Thacher Gallery show highlights adaptation of student art amid COVID

Callie Fausey

Staff Writer

This past year, we have seen the pandemic push the arts to take on new forms. Whether it be concerts shifting from stage to screen, theater performances relocating to Zoom, or art exhibitions living in online spaces, the way we create and experience art has adapted to our virtual world.  

USF Art and architecture students used online spaces to replicate the feeling of walking through an art gallery with the curation of two virtual exhibits, “Quarantine Connections: Sharing Art During a Time of Isolation,” presented by the Museum Studies I class, led by professor Catherine Lusheck, and “Unmuted: The 22nd Thacher Art + Architecture Annual,” presented by the Thacher Practicum class led by professor Nell Herbert. The exhibitions were presented at the “A + A and Thacher Annual Opening Celebration and Awards Ceremony” May 7.  

“Seeking social impact — and especially local social impact — has been at the forefront of many artists’ day-to-day activities this year, with many artists taking up new mediums such as murals on shuttered buildings, and new virtual ways of getting their messages out,” Lusheck said in an email. “Thacher Gallery is a perfect example of this. It shifted its incredibly powerful exhibition and programming around the issue of mass incarceration this fall to a mostly virtual format, reaching audiences far further afield than it ever could before.“

Both exhibits were created to reflect on the turmoil experienced by students in the past year. USF fine arts professor Julianne Henderson,who has been working as an artist and writer in this year of isolation, said that it is important for artists to address this turmoil in their work.

“[Artists] have an opportunity to transform really dark, scary things into something totally beautiful and we have an obligation to rewrite the narrative into something more palatable and revelatory,” Henderson said. 

Student artists involved in the exhibitions exemplified how to shape their COVID narratives into a creative portrayal of their experiences. Savannah Gunther, one of the students who curated “Quarantine Connections,” called the project a “labor of love” that involved the effort of her entire museum studies class. “Quarantine Connections” consisted of USF student artists from around the globe responding to the question “Where are you?” in the form of postcard “self-portraits.” The self-portraits were organized into the themes “Isolation and Connection,” “Home and Yearning,” “Struggle and Hope,” and “Stasis and Transformation.”

“One of the main aims of the exhibition was to cultivate empathy among the viewers,” Gunther said. “I learned that we are all going through something similar right now, as students and human beings.” 

Lusheck explained that the exhibition became personal for the student curators, who had also made their own postcards earlier in the semester. Lusheck said she wanted the project to demonstrate how art can provide a tool for self expression and to be a reminder that even when living in isolation, we are not alone.

“[Student curators] found themselves, in a sense, curating their own lived pandemic experiences, even while still living them,” Lusheck said. “I hope students learn that they truly have the potential to build community through their art, and to have a powerful and effective voice through it.”

Unmuted” responds to the virtual interactions students have had in the past year, and according to the Thacher Gallery’s online exhibition description, is a playful reaction to the phrase, “You’re on mute!” that many have heard while attending “Zoom University.” The exhibit features works from 64 undergraduate majors and minors from USF’s Department of Art and Architecture within the categories of nature, people, objects, and time.

“‘Unmuted’ addresses the ways in which living through the pandemic has affected our lives and the creative practices [artists] have used and developed to ‘unmute themselves,’” explained Catherine Pluimer, second-year art history major, who is also a student curator of the exhibition.  

The exhibition features a variety of media, including paintings of what students find meaningful, wildlife photographs, digital renderings of beer cans and fast food, videos documenting artistic processes, graphic designs, and even music. Pieces included in the exhibition are meant to depict artists’ perspectives on topics ranging from isolation to our dependence on the natural environment.

“The exhibit displays the complexity of our varying experiences from the past year,” said student curator Christina Gazi, a senior art history and museum studies major. “Even in times of struggle, there is hope.” 

Samanda Beeman, a third-year design student at USF, contributed the video “Making More or Less” to the exhibition, featuring a time-loop of Beeman’s creative process as she makes art by hand and digitally. It includes a collage of Beeman sewing a bag, drawing with pen and ink, and an animation she made. 

“I was inspired by the rising popularity of process videos of art on social media,” Beeman said. “‘Making More or Less’ represents the variety of mediums I work with and the time I spent creating during quarantine.” 

Quarantine, and the events of the past year in general, presented many challenges to students all over the world. Henderson said she hopes that from these experiences, student artists will learn to “embrace the transitory nature of the moment.” 

“Things are fleeting and they will pass us by, opportunities will come and go,” Henderson added. “We’re dealing with multiple crises, but you have an opportunity to create, and whether it’s virtual or physical, you should seize the opportunity to bring your ideas to life.”

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