Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Alfred University, Student Thesis Shows


Art may be pretty but that’s a side line, a diversion. Art is thought and art students, during their years at Alfred, think. Yes, they learn, make connections, explore materials, create, change and organize in a personal way but through it all they really think. The other thing many of them do is collect stuff – stuff to think about.
Sam Newman is a senior who is amassing mechanical stuff for his senior show, a show that may appeal strongly to your inner tinkerer. Sam grew up in the suburbs of Columbus Ohio where his Mom works with soft metals such as copper sheets to make art. He always liked being creative but science and chemistry appealed to him also. Toward the end of high school Sam started doing some performance art that encompassed the environment and social issues. Sam’s work shows that science, sociology, history, mathematics, chemistry and art make pretty comfortable companions.
Sam said that in high school he tried to explore apathy, specifically the apathy toward the environment that a person falls into when growing up in the suburbs. As a kid, his strongest contact with environmental issues involved sideline things such as turning off lights and recycling. For a couple of months he dyed his hands orange with henna so that looking at them would remind him of what he should be doing environmentally.
He created a billboard that said I don’t care about the environment and neither do you. He invited people to stand in front of this with a bullhorn and admit how they weren’t helping to conserve resources. After high school he came to AU to study art history and foundations and to try to figure out what his art needed to say.
Newman realized that he appreciates functionality and gave some time to kinetic sculptures that connected with people but decided that he didn’t know enough about making the precise machines he wanted. In considering how to deal with that he started spending time on Alfred’s Main Street interacting with people and getting his once-henna stained hands into social dynamics.
The last years of art school give more time for research and exploration so he teamed up with Jen Urfer and took on the duties of the RePo Depot where he lived with the kinds and amounts of stuff that is wasted. It seems he felt some responsibility to reuse some of it and that led him to studying power – personal, electrical and political.
He and Urfer put together some workshops for the community where they presented some homemade solar and wind solutions. The last workshop drew a standing room only crowd and led to the start of a resource website. Continuing the building, Newman is putting his energy into making some sculptural, mechanical object to generate electricity and perhaps be useful as a tool or a teaching aid or a path to conversation.
Newman will set up his senior thesis show in Davis along with other students of similar or connected interests. He’s going to build working wind turbines and will have information for people to take. He hopes that people will stop to help him, maybe to get their hands dirty or find a solution. Maybe some will pick up a recipe for solar or wind power. He hopes to link those who help him with each other and to build a support network.
“Technology,” he says, “is accessible. It can involve a group effort and employ found materials. It’s completely possible to be self taught in the technology of renewable energy.”
Newman takes the idea of what art is and stretches it into what art can do. His conversations invite people to walk along with him in a journey of learning.
“Art has given me the most interesting interactions I’ve ever had. It’s been the basis for engaging people in planning and problem solving. Art can be a conversation that is engaging on all sides.”
The 2009 senior thesis shows will open on Saturday, May 9 at 4 p.m. These free shows are located around the campus and the public is warmly welcome to look, converse and think.


Jen Urfer is another School of Art and Design student who has directed her mind toward building community, sharing, categorizing information and creating solutions.
Urfer has presented workshops on alternative energy with Sam Newman but in her own studio she works with soil, egg shells, time, light and gentle spritz of moisture. Jen grew up in a wooded area around Danbury, Connecticut remembering how her town changed as the population grew. She remembers a childhood with family hikes, her Mom’s garden and strong support for education.
Urfer liked learning and felt that her teachers had confidence in her but just never thought that what school offered suited her learning style. She has taken control of that experience and in getting her BFA in Art she’s including a minor in Education. She’s already built a packet of lesson plans with lines blurred between subject matter and lots of hands-on exploration of materials and concepts.
She doesn’t think that math, science and history should be taught separately but sees math in things – such as a leaf. Her lessons involve the senses and incorporate discovery in order to reach other students who may have an unconventional style.
Urfer came to Alfred because the area reminded her of her home but also because of the “amazing art program and the gracious people” she met here. She visited other schools where she felt some haughty faculty members bristled with self-importance. Alfred’s faculty was comfortable and open.
Through foundations classes and into her next 2 years she had every intention of working with ceramics but last year she made a jump and now works with social/environmental issues.
The term environmentalism, Urfer believes, has suffered from negative stereotyping though she sees this changing. People are making connections and coming to realize that assaults on the environment affect the entire economy as well as the social support system. People, she feels, are seeing how things are connected and are willing to search for and support solutions.
One connection she thinks Americans should attend to more is the one between health and food. She noted that Americans donate huge sums of money to cancer research but they don’t seem to notice that all this stuff put into the soil, toxic chemical fertilizers, end up on their dinner plate. If stuff is toxic when it’s spread on the soil, how can it be good after it flows into a plant?
While still working in clay, Urfer began to become involved on campus in conversations about affordable health care, reasonable college costs and the Waxman Bill (an environmental initiative). It was while doing this that she began to examine the propaganda machines of large corporations. For example the Monsanto website looks like an inviting oasis but Monsanto’s history is stained by the promotion of Agent Orange and all the veterans harmed by it.
This past February, Urfer worked with Kacie Dean to bring a contingent of 13 students to Power Shift, a climate change conference in Washington DC. The trip was funded by Student Affairs, the Bernstein Fund, Green Alfred, the AU Student Senate and the Environmental Science Department.

