The 2021 Senior Exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art is a visual feast. A provocative and eclectic mix of sculptures, paintings, prints, and photographs, the exhibition showcases the finest work by Colby’s 15 graduating studio art majors.
And there’s more. The Senior Exhibition catalog.
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While senior art exhibitions are common at undergraduate institutions, accompanying catalogs are rare. Colby’s version—with essays on the artworks authored by student writers—sets a high bar.
The catalog allows for a deeper dive into each piece, a chance to meet the artists and understand their motives. Included are reproductions of the work, artist statements, and, significantly, the critical essays by students in the course Writing Art Criticism, taught by Associate Professor of Art Daniel Harkett.
“With the catalog, the idea is that we are explaining, interpreting, offering a reading, offering a way in for readers,” said Harkett, an art historian who joined the department in 2016. Writers of art criticism need to be accessible and engaging, he argues. “We need to help people understand what they’re looking at when they come and see the show.”
The catalog also connects the two halves of the Department of Art—art history and studio art—in a collaborative project that elevates writers and artists alike while creating an archive of each year’s studio work. Said Harkett: “It’s something everyone can celebrate.”
He introduces his student writers to a wide range of art criticism styles, first through readings and then through writing. By encouraging experimentation, he invites them to discover different ways of expressing relationships to art through language. Harkett’s goal? Help students find their own voice and write with authority.
Sally Kashala ’23, an art history and anthropology double major, came into Harkett’s class this spring with “this idea that we’d be writing in a format and a stylized version of art analysis,” she said. But Harkett’s approach not only shattered her preexisting notions about art criticism, it inspired her to identify and embrace her voice, evidenced in the opening lines of her contribution to the catalog:
Upon viewing Grace Connolly’s portraiture, it becomes apparent that the artist has noticed you first! Consider the diptych titled Look at Me/Don’t Look at Me and read it from left to right. Examine the obscured checked flannel and the smoothness of the skin. The warm light that invites you in. Move to the adjacent panel. Notice the purple-gray light and ambience and the reflection of such colors in the draped background. Notice Grace’s stormy eyes. And stay there a moment.
Harkett paired Connolly ’21 and Kashala early in the semester. The two young women met for an interview, and Kashala observed Connolly in her painting nook in the Crawford Art Studio on campus. As Connolly refined her paintings, Kashala wrote, attending a workshop with Jennifer Liese, director of the Center for Arts & Language at the Rhode Island School of Design, crafting multiple drafts, and working on edits with Harkett and her classmates. Liese, a collaborator since the catalog’s inception, brings extensive experience coaching students writing about art.
The Department of Art brings in other outside experts too, many for students majoring in studio art. Those students spend their entire senior year in a rigorous capstone course that includes external critiques, writing assignments overseen by Liese, and the Mirken Family Annual Field Trip, a networking and career-exploration event usually held in cities like New York and Washington, D.C. The combination of these experiences takes students to a higher level, preparing them for graduate school or a job in the larger art world.
“They come out so much stronger in the end,” said photographer and Associate Professor of Art Gary Green, who coordinated this year’s senior studio capstone and designed the catalog. “They’re forced to really articulate their work, to write about it. And then see it in a real show—they get their work framed and leveled, they’re putting in their images for the catalog,” Green said. “It’s a big deal.”
More like a dream come true—at least for Connolly.
A painter since high school, Connolly chose to be a studio art major specifically to be included in the Senior Exhibition. Having her work shown in a world-class art museum is thrilling, she said, but exposes her vulnerability. Her intimate portraits reveal her struggles with body image and the “male gaze,” the act of representing women through a masculine, heterosexual lens.
As her capstone year progressed, Connolly gained confidence. Writing her artist statement proved cathartic, she said, but working with Kashala shifted how she saw herself. “During the first interview, her questions were forcing me to see myself as an artist, not just someone who does art,” said Connolly, who’s also majoring in educational studies. Kashala’s attention “made me feel like what I was doing was a little bit more significant. It made me want to put more effort into it. And it made me more thoughtful and cognizant of what I was doing.”
For Kashala, the course helped her gain a sense of ownership of her writing. “Moving forward, I’ll ask if I can approach assignments in a more creative way and challenge suggestions and edits.” She experienced the sort of transformation that Harkett sees every year. “I love to see it happen,” he said with a sly smile. “The students just grow into this process of writing differently.”
For both writers and artists, the exhibition catalog engages them in a professional, real-world project with constraints, deadlines, and word-count limits. And for the writers, there’s the added responsibility of interpreting their peers’ work fairly, “with kindness, with support,” Harkett said. “It’s a form of care, a form of engagement. These writers are paying attention and looking closely … perhaps as the first person writing about a piece.”
And at the end of the semester, everyone leaves Mayflower Hill with a keepsake.
“Catalogs add longevity to an exhibition. They give it a life beyond its run,” said Green. “For our seniors, it’s a gift. A book that represents their four years of the study of art.”
The Pill Mill speaks to the intersection of addiction and the pharmaceutical industry, inviting viewers to think critically about how companies contribute to addiction, Sievers said. The work exhibits 700 “pill bullets,” each made from a mold Sievers created. “That number comes from the most recent numbers I found, that about 70,000 people in the U.S. in 2019 overdosed,” he said. “Each bullet correlates to about 100 people.” Sievers is a studio art major from Belvedere Tiburon, Calif., who will attend Parsons School of Design for a graduate program in industrial design starting this fall.
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