On Monday the 16th of August, Woman Made Gallery was lucky to open its doors to a group of students from the Marwen Foundation, and with them to an exciting exchange and learning experience. In operation since 1987, Marwen is a wonderful organization dedicated to educating and inspiring young people in Chicago through the visual arts by providing free programs in its state of the art facility.
The students who visited Woman Made are part of a summer art class on sculptural printmaking, led by teaching artist Ashleigh Burskey. They came specifically for Fran Bull’s solo show In Flanders Field. With its dazzling combination of sculpture, printmaking, and strong narrative, Bull’s mixed media installation was the perfect adventure for a group of young artists hard at work in their own exploration of print and sculpture-making.
We spent time discussing the conceptual elements and themes that Bull is working with- war, death, protest, and love. We also examined some of the text that is woven through the exhibit, including the show’s namesake poem from World War I by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, lines from the Greek drama Lysistrata, historical analysis, and the artist’s own ruminations. We touched on biographical information about the artist, and the general evolution of the installation, both in terms of its physical configuration as various elements are added, and as it moves back to Vermont, the artist’s home state.
Then we looked at the actual physical materials and techniques that Bull uses to make her sculptures- beautiful poppies made of wire mesh and Italian plaster, shiny larks flying overhead with skeletons of wood and wings of plaster, and the elegant bases from which Lystistrata and her Circle emerge, constructed from recycled cartons and other packing materials. Many of the students were pleased to see Bull’s use of wire and plaster techniques, which were quite similar to what they were learning. Some were particularly drawn to Bull’s prints on fabric and the veil-like effect they create in combination with her sculpture.
The time came for the students to walk through the exhibit by themselves, so that they could absorb what was around them, and reflect on the elements most interesting to them individually. A wonderful silence set in as they began to focus on what they were seeing. They got close and stepped back, examining the materials and how they were transformed into objects. They also sketched and took pictures, some sitting quietly in corners with their sketchbooks, others moving from piece to piece. Many added their own thoughts to the exhibit, writing on the red rice paper Bull provides, and placing their notes in the cloth folds on The Wall of the Fallen Ones.
As someone who has had the privilege to help install the exhibit and be with it nearly every day these past six weeks, I was touched and delighted to see a group of young artists so engaged with the work and truly interested by it. The experience changed my personal perspective on the exhibit, which I had previously thought of as lyrical and absorbing, but quite dense and difficult to fully accept.
To explain further- my very first task on my very first day of work at Woman Made Gallery was to help unpack and hang the Wall of the Fallen Ones. When I snipped the bubble wrap off the first panel, I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty and tragedy of these images of fallen soldiers facing me; artwork so whole and balanced in its material, narrative, visual, and conceptual presentation.
But because there was work to be done, I was unable to indulge my usual response of becoming quiet and contemplative when I see art that affects me deeply. I am not complaining- working with Fran Bull to install her pieces was truly thrilling. However, I think the experience of being at work made it difficult for me to be in Flanders Field.
I suppose I had built a bit of a wall between myself and the exhibit, never really allowing myself the meditation that such work requires. Thus my sense of density in the work and my difficulty with fully accepting it. I knew its greatness but had not yet felt its greatness.
Watching the students from Marwen helped me to slow down and absorb the show as well. Spending time with them walking through the exhibit, talking about it, and asking questions together, made me realize what I had been missing.
But what is really exciting about this experience is not so much the opportunity for self-discovery that I gained, but what the students got out of it. For some it was their first time visiting an art gallery. Most of the students went on to explore the entire space, including the upstairs group show Category: Printmaking. Others spent the whole time in Flanders Field, sketching and writing comments in the guestbook:
“This is really amazing. It shows so much feeling and passion. The way the faces are made gives a grim feeling while it contrasts with the more cheery poppies. Absolutely great balance in this artwork.”
“I feel like I am part of it. I can feel the mourn of all the souls that could have died in all the battles that the world has had. It gives many people a vision of sadness and the bad things that hatred can bring upon people.”
“Gods? Behind mist? Wow. I love it. Wow.”
Several days after their visit we received images of the students’ own beautiful print and sculptural works. I have been enjoying these photos very much, and have been reflecting on how inspiration from In Flanders Field may have found its way into the students’ creations.
Thank you, Marwen students for adding your experience and voice to this work, and enhancing my own experience too. I am looking forward to seeing your future artwork and further establishing exchanges with Marwen students in the seasons to come.
– Ruby Thorkelson, Gallery Assistant