These days Mass Hall’s ground-floor main corridor looks more like a contemporary art gallery than simply a prestigious passageway — and that’s exactly how University President Drew Faust likes it.
Adorning the hallway’s walls are dynamic animations: a three-dimensional work of clear museum wax and melted glue mixed with wire and mirrors; vibrant blocks of color divided by a series of embossed and monoprint designs in a giant rice paper collage; digital photographs; and whimsical paintings consisting of cartoon-like images, all created by some of the University’s youngest members.
Harvard students in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) created virtually all of the new works on display as part of the Mass Hall Student Art Exhibit. The second annual show in the hallway space is just one example of the University’s commitment to bring the arts to the forefront of Harvard’s curriculum and campus life.
“The exhibit is symbolic in the sense that the president of the University is giving some well-trafficked space to display the kinds of works being made by students. She could do something much safer, but she has chosen instead to be lively,” said Helen Molesworth, Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art, and member of the University’s Arts Task Force, who helped coordinate last year’s show. “It’s a way for members of the administration and the Harvard community at large to see that the arts are quite alive on campus.”
In the fall of 2007, Faust spearheaded a University-wide task force to examine the role of the arts at Harvard. After a yearlong series of meetings, interviews, and visits to peer institutions, the committee of students, faculty, and professional artists released a set of detailed findings last December. Included in the report were the core recommendations that the arts be broadly incorporated into the curriculum both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, that more practicing artists become faculty members, and that more physical spaces on campus be dedicated to the arts.
“The arts play a central role in the lives of so many students at Harvard, but the opportunity to showcase their artistic talent has been limited,” said Faust. “As we start thinking about how best to implement some of the more ambitious recommendations of the task force on the arts, it is also important to look for smaller-scale opportunities, like finding new exhibition spaces to highlight students’ creativity and make their work more accessible across campus.”
Students taking part are all either concentrators in VES or simply enrolled in individual elective classes with the program. The department offers a wide range of courses, including painting, drawing, photography, sound, video, sculpture, and film.
The eclectic and lively collection of the 22 student works on Mass Hall’s newly refurbished walls is vivid testimony to the program’s diversity.
A large charcoal figure study hangs next to a screen looping eight different video projections and animations accompanied by music and sound. Down the hall, an abstract painting of swirling images sits next to a digital photo of the South Boston waterfront whose color was partially manipulated by a computer. On the opposite wall, a mixed-media piece that incorporates thread, masking tape, paper towels, and even human hair captivates with a force that the show’s curator called both “hypnotic and disturbing.”
“I think what unites these works — particularly given [their] diversity — is that there’s something compelling about each of [them]. With each one, there was something about it that I couldn’t quite walk away from,” said Virginia Anderson, Diane and Michael Maher Assistant Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museum, who selected the works for this year’s exhibit.
At an opening reception for the show on Feb. 5, proud students mixed with their peers, faculty, and members of the administration, delighted at the opportunity to meet with — and have their work recognized by — Faust.
“The unbelievable resources, the instruction, the support for the arts, it’s really awesome, and so I am extremely lucky to be here,” said freshman Kayla Escobedo, who chose to attend Harvard over an art school and plans to be a VES concentrator.
The young artist, whose abstract acrylic painting “Leda and the Swan,” was inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name, said she was thrilled to be part of a show that features student works so prominently.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for kids to get their works shown, which I know is changing — that’s why this is here. So it was really exciting … to actually get in [the show] and have my work with the president. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It’s such an honor.”
“With the whole Task Force on the Arts, it feels [like a] very promising and really exciting time for students in the arts,” said another artist-freshman, Sara J. Stern, adding, “It’s really nice to know that the president is so involved and that that translates into this physical exhibit.”
The exhibit is often the topic of lively discussion in the building, said the briefing coordinator for the provost Sarah Traver, who passes the works each day to get to her office at the end of the Mass Hall corridor.
“They spark so much conversation, even among the same people from day to day.”
Seeing students periodically stop by to take a peek at their works is another perk of the new show, noted Traver.
“They are just glowing,” she said, “because they get to be a part of this.”