When most people visit an art exhibition, they view the final product, with pieces systematically chosen and placed. Davidson artist-in-residence Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum instead welcomed guests to watch her creative process during an open-studio installation.
Invited by Lia Newman, director of the Van Every/Smith Galleries, the South African artist left the gallery doors open for three weeks as she restaged a recent exhibition from Johannesburg and created drawings on-site for "ab initio," an exhibition that presents the beginning of her narrative and includes pieces involving projection, video, wall drawing, paper drawing, and installation.
Sunstrum's work addresses a wide range of topics, including history, literature, and science. "I've always been intrigued by stories and how historical residues affect our contemporary and future experiences," she said, "and also by the physical application of mathematics, which before seemed so abstract to me."
For the past two years, Sunstrum has explored these interests in South Africa, primarily in Johannesburg. "It's a place that's always moving and I felt a complex relationship with time and space explode in my work. I started making connections between history and mythology and my need to find a contemporary and futuristic language to communicate those ideas." This led her to reference space age architecture in her work and to find how science fiction connects to actual theories in science.
"There's something temporary about a story, making it like an installation in that every time you create it you're retelling it and inserting your own imagination," Sunstrum said.
Those who visited the open-studio will find that a chalk-drawn geometric structure has replaced the chalk buffalo in the piece "spin." Sunstrum explained, "The gallery in Johannesburg was in an old vault that reminded me of an archetypal cave, which led me to the buffalo. But it carried a whole new set of meaning here," she added, "I replaced it with a sort of geodesic-inspired architecture that could be an abstraction of a mountain range or landscape in North Carolina."
The experiential nature of Sunstrum's open studio speaks to the mission of the Bacca Foundation, which funded her campus residency. According to Leslie Marsicano, associate dean of academic affairs, "The Bacca Foundation was established by an anonymous donor who was interested in allowing us to bring in distinguished visitors for innovative and experimental programs in which they have more meaningful and sustained interaction with students."
Sunstrum's program stood out as especially innovative to Marsicano, who serves on the artist selection committee for the Bacca Foundation. "The open-studio is super cool because she's not only available to art students, but also to people who have no experience with the arts and just want to see the artist's process," she said.
Artist residency programs can facilitate learning for all students, Newman said, by giving them access to art in diverse ways. "I see these interdisciplinary projects as ways to connect with different students. Contemporary art can be arcane and challenging, especially for people not in the arts. So if we can find as many access points for them as possible, that's one way to approach the art," she said.
Considering Sunstrum's cross-disciplinary and transnational background, Newman worked with various faculty members to see how the residency could enhance learning across disciplines. The final program included a formal lecture, in which Sunstrum spoke about her work as a student, and informal lectures with multiple classes. She spoke about technique with drawing and digital media classes, and discussed the meaning behind the artist's media and process with contemporary art history students.
Liz Stevens '16 enjoyed seeing how the information she learned in textbooks transcends into the actual art world. "We've been talking about abstract expressionism, and Sunstrum's description of her installations and uses of certain media to bring the viewer into her pieces helped me to contextualize and find purpose in what the artists I read about were doing," she said.
Senior art majors gained invaluable experience working as Sunstrum's artist assistants. "Working with artists helps illuminate how they became successful and the different possibilities for artists," said Elizabeth Harry '14. "It comforted me to see a real artist working with so many media but maintaining a single voice, because I've personally struggled with focusing on one medium."
While attending graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), exposure to students working with filmmaking, performance, classical painting, and new media transformed her craft-based work. "Being influenced by the diversity of their work helped me realize that there wasn't a reason to stick to one media-to be restricted in that way. That idea continues to shape my work, and is seen in the exploratory nature of my animations," she said.
"ab initio" has allowed Sunstrum to add to her diverse narrative and share it with the Davidson community. "I really feel that it's in exhibitions like this, in which I have an opportunity to show the breadth of my practice, that I get to see connections in the decisions I've made. I think this way each work informs every other work in one way or another."
"ab initio" will be on view in the Van Every Gallery until October 11.