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Book of Essays on Artworks by 100 Students Illustrates a Grand Experiment in the Liberal Arts

by Davidson College
Davidson Collects bookcover
Front cover of "Davidson Collects," which will be unveiled on January 18.

Five years in the making from concept to coffee table, the newly released art book Davidson Collects: 100 Writers Respond to Art explores works from the college's extensive permanent art collection through the eyes of students.

Each of the 100 writers, chosen from across the spectrum of the college's liberal arts and science disciplines, spent time with a single work of art assigned by lottery. Artists included Arbus, Dali, Delacroix, Dürer, de Kooning, Munch, Picasso, Rodin, Sargent, and Warhol, as well as more contemporary artists, some of whom have visited Davidson and even served on its art faculty in recent years.

The assignment was for each student to experience a specific work not just as an exercise in the kind of rigorous scholarship to which Davidson students are accustomed, but as an unfiltered and direct personal adventure-an inquiry of spirit as well as of mind. Then, write about it.

The resulting 280-page book will be a centerpiece at the Jan. 18 opening of the exhibit "Recent Gifts and Acquisitions" in the Van Every Gallery of the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center. The exhibit will feature a monumental bronze sculpture by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz and works on paper by Sean Scully. A short program featuring President Carol Quillen will begin at 7:30 p.m. Sarah Daniels '12, a psychology major who wrote about Rodin's Jean d'Aire sculpture for Davidson Collects, will read her essay in the arts center atrium that is home to the towering sculpture. There is no charge to view the exhibitions, and the galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends. For more information call 704-894-2519.

"When I first saw it," Zoe Balaconis '11 wrote in Davidson Collects, of Leonard Baskin's "Untiled, Self-Portrait, 1971," "I saw a large face like a bird's, inscribed by fading edges, as if made with a marker running out of ink. But then the lines moved. I sat down so that it adjusted to me, and I saw in the circle a face like a mask, a man standing erect, neck outstretched, mouth pursed but not serious, never looking behind him at the unsteady horizon, a sea of tar that defines the sky as a light otherness."

The importance of exploring "otherness," and the shifting perspectives that that exploration entails, were guiding themes throughout the book project.

"Art, which here at Davidson is installed throughout the campus, shapes this (college's) culture by consistently challenging our conventional categories of perception to explode our assumptions and make the familiar strange," President Quillen wrote in the Davidson Collects introduction. "Through art, we learn the limits of what we know and can know even as we commit ourselves to a quest for truth."

Student writer Keeley Jacobs '12, who visited museums frequently while growing up in Los Angeles, said the time she spent in contemplation of Kiki Smith's hand-colored print "Wading, 2004" brought new dimensions to her perspective. "Unhurried, meditative observation allowed me time to absorb the elements, ask myself appropriate questions, and ultimately connect with the art," Jacobs said.

Van Hillard, director of the college's writing program and associate professor of rhetoric, was thrilled with the "interpretive risks" that emerged for student writers as the "blue-sky idea" of Davidson Collects came to fruition.

"Our students tend to operate at peak performance when they navigate a challenge involving an unfamiliar subject to which new modes of thinking and analytic strategies may be applied," Hillard wrote in Davidson Collects.

"Davidson Collects exemplifies how the art in our permanent collection can meaningfully inhabit the lives of our students," said Professor and Chair of the Art Department Cort Savage. "We don't add work to our permanent collection so it can gather dust in a storage room. This book shows how the artwork can be utilized in a way that is as alive and vibrant as our students."

Art is a relatively young, and now quite robust, discipline at Davidson, Davidson Collects reveals in introductory essays. The first course related to art was offered in 1928. A decade later, first-year student Gordon Horton '42 set in motion the idea of a gallery program and permanent art collection. In 1953, Douglas Houchens became the college's first full-time professor of art. Art became a major in 1971. About that time the department also began sponsoring the Davidson National Print and Drawing Competition, which attracted some of the finest artists of that era. With the completion of the Belk Visual Arts Center in the fall of 1993, the department moved into a state-of-the-art facility dedicated solely to the visual arts (and promptly short-handed "the VAC" by appreciative students).

Davidson's permanent art collection numbers more than 3,200 works spanning more than five centuries-sculptures, paintings, photographs, outdoor installations, and more. The collection is supported by a department that boasts seven faculty as well as administrative, laboratory, and studio staff. The department offers some 40 studio and art history courses, and has about 45 majors annually. A gallery internship program began in the VAC's Van Every/Smith Galleries in 2006, the same year the new Campus Sculpture Program found firm footing. In spring 2010, the Art Collection Advisory Committee (ACAC) convened on Davidson's campus for its inaugural meeting.

Davidson Collects was made possible through a generous grant from Wells Fargo.

"At every stage of this project's evolution, we were afforded the freedom to expand the scope of the original concept in order to pursue a more inclusive and multidisciplinary opportunity: an experience-better, an experiment-in the liberal arts," said Brad Thomas.