Alumni art on deck at Mead

The breadth of artwork is extensive, according to Director and Curator of European Art Jill Meredith.  “The exhibition is diverse in medium and subject matter … There will be paintings, photographs, works on paper, sculpture and installations-abstract, figurative, landscape,” said Meredith.  Initiated over four years ago, this exhibition corresponds with the 50th anniversary and renovation of the Museum.

Sonya Clark ’89, assistant professor of environment textile and design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology, will kick of this exciting event with a keynote lecture.  The lecture, titled “From Hair to There: Cultural Roots as Artistic Representation,” will focus on the metaphorical representations of African diaspora..

Through her art, Clarke strives to “strengthen the tether to [her] African heritage, not to return to the past, but to better understand one’s present,” according to her artist’s statement.  Her most recent artwork was a series of headdresses that metaphorically explore the African culture and diaspora.

Clark will be joined by many of the featured alumni at a reception following the lecture, including Elliott Arkin ’83, Charles Luce ’69, and Elizabeth Noerdlinger ’81.

What connects all of these artists is their liberal arts experience-the experience of attending Amherst. Some of the alumni were art majors at the College, but many discovered their passion for art in later years. “Many praised faculty and courses in a wide range of subjects beyond the arts,” said Meredith.  “Most considered the small campus and the liberal arts experience beneficial to their intellectual, social and aesthetic development.”

In order to be selected for display, alumni artists underwent a fairly rigorous selection process that included interviews and studio visits. “[The juries] made a number of studio visits to select the actual works displayed and were impressed by [the artists’] comments about their work, always very thoughtful and articulate, as well as their Amherst experience, which was formative,” added Meredith.

The artwork spans four decades of alumni art, beginning with the ’50s, and represents the continuum of modern art.   Several of these artists have been accredited with introducing avant-garde techniques into the art scene, shaping the transition from post-modernism to the most contemporary styles.  One such artist is Michael Mazur ’53, who is most regarded for his printmaking and revival of the monotype process.

Abstraction actions

“I had a lot of fun at Amherst,” said Michael Mazur ’57, who took advantage of the “unusual” literary life at the College. Forced to overcome pressure from his parents, he explained that the primary reason for his matriculation at Amherst was the freedom within the liberal arts curriculum.

“The art education when I was there was meager, which was disappointing. I did most of my artwork over at Smith,” said Mazur.

Mazur did a vast amount of artwork at Smith College but also took advantage of the strong poetry community at Amherst. “I met a lot of poets there. Amherst also always had this particular pride in the poets that went there,” said Mazur, who went on to marry one of the Smith students he met during his time in college.

Mazur spent a year studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. After Amherst, he went on to earn both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art and Architecture in 1961. This past year Mazur had a large amount of work exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and he recently had two shows in Italy with his illustration of the Robert Pinsky translation of Dante’s “Inferno.”

“The artist’s life is a question of movement, of propelling yourself forward; painting is a moment-to-moment affair; painting is an organic process-a physical melding of hand and mind in which the act of articulating the surface is of consummate importance,” Mazur said in his artist’s statement.

The development of Mazur’s artistic style over time echoes this; in recent years his art has become increasingly abstract.  Mazur’s painting on display at the museum will be “Autumn,” which he describes as “boisterous, noisy fall.”

Amherst was additionally influential for Mazur because of the relationships that he formed there. One such relationship was established between Mazur and another featured alumnus, Thomas Cornell ’59.

Moral musings

When he first came to Amherst, Cornell was a physics major but soon discovered his true passion to be art. “It wasn’t so much before Amherst that my interest in art started,” said Cornell. “I met other artists that were impressive and helpful. Smith’s art department was also good.”

He has since exhibited his work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and has had several reviews by the New York Times Magazine. Through his art, Cornell is most interested in representing the different notions of morality explored by political philosophy.

“What I’m trying to do is present an image of what is good and healthy-what is good conduct and how humans ought to behave,” said Cornell of his artistic direction. “I think I’m making real progress. It’s very ambitious.”

In seeking to represent morality, Cornell questions the conventional themes that govern society. “Am I trying to make pretty pictures? No,” said Cornell. “I’m trying to present a counter-vision of what humanity is. The 20th century modernist view is not interesting to me. I’m doing what good political philosophy would require me to do.”

Cornell implements various artistic techniques to represent morality in his art; his medium of choice is oil on canvas. “Painting is not so much a question of color, but of light and rhetoric,” said Cornell. “The colors are a reflection of these.”

This artistic aspiration expanded in significance for Cornell as he reflected on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. “There are a lot of people going around thinking they have the answer … people like Osama bin Laden who think that God is with them,” said Cornell. “We have to be critical.”

The tragedy only reinforced Cornell’s artistic commitment to portraying universal images. “It’s somewhat out of fashion, providing a view of a kind of environmental humanism that transcends the Orthodox religion,” said Cornell. “You still need to share the oil. How do you share the oil and the fruits of nature? You need to present a transcultural image of what is good, universal.”

According to Cornell, artists have a responsibility to encourage moral leadership. “The real importance of art is to enhance moral consciousness,” he said. “Artists need to step up to the plate and present a sense of reality and moral leadership. Artists should be leaders. I want to help lead.”

This responsibility also lies with college professors; Cornell is currently teaching at Bowdoin College. “A real challenge for colleges is to enhance us emotionally, not just to fill us with facts,” he added.

In “Bathers VIII,” he presents figures with an air of liberation as a metaphor for aggression. “The people in my paintings are outside, they’re sexual and interesting,” said Cornell. He seeks to use themes in his art to argue in favor of a better world based on naturalistic ethics and aesthetics.

Cornell will deliver a lecture in the First Tuesday lecture series on Dec. 4. “In returning [to Amherst] as an artist I would really like to have a dialogue with students,” he said.