About 6,000 of the participants lobbied in congress to promote the Waxman Markey Bill in order to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and create 5 million green jobs. The experience was exciting saying that it was uplifting to work with such a larger group of people dedicated to green technology.
Urfer’s now urging people to plant sustainable gardens starting by putting a seed in some potting mix in a broken egg shell. She has hundreds if not thousands of egg shells, some to share and others already at work in her studio greenhouse. At her thesis show she’ll have soil and egg shells and suggests that people bring seeds, maybe some to share.
Plant your seeds at the show and bring an egg carton so you can get them home. Afterwards, Urfer suggests, place the whole thing in an old bread bag to keep warmth and moisture in as seeds generate. Open the bag and spritz once or twice a day and soon the tiny, hidden plant will peek out. When it’s ready, put the whole egg shell in your garden.
She’ll also have video interviews with other members of the Alfred Community who discuss their ideas about and efforts toward conservation.
Urfer will be in the Davis Gym with her opening from 4-7 on Saturday, May 9. (Davis Gym is the dark red brick building on the left if one enters the campus at the traffic light.) Many shows will be in Harder Hall which is immediately right at that same entry. Find a show and likely you’ll find a map that will bring you to other shows spread throughout the campus. All are open to the public and free.


Jeff Miller hopes to bend, twist and generally mess with your perceptions of clay. You might pause when you see his sculpture. You might wonder - What is that? It looks pliable. Can I play with it? Jeff’s thesis show for his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from Alfred University is one of many spread around Alfred on May 9th and they are all open to the public.
When I saw Jeff’s post card with 2 sculptures, my thoughts were of squishy koosh-balls. This was a huge squiggly ball, a ball that invited one to curl up within the soft tentacles but, of course, they aren’t soft and there’s no cuddling. It’s made of stern clay that softly flows through space.
Jeff’s high school was the Metropolitan Regional Technical Center in Providence RI where every student is required to work as an intern 2 days each week. Jeff looked around a bit before deciding to ask to work at a pottery studio. He had to clean up and do odd jobs and in turn he learned to throw, fire kilns and really get interested in clay. By the time he was a senior Jeff thought he might become a functional, production potter. People encouraged him to explore Alfred University.
Jeff wasn’t sure that his portfolio would get him into Alfred but he gave it a try and when I asked him if AU has been a good experience his body language extruded a living exclamation point at the end of a heart-felt, “Yes.”
Alfred has been a good place to learn, to find new paths, to make lasting connections and to both change and grow. One thing that changed his view of art was a sound class with Andrew Deutsch. Jeff said that class opened him up. He’s also been encouraged greatly by Wayne Higby and many others.
Jeff still likes pots but his work with clay has changed full tilt from the functional stuff he started with. He doesn’t think of his work in words as much as forms and ideas that represent creatures of microscopic, unknown, hidden universes. One he showed me is a core with 2,000+ holes in it. There are clay “sticks” to fit into each hole. These sticks look both delicate and confrontational.
If there is a theme in his work it’s modular. He said that if he thinks about a substance he looks into it knowing that it can be broken down into a basic element or a bit of energy. The universe is about variety without end yet all these different things – plants, animals, microorganisms, minerals, whatever - come from the same basic blocks. He thinks not of words but of clay and particles and how they can be endlessly reorganized.
When Jeff takes his modules into a gallery he isn’t sure what’s going to happen with the space. People come in to see what he’s doing and they interact with him as well as the modules. Each time one of his sculptures goes together it can be, most likely will be, different. He enjoys watching pieces grow into sculptures and enjoys the sense of play that people find in his modules. He particularly enjoys working on his forms with the many friends he has watched develop as artists over the four years while he too was growing.
Jeff’s work is terra cotta, mostly unglazed, bisque fired and fragile. There are thousands of leafy parts and thousands of sticks and thousands of – words escape me. Jeff says that there’s a sort of zen to making things over and over again. He visited the Cutco factory in Olean and talked with a man who takes the burr off the blades of knives and this guy has done the process for 30 years and has an art to his every movement. Jeff respects that authority of movement.
Jeff’s sticks (that’s my word, not his) are made 9 at a time with a clay extruder. He cuts them off and rolls them out a bit to finish the ends. Some ends have hooks so they can hang from the bottoms of pieces and others have a simple, rounded point.
Some clay seeps around the edge of the extruder as he works and these become organic, leafy shapes that top some of the sculptures. All the pieces are fragile. Some of the sculptures will be up on legs that will just almost at the point of breaking. He likes it that ceramics, as a material, is so permanent but he is using it in a way that emphasizes the fragility.
After graduation Jeff would like to travel. He plans to go to China to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He’d like to explore the world for a while and eventually go to grad school.
Jeff has no name for his thesis exhibition. He’d rather leave titles and definitions up to you. His work will be in the Cohen Studio at the rear of 55 North Main Street. For those of you unfamiliar with Alfred, the Cohen Studio is behind a pink house across the street from Nana’s Japanese Café. There’s a small parking area and inside the building you’ll find maps to all the other thesis exhibitions opening around the campus between 4 and 7 pm on Saturday, May 9.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Borobudur, Indonesia

