‘From Within’ art exhibit showcases multidimensions of Princeton faculty and staff
A special exhibit now open on campus showcases the “hidden” artistic talents of Princeton University faculty and staff. “From Within” is on view Feb. 1‑March 15 in Dickinson Hall, Room 113, and features works of art in oil, acrylic and watercolor, mixed media on canvas, photography, plexiglass and textiles.
“The title expresses the idea that we looked from within our own community for the exhibit,” said Jennifer Loessy, manager of the Center for Collaborative History. The Department of History manages the Dickinson Hall lounge, which serves as a small gallery space. “We wanted to showcase people who are amateur artists, who pursue art as a personal passion, hobby or outlet for artistic expression.”
The public is invited to an exhibit reception featuring some of the artists from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21.
Loessy conceived of and coordinated the exhibit with local curator Dana Lichtstrahl. “Since the exhibit presented an open call for art from the University’s working community, academia to administration, I was excited and surprised by what was submitted,” Lichtstrahl said. “‘From Within’ is evidence that there is more here, than what’s here!”
Below, some of the faculty and staff artists answer questions about their creative process and inspiration, as well as how their art relates to or diverges from their teaching, research and work at Princeton.
“Roots; Tree; Greenscape”
Anne Anlin Cheng
Professor of English and American studies; Director of the Program in American Studies
How did you start painting? In 2016, I was bombarded by a series of health issues. My life was suddenly filled with hospitals and doctors and the blackhole that is the "medical system." For months on end, I did not have the concentration necessary for reading and writing which, for someone like me, was emotionally and psychologically devastating. I tried meditation without success. It was then that a friend told me about an open art studio called Orange Door, led by a local artist named Mic Boekelmann. I went, and it gave me a haven.
What do you enjoy about painting? How is painting a different experience or outlet than your teaching and research? I have always loved the visual arts but am not an artist. I have never painted save for the occasional high school art class. I went to Orange Door in search of something outside of my routine. I was surprised by how much I took to it. The activity of painting engrosses my mind but is not taxing; it requires concentration but does not veer into stress; it offers me a creative activity in which I have no ego invested; it is mentally freeing and sustaining. For three hours a week in the studio, the act of painting held my being. It felt like tremendous relief. I think this is as close as I can get to exercising mindfulness.
Do your students or colleagues know that you paint? I don't think any students know; a handful of colleagues know. I think people are surprised. At any job, most people tend to see one facet of one another. But I believe that all of my colleagues have “secret” lives. They are creative, thinking people, so why wouldn't they? In fact, this past year I started a page on the Program in American Studies website called the "Inner Lives of AMS Faculty." There I invited my colleagues in AMS — all of whom are interdisciplinary scholars with vastly diverse interests — to share an aspect of themselves that are not related to school. You will see amazing talents, passions, quirky and interesting hobbies, and more. I do not know if students ever visit that page, but I hope they do because I think it is good for them to see their teachers in a more three-dimensional way and to see that a life of the mind can encompass so much.
What does the exhibit convey about faculty and staff at Princeton? Princeton is an amazing community because it attracts and collects interesting people. The multidimensionality of the faculty and staff may not be immediately evident in their day-to-day work activity, sitting behind a desk or standing behind a podium, but that multi-valence informs and enriches what and how they do what they do every day. As I said above, people who are drawn to the life of the mind tend to be curious people, and curious people explore. I never understood the presumed dichotomy between "thinkers" versus "doers." This is one of the reasons that I like to incorporate and encourage opportunities for the meeting of theory and practice in my teaching.
“Untitled Study, 2018”
Digital imaging specialist, Princeton University Art Museum
How did you start painting? I just always loved making pictures of people and things, real or imagined. After college, I would say my painting really started with some amount of focus and originality. Serious work followed by earning a master’s in fine art and working in New York and Los Angeles.
What do you enjoy about painting? I enjoy the process and also the result. I also like doing a series and seeing how one work turns out compared to the remainder of the group. Painting isn’t an outlet or relaxing activity in my life. I have a genuine need to make art. When I see art that influences me, there is a desire to get into the studio and produce some work, often new works.
How does painting relate to your work at the art museum? I would say it relates in very direct ways. I am surrounded by works of art all day. I see the same paintings on repeated occasions and every glance adds up. I photograph works to support the museum's collection. These sessions in studio afford me a few moments of close inspection as I work to represent the color and density accurately. Behind the scenes in the museum, I will see art objects in storage or otherwise being attended to. So, I see these paintings in different light, almost the way one might see paintings when visiting an artist’s studio. It’s crucial for artists to look at other works of art, and the museum provides that to me on a daily basis.
For my painting in the “From Within” exhibit, I was interested in responding in some way to “Landscape” by Asher Brown Durand, painted in 1859. I’ve always admired this canvas, and it was included in the recent exhibition at the museum, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” so I was called on to photograph it again. It was then that I really wanted to paint something about it. Opening at the museum soon will be “Gainsborough’s Family Album,” a collection of portrait paintings (from the National Portrait Gallery in London), which surely will influence my current work in one way or another.
