wall, while over a dozen sets of eyes peer at them from sheets of paper within black frames.

Then, for a lasting viewers’ presence in the exhibit, there is a Polaroid camera to snap selfies with and a beige board to pin them on.

A mirror, among the portraits, allows exhibit goers to see themselves and, for some fleeting moments, join the faces on the walls. Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections.

The play with contemporary self-portraiture extends to the descriptions of artworks, which mimic brief captions on picture-heavy Instagram.

“bruce_duller

#untitled #acryliconcanvas #ca1975”

These are all features that, Ripley said, stem from students’ blank slate in the discipline.

“None of us are art majors, so we didn’t know what is traditional,” she said. “We didn’t have a notion of what we were supposed to do, so we just kind of did what we thought was going to be cool. We did something [Heitkamp] said she would have never thought of doing.”

What Heitkamp is certain of, nonetheless, is that, in a blend of education and exploration, she will continue to unwrap the Art Collections to students in order to teach them invaluable life skills.

“I think in the end they just end up with a sense of pride of what they have accomplished,” she said.

The project featured in this story was supported with funds from the Myers Foundations.