Artists in residence

by Tina Owen,

Every spring, hundreds of people flock to a month-long exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Instead of the works of a famous artist, they’re drawn by the creativity of Willamette studio art seniors.

  • Senior thesis exhibition
    Laura Cannon, from left, Shelbie Wolfe, Shayna Weimer, Mara Brashem, Karya Schanilec and Alexandra Ramsey are studio art majors and 2016 graduates of Willamette University. They showcased their art in the Senior Thesis Exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art before commencement.

The Senior Thesis Exhibition represents the students’ work over the course of two semesters, their in-depth exploration of the challenges that professional artists face, and a bittersweet farewell to the university.

The six studio art majors who graduated this year offered diverse approaches and artistic visions that encompassed drawing, painting, photography and sculpture.

The show provides students with a rare and valuable opportunity to become familiar with the professional practices and expectations of the art world. “The chance to show your work in a respected art museum is a benefit that Willamette offers that many institutions don’t,” explains associate professor of art Alexandra Opie. “It puts students ahead in their professional preparation if they do want to go into a career in art.”

The seniors create artist statements that describe their work and intentions; collaborate with museum staff to design, curate and install the exhibit; and give a public presentation about their work in a gallery talk. “Some find the experience draining,” says Opie. “For others, it confirms that art is the direction for their lives.”

On the day of commencement, many students take their proud parents for one last look at their art displayed on campus. The next day, with the exhibit over, they reclaim their work and begin their new lives as Willamette alumni.

Whether their path leads to graduate school, a museum or an art studio, it will emerge in the same way as their senior thesis: through commitment to self-discovery, experimentation and the hard work of acquiring new skills.

SHAYNA WEIMER ’16 created a sensitive set of portraits to address the social stigma of mental illness. After talking with members of the Willamette community who suffer from mental illness, she drew their faces, using their own words to create the lines and shading. In her artist statement, she wrote: “In showing the faces together as a series, I intend to raise awareness of the commonness of mental illness and create a sense of community among those living with it.”

KARYA SCHANILEC ’16 captured the essence of dance through photography. Isolating moments within a dance, she created composites of images of performers’ arms and legs set against a black background. In her artist statement, she wrote, “Photography allows me to capture the most subtle of movements, so they may be appreciated beyond happening just in that time.”

LAURA CANNON ’16 created abstract wire sculptures as a way of dealing with the death of her friend, Sierra Carroll ’16. “It was essential to try to find some way to express what I was experiencing,” she wrote in her artist statement, in which she also dedicated her work to Carroll. “The repeated motion of twisting the wire together became meditation and, as I worked, my mind would be completely quiet.”

ALEXANDRA RAMSEY ’16 used her camera to reveal a new way of looking at the world. Her extreme close-up photographs of everyday objects show the rich rewards to be gained when people slow down and pay attention. “Through isolation, the objects become nearly unrecognizable and abstract as they take on entirely new forms,” she explains. “This frees us from the constraint of looking at something with a preconception and allows us to see it in a new light.”

MARA BRASHEM ’16 photographed her collections of items, such as plastic dinosaurs, to imbue the mundane with meaning. In her artist statement, she explained, “Just as an archaeologist uncovers ancient artifacts, studying each to build an understanding of the past, I have laid out these simple objects gathered over the years to highlight their particular qualities and make people think about their own accumulations.”

SHELBIE WOLFE ’16 experimented with both visual elements and unpredictable processes. She combined various materials, such as bleach, resin, acrylic paints, food coloring, sand and salt. Then she painted the resulting mixtures — textured, runny or sticky — onto 6” x 6” wooden squares “to create intimate materials that would bring people close to see the details.”

This article originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Willamette magazine.

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