Yesterday we went to Borobudur, Indonesia’s largest Buddhist temple. Impressive, huge and detailed as it was, something was missing.

Our trip was as members of a herd of tourists – not our usual way of experiencing a temple. The ship docked in Semerang and Borobudur is a significant drive away so we thought that if we went on our own that it was entirely possible that we’d get back late and would miss the ship so we took a Holland American excursion. If anyone travels in an excursion, they are guaranteed that the ship will not leave without them so it wasn’t the excursion we took as much as the sense of guaranteed return.

Along the way we passed some million dollar photos, photos kept out of our camera by speed and a bus window. The horse drawn carts were super. Some horses advertised their presence in silver and leather finery while others had brightly colored carts and others were work-a-day plain.

There were people slaving away under conical straw hats in the mercilessly large, hot rice paddies. Women planted seedlings or pulled weeds and men pushed what might be called hand tractors but looked like long, homemade roto-tillers. The rice fields themselves were patchworks of glistening, brown water or fields of green or brown rectangles whose lines were drawn by grassy burms where barefoot farmers lugged hoes or bundles of leaves. Bamboo sticks along the sides of plots supported long beans and occasional trees added their own brand of green.

Rice, by the way, is about 50 cents per kilo for the good stuff and it is eaten 3 times a day by everyone. The rice farmers grow white and red rice as well as white or black sticky rice. Some own the land and some share crop. There are also people who share bulls and other animals. One person buys the animal and the other cares for it until it is mature. They share the sale price of the animal or the sale price of what it may create such as milk.

In cities groups of children waited for transportation or walked together in animated groups. The younger children wore red shorts or skirts and white shirts. Middle school children were defined by dark blue and white and high school students by gray and white. Unlike Australia’s these uniforms did not include hats though the sun and heat here accost the body with even less mercy.

There were motorcycles with families of 4 or rolled carpets or huge bales or boxes that dwarfed their drivers. Trucks full of water buffalo and bicycle powered carts all begged to be captured in pixels but the camera couldn’t work fast enough or focus through the dirty window.

Another missed photo that I so wish I had is one of the police dolls. I don’t know what they are called but at some rotaries, or traffic circles or roundabouts, there were concrete, life-sized traffic officers painted in appropriate colors and tirelessly at attention.

Speaking of police, we had a police escort for the whole trip. There were 5 buses in our convoy and a police cruiser with blaring siren led the way. At all major intersections, police stoped traffic so our convoy could travel uninhibited. If the right lane was more open than the left, the convoy just went in that lane. The rest of the cars, trucks and motorcycles were at our mercy. How the people in the car or in the first bus tolerated the hours of siren, I cannot imagine.

Onboard the bus our guide talked endlessly about life in Samerang. He is Catholic and is married to a Catholic woman. His wife was Moslem but her parents sent her to a Catholic school and she converted. He said that the government insists that people not marry outside their religion and said that women must be at least 20 and men at least 24 in order to marry.

Churches can approve of a marriage of younger people who can have a religious marriage until they are old enough for a civil wedding. It is not allowed to live together without being married by one institution or the other and if a woman gets pregnant then she gets married.

