When Hollis Kitchin was growing up in Skwentna and Palmer, she and her brothers didn’t play with a lot of toys. Instead, their dad would give them an old toaster or a broken appliance from the thrift store, and they’d take it apart.
Bonilyn Parker, from the suburbs of Anchorage, spent a lot of time simply playing in the dirt. She also liked to fish.
Jordan Kendall sought escape from teen angst by hopping on his skateboard.
Ryan Cortes surfed the waves along the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, where he was born.
And Chelsie Harris sat down with her family every night at the dinner table to share stories, a tradition that continued after they made the move from Indiana to Kenai when she was 10.
All of these kids ended up pursuing a bachelor’s degree in art at the University of Alaska Southeast. All five recently spent time reflecting on how their early experiences, family dynamics and outside influences helped shape them into the artists they have become. Those insights provided the ground-work for a 15 minute talk, called a senior capstone presentation, that incorporates past experiences and current artwork to provide an introduction to each student’s artistic identity.
The five presentations, accompanied with slides, will be presented to the community at this Friday’s Sound and Motion presentation, beginning at 7 p.m at the Egan Lecture Hall on the UAS Auke Lake Campus.
The presentations are one element of a mandatory class for art majors called Career Development for the Artist, taught by UAS Assistant Professor of Art Pedar Dalthorp. For the students, they provide a concise way to introduce themselves, their work and their artistic vision to a wide audience, while forcing them to consider what’s important as they move on to the next step.
For the community, they offer an opportunity to get to know these five artists and hear their stories, as well as providing intriguing speculation about what draws young people to art -- and keeps them there (Are artists born or made? Did their mothers let them watch television?).
Dalthorp said source presentations like this are the de facto presentation mode for artists, and can also be used as introductory talks for graduate programs, artist residency programs and other professional venues.
“You communicate through your art in itself, and you have an artist statement, but when you want to address a large audience of people, a live audience, it’s usually something akin to this artist’s source presentation,” he said.
The presentations were first presented to the community during last fall’s Evening at Egan series, where they attracted the attention of UAS’ marketing director Katie Bausler, who pushed for them to be presented again in the spring.
“I was absolutely struck by the honesty, candor and professional presentation skills of each student,” Bausler said. “And I gained extraordinary insight on the influence of significant life experiences on art and the creative process.”
But those looking for a predictable answer to the question of what makes an artist an artist will not find it here; part of the appeal of the presentations is that they are unique, presenting one single human experience, in all its complexity.
Take Ryan Cortes. He is inspired by an initial impulse, however long he has to sustain it to follow through with his piece.
“If by the end of the process of creating the work I have still kept the initial inspiration intact, then my work is successful,” he said.
“To me its all about capturing something, whether it be a moment, a feeling, a place, or an impulse."
His spontaneous nature embraced surfing when he was young, thriving on the way it forced him to respond to his environment. As he got older he took up photography, capturing isolated moments in time, and music, particularly percussion, and, later, sculpture. Not surprisingly, his projects while at UAS have been wide ranging. One of them is the Taku Wind Chimes, an installation he created on a very windy winter day from nine 100-pound spruce logs, metal cables and existing pilings at Sandy Beach. Another is a series of wooden noboards (basically surfboards for the snow), which he displayed along with his photography and other works at a solo show at the Canvas last year.
For Jordan Kendall, art was an outlet of another kind, providing a break from “the art of getting by” that he practiced in many of his academic classes in high school.
“I had a lot of teenage angst and was doing things that I now look back on and see the artistic side of, but at the time I wasn’t fully aware of them as a way of channeling that energy,” he said.
Local teachers, including Dianne Anderson and Tom Manning, were highly influential in getting him to take his art seriously, as well as his mom, who ran a frame shop out of their basement. A skateboarder, Kendall was soon painting the walls of the skate park with huge colorful paintings inspired by the aesthetics he grew up with: graffiti, comic books and album covers, among other things.
He’s also a sculptor and a photographer (and a dad), and hopes to be an art teacher.
Bonilyn Parker approached art after abandoning another major – in her case, botany, which she traveled to New Zealand to study before dropping out upon learning there was no art program. For her, the real pull toward her chosen art form, functional ceramics, came from a feeling of community she discovered after working with Jamie Autrey in Sitka.
