'Lessons’ Teaches Artist’s Life

VES alums discuss their career paths and recent works at Carpenter Center talk

Sara Joe Wolansky

“Day Shift”, a 2009 mixed-media installation by Meredith James is on display in the Carpenter Center.

In a panel discussion at the Carpenter Center on February 3, recent alumnae from Harvard’s VES department offered encouraging words to students considering careers in the visual arts. The discussion, entitled ‘Object Lessons,’ brought together Xiaowei Wang ’08, Meredith E. James ’04 and Liz Glynn ’03 to discuss what life outside the classroom can hold for Harvard students interested in becoming professional artists. The talk coincided with the opening of an exhibit featuring installations from all three artists, which will be on display in the Carpenter Center until Feb. 20. The exhibit, also entitled ‘Object Lessons,’ includes mixed media projects, video installations, and a reconstruction of architect Le Corbusier’s furniture using materials from the demolished Fogg Art Museum. The exhibit even features an on-site installation which explores the natural environment around the Carpenter Center.

In discussing their respective paths toward artistic development, the three panelists described both their past projects and those currently on display.

For Wang, the importance of travel has continually shaped her work. Many of her pieces focus on the concept of cultural identity, an idea she has explored through her various voyages abroad. Upon graduating in 2008, Wang spent several months traveling the world, passing through Berlin before finishing her journey in Beijing. There, she observed the nation’s post-Olympic environment, and was disturbed by the wastefulness she noticed around her. Struck by "how much stuff we have, and how much refuse we don’t use," Wang channeled her frustration into the art she created while abroad.

This theme of waste and physical detritus represented a common thread in the works of all three artists. For Glynn, waste materials provide a strong connection to the past, evoking history in an engaging manner. One of her most significant projects in recent years is a video entitled "The 24 Hour Rome Reconstruction Project," which depicts a team of artists rebuilding Rome in a day, using only recycled materials. The team builds a Rome of rubbish at the rate of roughly 1.238 years per minute, only to tear it down later that night. The video, which has been screened in New York and L.A., is now on display in the Carpenter Center. She adds that it wasn’t just Harvard’s VES department which prepared her for this project. "My experience outside VES came into play, such as being a DJ at WHRB, which helped me in booking bands to perform in the art piece."

James also explored the medium of video after graduating from Harvard. While studying for her MFA at Yale, James was encouraged to move away from her fascination with old British architecture and explore video representations of them instead. This led James to experiment with what she termed "primitive video techniques," helping her produce pieces of engaging art that deal with scale, height, and perception. "Video makes things so magical. It’s so fluid and takes no effort at all," James said, reflecting on the new outlook that shaped her project. She expressed excitement at being encouraged to think in a different artistic way. Taking time off between graduating college and attending graduate school also aided her development.

In addition to discussing their specific projects, the three Harvard graduates spoke more generally about the life of a visual artist, the hardships one may face in the real world, and the struggles that even success can bring. James joked, "I was having exhibitions in my apartment, until I got evicted. But then we had an eviction exhibition". Glynn offered a similar sentiment, saying that graduating wasn’t easy, but "working six days a week in a regular job and then working every night in the studio made me realize how much I wanted to do this."

Perhaps in Glynn’s enthusiasm lies the best piece of advice: doing what you love may be difficult, but it is often worth the risk. Indeed, those with enough passion, determination and creativity can follow in the footsteps of other Harvard artists, and carve out a niche for themselves in the world of visual art.

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