The man pays the woman’s family a dowry and it seemed that a middle class dowry was about 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rupiah ($50-$100 US). The bride’s family could use part or all of that money for the wedding celebration which might include having people witness the wedding ceremony and then having a meal or might just be a party after the ceremony. There might be bands or singers at the cerebration or the guests might come to the bride’s home in small, staggered groups for an hour or two.

The guide said that every Indonesian must have a religion. It is not allowed to say that they have no religion because that might mean that they are communists and that’s not allowed.

The temple at Borbudur rises as a huge mound in a field with nicely kept gardens but it’s just there by itself. There are no long walkways with guardians on either side that allow the sense of grandeur to grow as one marches toward the temple. There are no auxiliary temples or mahouts with elephants. Rather than quiet conversation in small groups there are loud speakers and harsh city sounds that convey more of a sense of Disneyland than of worship.

That may be the real difference. Nobody seemed to be there in order to pray. There were no prayer cloths tied around trees and it didn’t feel that candles or incense had ever burned there. The literature compared the t


Pandang Bai, Bali, Indonesia offers things to do for anyone who can make it past the hagglers on the beach. It’s hard to resist them. They want very little money for what they offer but knowing that I would never use the things and that they don’t appeal to me aesthetically made it possible to say no.

We did agree to go in a taxi to outer towns to look around. The driver stopped when we asked him to and he took us to a wood carving place as well as a batik place though the prices at both were out of this world – so high they had to price in US dollars because they’d have run out of zeros using Indonesian Rupiah.

We stopped to take photos of the bridge protector. Since all bad things come from water, the bridges need special creatures to protect them from the water. Some of these are quite elaborate.

At another area we stopped to take photos of rice fields but it was hard to capture the small terraces on the photo so I took a little step onto a rice paddy wall. Apparently I weigh more than a rice farmer because the wall under one foot gave out and I ended up with a mud-coated shoe. Later, in the toilet at a wood carving studio, I held my foot over top of the toilet and poured a bucket of water over it to flush off some of the mud. (It was one of those bucket-flush toilets and this may have been the first time I was happy not to have a flush toilet.)

While the rinse removed some mud it also resulted in a distinct squish while walking out. As the shoe dried the mud became more apparent so I tried to clean it back at the ship where I learned that wet wipes and Q-tips are not the best tools for cleaning mud from a shoe.

Another stop was the Bat Temple. Built into the side of a hill, it has sheltered thousands of bats since the 11th century. Our guide told us that there are a million bats in the cave along with snakes. The snakes never come out but eat the dead or dying bats.

The bats have to feed so they come out at night looking for insects. I said it would be exciting to see them fly off but he disagreed. “The bat shit rains all over the temple, Madam.” he said.

He said it as easily as if he had asked it I would like tea.

His name was Wayun or something akin. It means first. He is the first born son and has 4 brothers so they are named First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth. He and his brothers went to elementary school and then had to drop out. While elementary school is free the students and families must buy uniforms and all their books and materials. This was enough for his family to manage. They couldn’t afford high school so he works at the temple.

In the past, before the bombing , 500 people would come to the temple every day but now there are 30 ore 40 a day and nobody at the temple has money.

An old man trailed Rick to sell him a coin for $4 so I eventually bought the coin. Our guide told us that the man’s grandfather found the coin in a sunken ship off the coast. Who knows?

After I bought that coin another man appeared with another coin and I bought that too for $3 with no story of grandfathers or sunken ships but in a flash he whipped out another coin so Rick and I skedaddled before we became the owners of dozens of coins.

We talked with a port officer, a gentleman dressed in a red shirt, red plaid sarong and with a kris in his belt loop. There were many such officers who seemed to take turns directing traffic, sitting and watching traffic and smoking cigarettes in nearby cafes. This particular officer allowed me to take his photo and then asked for my Holland America 25 day cruise button. He collects them. It didn’t mean much to me so I gave it him and he said it would be the 209th in his collection.

He talked about his kris saying it was his grandfathers and that the kris has magic in it and power in it so it’s best to keep it in a family. He seemed surprised that Rick had actually been able to buy a kris so maybe they are not sold in Indonesia as they were in Malaysia.

Back on the ship with a bit of lunch in us at 6 p.m. Rick stretched out on the bed and I went to walk the deck one time. One of the maintenance men was fighting with a tender propeller. It had about a kilometer of rope of various sizes wrapped around it and he was trying to get it off.

The anti-pirate acoustic weapons are still on deck and the security officers continue to prowl but there’s been no official alert of any kind. Only rumor.