Willamette students bring two art exhibitions to campus this month

by University Communications,

Two new art exhibitions are coming to Willamette University this month through the efforts of students Ben Martin ’16 and Emma Jonas ’15.

The first is an exploration of graffiti art, displayed in the Montag Den through Sept. 27. Organized by Martin, the exhibition’s intent is to encourage analysis and discussion of graffiti as an art form.

Jonas, meanwhile, incorporated digital technology and traditional media in her piece, “Revision.” Intended to arouse viewers’ sense of sight, her exhibition is showing Sept. 23 through Oct 4 in Room 208 of the Art Building.

Ben Martin: What is Art?

To many, graffiti is a sign of urban decay. It’s the calling card for gangs and a signal that criminal activity is underfoot.

But to Ben Martin ’16, graffiti is not all bad. Instead, it can be a beautiful and unappreciated art form.

“A lot of ways graffiti is being combated is not efficient or even effective,” says Martin, who was inspired by a College Colloquium course he took on the subject.

“The first step is creating a discussion. I want people to start thinking about why we fight graffiti the way we do.”

To encourage people to consider graffiti in a different context, Martin is exhibiting four, 4-by-6-foot canvases of the art form in the Montag Den this month. The pieces were created by Salem and Portland artists, who will discuss their craft at a reception Sept. 25 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

“I want to present the facts,” Martin says. “This is an important issue that doesn’t deserve the media attention it gets.”

Martin, a native of Bainbridge Island, Wash., learned about graffiti through a College Colloquium course, “Graffiti: Art, Intervention, Crime,” taught by art history professor Abigail Susik. The colloquiums, offered to incoming students, are designed as discussion-based courses that spur thoughtful conversation.

The objective was achieved with Martin, who was inspired by what he learned from visiting lecturers — including members of the Salem police and a local graffiti artist.

“There are a lot of negative social aspects to graffiti, like vandalism.” Martin says. “But the problems stem from a reaction to graffiti rather than the paint itself.”

To further research the topic, Martin applied for the College Colloquium Student Research Grant, available to first-year students. Once he received the funding, he worked with professor Susik this summer to find participating artists — providing them with supplies to complete their works.

After the exhibition concludes, the artists will keep, and perhaps sell, their paintings.

“I’m so proud of the way Ben has handled this project,” Susik says. “The grant was unusual in its scope. Ben rerouted all of the money he was given to another form of philanthropy.”

To find the artists, Martin posted an ad on Craigslist. He then asked for examples of the artists’ work and met with a few in person, accompanied by Susik.

“A lot of people we met say they won’t tag on private party, that they will go out to abandoned parks or way out in the woods and mountains and do it there,” Martin says. “I think artists need an outlet. At least on a government level, graffiti art can be misunderstood.”

For the show, Jared Conley of Portland created “RIP City’s Graffiti,” which depicts the waterfront of downtown Portland. Describing his style as a mix of abstract and 1960s poster art, he hopes Willamette’s exhibition will help change people’s perceptions of graffiti.

“All graffiti is misrepresented as a negative urban crime with no chance of the style being understood,” he says. “My belief that an abstract style applied with an urban sense opens the doors to the art world; recognizing graffiti as a positive influence in society.”

Encouraged by the innovation of Martin’s project, Susik hopes the exhibition ignites conversations about why certain art forms are criminalized. It will also send a message that Willamette students can act now to influence the world around them.

“Ben is acting as a curator, visionary, policy maker and philanthropist all at once through this exhibition,” Susik says. “It’s very impressive.”

Emma Jonas: An Interactive Experience

Using a small computer, a painted canvas and an assortment of incandescent light bulbs, Emma Jonas ’15 is creating artwork that, ideally, will teach people to pay attention to their surroundings.

“Part of the art historical movement of abstract expressionism is showing there is an unconscious you don’t normally notice,” says Jonas, a comparative literature major. “I’m trying to bring that into the 21st century by comparing such aims with new media art, or digital art.”

Jonas will give a presentation of her project, “Revision,” at 4:50 p.m. Sept. 20 in the Hallie Ford Theatre. The piece will remain on display from Sept. 23 through Oct. 4 in Room 208 of the Art Building. “I hope it will spark people to wonder more, to be more curious,” Jonas says.

Jonas, a native of Livermore, Calif., funded her project with a stipend from the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative program. The offering provides select undergraduates with opportunities to engage with faculty on project in the arts, humanities or social sciences.

As part of her research, Jonas attended the Elektra International Digital Arts Festival in Montreal with art history professor Abigail Susik. There, she helped interview internationally famous artists and learned about digital art and how it was being used.

For Susik, Jonas was a partner who was just as invested as she was in learning about new media art.

“Emma is an innovative thinker, a creative thinker who can assimilate the knowledge given to her,” Susik says. “Working with her was like being with a colleague. Emma and I were collaborators.”

When she returned to Salem from Montreal, Jonas intended to write a research paper that compared abstract expressionism to new media art. But the more she learned about the topic, she more convinced she became that should instead create a new media piece herself.

“There isn’t much out there about new media art right now and it felt kind of presumptuous to write a paper about it,” she says. “I thought it would be more fruitful to involve myself in the movement.”

For her project, Jonas focused on peripheral vision by using a mixture of digital technology and traditional media. She bought a 4-by-8-foot translucent screen and painted it in an abstract style.

Then she got an Arduino microcontroller, which is a small circuit board that fits into the palm of her hand. She learned Arduino programming language, inputted it into the circuit board and plugged that into her piece.

“The idea is that you’ll be in a completely dark room. The viewer goes in and steps on a sensor pad on the floor,” Jonas says. “Then you direct your eyes toward the center, keeping them unfocused, and wait as the lights come on.

“I’m trying to expand people’s field of vision, to see what they are capable of picking up subconsciously.”

Familiar with the type of work Jonas is creating, Susik says it promises to be both innovative and impressive.

“The work will have a hidden brain, engineered by Emma like a kind of Frankenstein,” she says. “It will be a perceptual experience that tests the limits of vision.”

Jonas hopes her art will motivate people to look up from their iPhones to appreciate the beauty surrounding them. Through the LARC project, she says she gained newfound confidence in her abilities.

“It involved a lot of time, a lot of frustration, a lot of waiting for supplies to arrive in the mail,” Jonas says. “But in the end, I did something I never thought I would do in a million years. I didn’t understand how computers talk. Now, I kind of do.”