Smile Politely

The Parkland art and design faculty exhibition gave me my moment of zen

Perhaps this story should come with a warning. What follows is far from a traditional art review. While there will be discussion of technique and the curation of the show, what follows here is a recounting of a highly personal, visceral, and emotional experience. Before you worry that I’ve turned this space into a personal vehicle for therapy, I assure you that I take this risk for a reason. To encourage each of you to approach art with an open mind and, more importantly, an open heart. To bring your whole self to the experience. To consider putting aside everything you may know about art, or what you fear you don’t know about art, and dive in anyway. 

Here we go. 

Let me begin with a confession. While I make it a rule to never ask you to do anything I myself wouldn’t, sometimes rules need to be broken, or at least, bent. Though I typically enjoy the energy and buzz of an opening reception, my gut was telling me that this was a show I would best appreciate with fewer people around, with less temptation to overhear and be influenced by the insights of others. Maybe it was more about me about what I needed than what the show required. Or maybe it was a bit of both. Either way, I’m glad I listened.

I found myself walking into the Giertz Gallery on a Monday evening after having a “day,” or, more like, a series of “those days.” I decided at that moment that regardless of my impending deadline and my deep devotion to you dear readers, I was here for me. 

The next decision was where to begin.I quckly decided to go where my gut or my heart took me. My tired eyes and weary mind couldn’t help be drawn to the rich, watery blue of Stacey Gross’ cyanotype. 

The figure represented resonated me with. Was she feeling as “under water” as I was? As I walked closer into the back gallery, my entire being breathed a sigh of relief. Gallery director Lisa Costello had created an oasis. A warmly inviting and deeply immersive space in which, to quote Peg Shaw, we can “witness” a rich variety of human experiences. 

Here I was on a Monday evening with an entire art gallery to myself and a perfectly situated bench from which to meditate upon what stood before me. The view from this bench was spectacular. In one direction was a series of stills from Shaw’s previously mentioned “Witness.” 

Along another was a series of projected images from the same work. 

You and I have had the benefit of my recent interview with Shaw and were already familiar with the methodology and inspiration behind this series. But as I sat before this installation, I allowed mysefl to forget what I knew and just watch. I let my mind and heart go where they wished, to places dark and light. I allowed myself to put aside concerns of what I would share with you in this review. 

And as I shifted directions from my meditation bench, I decided to experience first and read artist statements later. This ran counter to my typical cerebral approach and my love of resarch. It was hard to do, but I’m glad I did it. 

Yes, this is a teaching gallery and I love that about it. But on this night, and I hope on the day or night you enjoy this show, it was an oasis from an increasingly loud and difficult world. It was an expertly curated experience of the human experience that creates empathy, understanding, and connection. Art does this. 

Perhaps my deepest connections were with the figurative paintings of Kelly White and Paula McCarty. 

I was drawn to the determination in her gaze, the set of her jaw. Catching her in this deeply private and significant moment was humbling. White is a master at capturing these moments, the mix of vulnerability and strength, the rising storm of emotions approaching the beautifully rendered suface. We are invited to wonder what brought her to this moment and what will happen next.  That simultaneous sparking of the imagination and the heart is beginning stage of empathy. That is also what art does. 

As I stood and made my way to the front gallery, I was immediately drawn into these McCarty’s powerfully rendered portraits. Each of these women had a story to tell, burdens and hopes to share.  I felt less alone in my own struggles. I felt the strength of so many women in so many walks of life. This is also what art does. 

McCarty’s portraits are among my favorites of her work. These women are hard to forget. I encourage you to meet them and spend some time with them. Since we’ve started this meditation metaphor, I invite you to come and share a space with these women and the other figures currently residing at Giertz Gallery, listen, observe, and be open to what happens. 

For those of us who’ve had the good fortune to study or work with these talented artists, the experience becomes more richly layered. I am humbled by the quality of the art by those who are equally gifted and giving in the classroom. Enjoying these portraits I experienced waves of the inspiration and insight I enjoyed as one of McCarty’s painting students. I see the same devotion and passion in White’s work as I do her tireless advoacy of our local arts community. We are lucky to have these people in our community, making art, making artists, and making us better. 

After such a deeply personal dive, I took some time to enjoy the quieter and perhaps more gentle voices of Lisa Kesler’s lino block illustrations, Liza Wynette’s whimsical illustrated ceramics, fascinating micro ceramics from Denise Seif, and intriguing animals from Chris Berti.  (See the photo gallery above). These along with the functional ceramics of Shawn Fairchild remimd us that art can and should live with us in our daily lives, perhaps encouraging us to bring another level of beauty into our most mundane of rituals. 

One last suggestion and it’s a pretty good one if I do say so myself. 

If experiencing art is still new to you and you’re looking for a starting point, zoom in, explore a detail, a texture, a color. Create your own point of entry. Here are few examples courtesy of my own zoom lens. 

Explore a particular contour or shadow and see where that takes you. 

Up close these ripples and bubbles add a movement and buoyancy to Gross’ work that I did not full appreciate from my bench. How does this change my initial impression and experience?

This beautifully contoured and textured detail from Matthew Watt’s “Jutta” provides a window in the process and the materials used. 

This show has so much to offer you, heart and mind. If you haven’t made it over yet, I encourage you to take your seat at the bench and allow yourself to be transformed. 

Till then, enjoy these highlights. 

[gallery parkland_faculty_show_2019]

2019 Parkland Art and Design Faculty Exhibition
Giertz Gallery at Parkland College
2400 W Bradley Ave, Champaign
Monday through Thursday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday: noon to 2 p.m.

Top photo © Melinda McIntosh, Silly Goose Side Porch, 2019; all additional photos by Debra Domal 

More Articles