By John Syme
Five years in the making from concept to coffee table, Davidson Collects: 100 Writers Respond to Art
explores a variety of works from the college’s permanent art collection through the
eyes—and the minds and the hearts—of Davidson’s students.
Davidson Collects is an apt title for a tome that brings together words and pictures from such disparate perspectives. In fact, the words “collect” and “college” spring from the same Latin roots meaning “to gather together.”
The book is a collaborative effort, “gathered together” from across the college. It began as a “blue-sky idea” shared by Van E. Hillard, director of the college’s writing program and associate professor of rhetoric, and Brad Thomas, then director and curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries of the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center.
Hillard was thrilled with the “interpretive risks” that emerged as Davidson Collects came into being. In an introductory essay for the book, “Recollecting the Liberal Arts: Potential, Possibility and Promise,” he wrote, “The one hundred essays, taken as a whole, suggest the ethical character of writing by smart undergraduates: the courage to take a new intellectual risk, the honesty to define the limits of one’s knowing, and the faith that with time and energy, insights will evolve. Ironically, as non-experts, these writers are keenly aware of the contingencies and provisional nature of their understanding of artworks. Writers equivocate here, but their uncertainties (about where to begin, what exactly to say, or how to conclude one’s observations) are taken as generative rather than debilitating limits. In other words, they deploy non-expertise as freedom.”
Each of the 100 writers, chosen by professors’ recommendations, was paired by lottery with a single work of art. Artists in the collection include Arbus, Dali, Delacroix, Dürer, de Kooning, Munch, Picasso, Rodin, Sargent, and Warhol. Contemporary artists in the collection include some who have visited Davidson as well as some who have served on its art faculty: Herb Jackson, the Douglas C. Houchens Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts; Cort Savage, professor and chair of art; and Douglas Houchens (1916–2008), the college’s first full-time art professor.
The students’ assignment: to meet a work of art on its own terms as well as their own, not just as an exercise in the kind of rigorous scholarship to which Davidson students are accustomed, but as direct personal experience—an inquiry of spirit as well as of mind.
Then, write about it.
The lottery muses presented Zoe Balaconis ’11 with Leonard Baskin’s lithograph Untitled, Self-Portrait, 1971 (a gift of Christopher A. Graf).
“When I first saw it,” she wrote, “I saw a large face like a bird’s, inscribed by fading edges, as if made with a marker running out of ink. But then the lines moved. I sat down so that it adjusted to me, and I saw in the circle a face like a mask, a man standing erect, neck outstretched, mouth pursed but not serious, never looking behind him at the unsteady horizon, a sea of tar that defines the sky as a light otherness.”
The importance of coming to terms with “otherness” was a recurring motif throughout the book project.
“Art, which here at Davidson is installed throughout the campus, shapes this (college’s) culture by consistently challenging our conventional categories of perception to explode our assumptions and make the familiar strange,” President Carol Quillen wrote in her foreword. “Through art, we learn the limits of what we know and can know even as we commit ourselves to a quest for truth.”
Student writer Keeley Jacobs ’12 said the time she spent in contemplation of Kiki Smith’s hand-colored print Wading, 2004 (gallery purchase, with funds from the Herb Jackson and Laura Grosch Gallery Endowment) brought new dimensions to her thinking.
We don’t add work to our permanent collection so it can gather dust in a storage room….
This book shows how the artwork can be utilized in a way that is as alive and vibrant as our students.
“Unhurried, meditative observation allowed me time to absorb the elements, ask myself appropriate questions, and ultimately connect with the art,” Jacobs said.
Each student brought a unique version of that process to the task at hand.
“Our students tend to operate at peak performance when they navigate a challenge involving an unfamiliar subject to which new modes of thinking and analytic strategies may be applied,” Hillard wrote.
The permanent collection is filled with such “unfamiliar subjects,” ready to spark new meaning in the mind.
“We don’t add work to our permanent collection so it can gather dust in a storage room,” said Professor and Chair of Art Cort Savage. “This book shows how the artwork can be utilized in a way that is as alive and vibrant as our students.”
Student life and vibrancy were front and center at the January 18 opening of “Recent Gifts and Acquisitions” in the Van Every Gallery, the book’s public debut.
The energy this night in the soaring atrium of the Belk Visual Arts Center is youthful, learned, passionate, artistic, boisterous, refined, a little bit glamorous. The undergraduate writers are guests of honor, and they have also volunteered to staff the coat check.
On the upswing of the evening’s energy, the president makes remarks about the place of art at Davidson, “where knowledge gets produced every day in ways we can’t even imagine when we wake up in the morning.” Savage and Hillard thank the many on campus and off who embraced this creative mission, as Savage put it, “across boundaries and disciplines, because that is where the knowledge of the future resides.”
Then a hush falls. Writer Sarah Daniels ’12 ascends the landing in front of Kenneth Noland’s painting Untitled, 1967, a gift of the artist. Daniels faces Rodin’s towering, bronze, lost-wax cast sculpture Jean d’Aire, Nude, 1886, (gift of the Pepper family) that is on permanent display in the lobby.
“As I approach the man, I feel a sense of dread. I do not feel worthy or brave enough to write about this sculpture. How can I even approach one of Rodin’s masterpieces?
“I continue to approach, bolstering myself on false courage. He stands ready for me, hands clenched, feet firmly planted, every muscle rippling and vibrating in bronze. His brows are furrowed, his mouth sternly set. He stands ready, naked, daring me to judge him….”
Daniels’ essay plumbs the depths of Jean d’Aire’s feelings as his self-sacrificial story moves toward the inevitable.