“It was a hand-building class, and I immediately fell in love with clay and began taking wheel-throwing classes from Professor Kane in Juneau,” she said.
Parker said ceramics builds community in part because many of the processes, such as firing kilns, require a group effort.
“We all get to work together while making pots in the studio, then preparing the wood kiln and loading it together, then we spend two days taking shifts to stoke the fire,” she said. “Then when it is all over we get together and unload the kiln and celebrate all of the beautiful things that we pull out of it.”
Though she got a late start, Parker has made up for lost time, winning awards in the UAS Student Juried Art Exhibition as well as the National Student Juried art exhibition held in Philadelphia. She also got a grant to build a kiln on campus that uses used vegetable oil from the cafeteria; it is now in use at UAS. She hopes to pursue a career as a teacher or studio artist.
Chelsie Harris intended to be a marine biology student. Like Parker, she was drawn to ceramics for its communal nature, with a eye toward how her pieces are used as well as how they are made. She enjoys the fact that her functional ceramic pieces can play a role in continuing to sustain social traditions such as family dinners – something that was important to her as a child growing up in the Midwest.
“My functional pieces are meant to be enjoyed by groups of people, around the kitchen table or sharing a cup of tea with someone,” she said.
After taking her first ceramics class at UAS, she knew she’d found a home.
“The thing that really hooked me into it was a sense of community,” she said.
Harris received a grant this year to create a cup library for the ceramics department, which will feature about 30 cups from contemporary ceramic artists that future students can use as learning tools, as well as room for more. She will also build cabinets to house the collections.
Like Parker and Harris, Hollis Kitchin came to the art department through another major: math. She had been introduced to ceramics in high school and became even more intrigued in college when she discovered that her math skills still applied: for example, the Fibonacci sequence related to proportions in her pieces and changes in the chemistry of the clay or the glaze could have dramatic results in her work.
She was also inspired by her love of nostalgia – old appliances, outdated technology, old movies, pop art and comic books. Her ceramic pieces often incorporate drawings that reference these influences; some are functional pieces, some are not.
“My drawings are very similar to the drawings I do on my pottery,” she said. “It’s very loose and quick and sketchy, and comic-book-ish.”
Kitchin said that preparing to talk about her art to the public, she was challenged by the idea of interpreting her own art.
“It definitely makes you question yourself and your worth as an artist more than anything else in the world, I think. I know my artwork makes sense to me but how do I make this make sense to people who have no idea who I am?”
In addition to the challenge of the presentation, students in Dalthorp’s class prepared a professional portfolio (that includes a CV, a short biography, an artist’s statement, a selection of slides of their work and official transcripts), constructed a website, and prepared interview techniques, among other things.
Kendall said he appreciated Dalthorp’s emphasis on getting the students to think about how they present themselves to others.
“The class helped me in a lot of ways, since I’d never been highly motivated on presenting my art or pushing an image as an artist, but (Dalthorp) really brought an awareness to the class on presenting yourself and how you want to go about it.”
The university has offered bachelors degrees in art since 2007. Students choose two areas of emphasis from five departments – ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking -- in addition to Dalthorp’s course and others in art history and design, Students can also pursue a minor in art, or a minor in Northwest Coast art, which includes classes in weaving, basketry or carving.
Dalthorp began offering the art capstone class in the spring of 2010, after it was determined that the existing Humanities Capstone Class wasn’t specific enough for artists. His class has been offered four times, with students presenting their talks to the public for the past two years.
Over the course of the class, students receive critiques from fellow students and art professors at least six times, a process which tends to wear down any nervousness they might have about speaking to a large crowd.
For Kitchin, getting her ideas down initially was the hardest part, as well as getting them to flow into a concrete story, but she says it was all well worth the effort. Though she’s taken a lot of tough classes at UAS, this class pushed her the most.
“It’s the most challenging class I’ve had -- and I’m saying that as a former math major!” she said with a laugh.
The UAS annual Juried Student Art Exhibition will open in April at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council gallery. Also in the works: a display of student art at the airport.