Can you describe your creative process? For a long time, I had wanted to make a painting that was a reaction to a painting at the museum. I photographed this work at very high resolution as well as a view in very soft focus. Those digital images were the jumping off point as I started to put the paint on the canvas. The 19th-century stretcher bars are from the museum too, discarded from the conservation studio. I stop and start paintings, so this was unfinished for maybe six months. I have a painting studio attached to my house in the back.
What does the exhibit convey about faculty and staff at Princeton? After nearly 15 years at Princeton, I remain amazed by the talents of others that work on campus. Princeton is a challenging place to work, especially when you find yourself working with exceptionally focused and productive people. It doesn’t surprise me at all, that staff members not only possess talent, but work those skills to produce art.
Communications coordinator, Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education
How did you become interested in photography? To be honest, the motivation was my dad, who was a painter. He had bought a 35 mm camera and didn’t know how to use it, so he asked me to take a course so I could teach him. I took an elective when I was a senior in high school in 1980 (I’m still in contact with that incredible teacher). Needless to say, my dad never got his camera back (I still have that old Minolta).
Why did you select the photo “Soak” for the exhibit? I was working with the “From Within” theme and thought this piece reflected some internal dialogue I have been having with myself over the last year or two. So, this image actually came from within.
Can you describe your creative process? Is this a scene you set up or something that you happened upon? I was hiking on Thanksgiving morning 2017 and stumbled upon this old barn. The lighting was extraordinary and I spent a good deal of time enjoying this space. I actually got into the tub at one point.
My photography is based on paying attention to your surroundings, keeping your head up and looking to find the beauty in the simple, sometimes overlooked moments, objects and experiences that surround us every day. I could have walked right by this space, this experience, but I took a few moments and just looked, and the moment, shot, lighting appeared. Then I just had to capture it. I also tried to reflect that lighting in the mounting I built.
What do you enjoy most about photography? I practice photography every day. It allows me to be present in certain moments, it makes me look to find some small bit of beauty in my day. Look, everyone can see that beautiful orange-pink sunset through the magnificent architecture on campus, but it’s when you spot something magical on a gray day, or notice the afternoon light on the telephone wires along Olden Street, that can bring that same feeling of wonder, well to me anyway. I also have a horrible memory and taking photos helps to jog my thoughts about a certain day or event.
What does the exhibit convey about faculty and staff at Princeton? I have always been aware that the community on campus, students, faculty and staff are unique in their complexities. There is the global-ness and diversity that helps to feed this, as well as the open atmosphere and the always present opportunity for growth. When I came to the School of Engineering and Applied Science about 13 years ago, I was amazed that these very engineering-focused students would come down to the lobby in the afternoon to play the piano. I know math and music go hand and hand, but there was so much heart and emotion when they played — that was what really astounded me.
“Archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows”
Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and History
How did you start painting? I took a couple of classes in high school but nothing more formal, though we always had paints in the house when I was younger. In college, I went on a trip to Ireland and visited Newgrange, which is an enormous Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland. I was so struck by the landscape that I decided to try painting it from photographs I took. That began a hobby of painting pictures of the places I had visited, particularly of landscapes and interesting architecture.
What do you enjoy about the process of painting? It’s relaxing, and it makes you focus and really look at something. I’ve also started quilting, which for me is a similar creative experience, because I love the geometry of it. Painting and quilting both calm the part of my brain that I use when I’m researching or writing, and it gives me a chance to kind of wring the sponge and start fresh.
What is L’Anse aux Meadows and why did you want to paint it?
L’Anse aux Meadows was a coastal Norse settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, and is the only confirmed Norse site in North America. It was built around the year 1000CE, half a millennium before Christopher Columbus. Today it has reconstructions of some of the original buildings, and is a living history site.
I went there in 2010 after I wrote my undergraduate thesis examining the relationship between the site and the Vinland Sagas, which describe the Norse exploration of North America. I really enjoyed that trip—it was my first truly solo travel experience outside of the US, and the first trip I planned all by myself. I also met some really lovely people, who answered what must have been hundreds of questions. I think I remember this trip more than others I’ve taken since because I spent so much time painting it. It was also very eye-opening in terms of my research. It’s one thing to read about a place, and it’s another to visit in June and see icebergs floating in the harbor.
Can you describe your creative process for the painting? I took a considerable number of photos of L’Anse aux Meadows while I was there. When I returned home, I selected one of the photos to use as a basis for a painting. I enlarged the photo and laid a grid over it, and then put a grid on the canvas so I could replicate the scene.
For the painting, I really wanted to capture the feeling of being there. I picked a view that faces out toward the ocean. The Norse were a seafaring people, so I thought that made poetic sense. The landscape is all open space and light— I worked the hardest on the shadows and the tiny bits of white for the top of the fence poles, trying to communicate the light of the scene in the painting. Getting the blue right for the sky and the water was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was trying to get it blue without being Crayola blue.
