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.

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