“As Jean prepares to face his death, I am lucky to know he will be spared. Although he eventually dies, Jean is special in this respect: He will also live forever. His simultaneous display of fear and bravery will forever be etched in bronze, a testament to standing strong in the face of uncertainty and doubt.
“I look at him, at Jean, and he reflects all of my internal struggles. It gives me comfort to see this man standing so strong, knowing that I can take his strength with me even when I am not in his presence. My own insecurities fall to the side in this moment of self-recognition. Jean and I both know I can walk away taller and stronger from our meeting. I thank him silently and take my leave.”
A beat, then applause fills the atrium, glasses clink. The hubbub rises toward a lively crest as the high tide of patrons under the ficus trees flows from the atrium back again toward the other recent gifts in the galleries themselves.
The January opening of “Recent Gifts and Acquisitions” also featured “Works on Paper” by Sean Scully and a monumental bronze sculpture by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. “Group of Ten” was donated to the college as a gift of the artist and by Katherine Belk-Cook; Linda and George Kelly, parents of Win Kelly ’02 and Madeline Kelly ’08; Virginia Newell ’78; and Pat and B.D. Rodgers.
The Abakanowicz will be installed this spring on campus near the sculpture garden in front of E.H. Little Library, where three masterpieces already reside: William Tucker’s Homage to Rodin, 1999, bronze (gift of the Class of 1993); Antony Gormley’s You, 2005 (gift of Robert F. Vagt ’69 and Ruth Anne Vagt in honor of Ashley Vagt-Buford ’94 and Lindsey Vagt ’01); and Joel Shapiro’s Untitled, bronze, 1995 (gift of the artist and Katherine Belk- Cook). The Abakanowicz will stand sentry along a main thoroughfare between the library and the Alvarez College Union.
In the library, a Scully work hangs in a place of honor directly in front of the entrance, bidding dramatic welcome. This Wall of Light Red Shade, 2011, a 96-by-132-inch oil on canvas, is on loan from the collection of Linda and George Kelly.
The Spencer Lobby of Chambers Building is another central campus venue for rotating art exhibits, including the January 2011 show “People, Places, Power: Reframing the American Landscape,” from the collection of John MacMahon ’95 and Joel von Ranson.
Across campus, works from Davidson’s permanent collection grace walls from the president’s home parlor to faculty and staff offices.
In coursework, an Art Department program welcomes professors from all disciplines to bring classes of students into the artistic vaults of the Belk “VAC,” as the students have fondly shorthanded the building.
And once in a while, the collection gets an early Christmas gift, like the October 2010 day when longtime Davidson art patron Jim Pepper ’65, of Miami, boxed and shipped to the college 34 pieces from his collection. To spice things up, Pepper did not send an inventory listing ahead.
All this increasing visibility of art on Davidson’s campus is a clear sign of the ripening of the college’s collection, as well as the college’s commitment to it as a living, teaching collection, said Jay Everette, a member of the college’s Art Collection Advisory Committee. Everette, community affairs manager with the Wells Fargo Social Responsibility Group, was instrumental in cultivating the Davidson Collects project from the start. The book was made possible through a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation, with additional funding from Davidson College Friends of the Arts and the Herb Jackson and Laura Grosch Gallery Endowment.
“Davidson’s art collection is a ‘teaching collection’ in that it is integrated with interdisciplinary studies, aligned with curriculum, and accessible to students and professors alike. We were intrigued by this notion,” Everette said of Wells Fargo Foundation’s support for Davidson Collects.
“At Davidson, art is not something to be accumulated and stored away in a vault. It is leveraged to enlighten students. It provides professors with yet another tool to educate, challenge a thought process, and create discourse on an idea.”
Joel O. Conarroe Professor of Spanish Mary Vásquez is one of many professors who have drawn on the riches of the permanent art collection in their pedagogy. Vásquez often hustles her Intermediate Spanish 201 classes over to the VAC’s more eclectic, subterranean reaches.
“It’s a direct experience that can give students a sense of the breadth of the Hispanic world view, and to give them an angle and a vision onto that world. And for many of them, it also has the effect of lighting a curiosity about the permanent collection,” she said. “My students were absolutely flabbergasted to learn that we had Velásquez, Goya, Picasso….There are paintings, drawings, and photos from Latin America, from Spain, and from American Latino culture.”
Vásquez’s general rules for students include a prohibition against using digital images as a study aid.
“I want them to return individually, as many times as necessary, to have the full, direct experience of connection and even dialogue with the work of art,” Vásquez declares. “They have to go to the VAC in person to experience that friction with the work of art to answer the question, ‘What does it say to you?’”
Answers to that question are the heart of Davidson Collects. Approaches to the question range from explicating a black-and-white photograph in its historical context, to cultural musings on an artifact from a different age and continent, to presenting a painting’s meaning through the poetry of the writer’s very soul.
“‘Art is long; life is short,’ observed Hippocrates,” Sam Plumer ’12 writes to open his essay on Georges Rouault’s Vieille Courtisane à la Fenêtre, 1937, aquatint (gallery purchase). “As time marches onward, an artwork’s meaning evolves with the changing social context.”
The same can be said for an art collection, and even for a liberal arts education.
All this increasing visibility of art on Davidson’s campus is a clear sign of the ripening of
the college’s collection, as well as the college’s commitment to it as a living, teaching collection.
“The voices represented here attest to the inestimable value and the distinctiveness of a Davidson education, and to the role of the arts in it,” Quillen wrote in Davidson Collects. “Ours is an education characterized by breadth: sustained engagement among students and faculty, opportunities for collaboration, and a culture of inquiry that seeks connections between how we learn and how we live.”
We gather together.