How does painting connect with your teaching and research? I show my students a lot of photographs of archaeological sites, including the photo my painting is based on. We actually study L’Anse aux Meadows in my class, “The Vikings: History and Archaeology.” Students read about the site, and then I give them the site plans for each of the buildings. We then reconstruct how the Norse might have used the site based the archaeological plans. We talk about all of the different places that the Norse explored, traded with, and conquered. A lot of the class focuses on the conquest of England and their presence in Europe and the Mediterranean, but they also made it all the way to America too.
Graduate program administrator, Department of Mathematics
How did you create “Carnival Queen”? This work is mostly collage with some acrylic paint used for the face, hands and black background. Her costume, and other details, are made from paper cuttings taken from an amazing knitting pattern book that I found at Goodwill. I challenged myself to use only pages and patterns from this book. You can see more texture in person, like where patterns meet other patterns. The patterns themselves guided me to how I should use them and what to ultimately create on the canvas.
Why did you select this piece for the exhibit? I like what the Carnival Queen represents — strength, purpose, determination. She’s “carrying a load,” almost like a weight lifter. You see some strain in her face. However, she is beautiful; quite a vision in her queen’s crown. (And, clearly this isn’t her first rodeo, or carnival.)
What do you enjoy about the process of creating art? There is something very satisfying, and therapeutic, about cutting pieces of paper, placing them on a canvas and creating something. Never knowing where it will take me. I probably “waste” a lot of time and materials in the creation process (so be it). Whereas, in my job in the math department, I have a better sense of the task at hand and where I need to go, even from the start.
What does the exhibit convey about faculty and staff at Princeton? I believe you can have an “at work” persona and an “outside of work” persona. While some people define themselves by their job, I have never done that. While I love what I do at Princeton, I feel that my job is only one part of who I am. Despite my lack of real technical training, I have always thought of myself more as an “artist.” I view the world through artist’s eyes — always appreciating colors, patterns, textures as well as composition and the mood that is evoked.
“Golden Years: Whoap Whoap Whoap”
Joachim (Joe) Spruch
Production assistant supervisor, Print and Mail Services
How long have you been painting? I was 6- or 7-years-old when I first started painting. I was fascinated by airplanes but wasn’t able to draw them exactly like they appeared in real life, so I started tracing them with a pencil from photos. I continued using this technique in the years that followed by tracing my favorite cartoon characters Superman and Donald Duck. I also started drawing a lot with colored pencils and actually won a small prize from the Bahlsen cookie company, which was a box of cookies and a set of six felt tip pens.
What do you enjoy about the process of creating art? Creating art gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction and a feeling of fulfillment. I’ve always liked experimenting with different creative avenues, not just paint. I was always interested playing a musical instrument. I started out with a flute because of Jethro Tull and then later on studied the guitar. I wasn’t very good at either, so two years ago I moved on to learning the piano, which I love and am doing better with than the other instruments I attempted. I really enjoy the creative process in both painting and music and the feelings I get from it.
Does your art relate to your work at Print and Mail Services? It’s a bit of yin and yang, but there is also a crossover. In order to be a good printer, you have to have a solid understanding about colors and pay attention to the details, and the same holds true for painting.
Do colleagues know you about your work as an artist? Yes, and they are very supportive. I am lucky to work with people who are also very creative, and we show each other what we have created over the weekend or share ideas or ask each other for advice. I still get very excited when I hear somebody talking about me to others, telling them that I am a good painter. It makes you feel good.
Can you describe your process for creating “Golden Years: Whoap Whoap Whoap”? What does the title mean? “Golden Years” came to be when I discovered the acrylic color gold. You don’t often use gold in landscape painting, or use it minimally elsewhere. I was fascinated how it would change with the lighting in a room. If you start walking from one end of the room to the other end while looking at the painting you will see different colors, and the painting itself also changes. So, I did a couple of the paintings in various sizes, using modeling paste in some to give the gold color texture and more weight — they also feel interesting when you touch them. Then I started hanging them on the walls in my home, and while they were very different from each other they worked well together as a set.
It was when I was surrounded by all that gold that the idea occurred, and from that, David Bowie’s song “Golden Years” popped into my head. I thought about how this painting shows an excessive golden era with its shiny surface, but also shows the cracks from within that have slowly emerged over that time period. There are actually four paintings that belong to this series, but for space reasons, only one could be shown. The largest of the four paintings was the one chosen for the show.
What does the exhibit convey about faculty and staff at Princeton? I was so happy to come to Princeton in 2010. There was a different feeling in the air. The University as a whole gave me the feeling of being back in Europe, largely due to the unique architecture. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the people you meet and interact with and at Princeton. I have met more talented and interesting people here than I have met in all of my 40-plus years of traveling around the world.