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Artists' proof

Alumni of Eckerd College's visual arts program answer the question, "What can you do with an art degree?" It turns out, quite a lot.

LENNIE BENNETT
Published September 12, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - A reunion is a mixture of memory and expectation, a conversation with our past, present and future selves.

Unlike most reunions, which leave non-alums feeling like outsiders (and anyone who has been to one of those knows what I mean), the Eckerd College Visual Arts Alumni Exhibition has a lot to say to all of us. The exhibition, spread over three venues, celebrates 40 years of artmaking and unites generations of students and the faculty who built the program starting with just one art history teacher, John Dixon. The institution was then known as Florida Presbyterian College, a small (very) liberal arts school in southern St. Petersburg. Robert Hodgell and Margaret Rigg, multitalented studio artists; Jim Crane, an artist with teaching experience; and John Eckert, a ceramic artist, all joined over the next several years.

There were no supplies, studio space (they used a partitioned section in the library) or formal curriculum. Which was fine for students wanting to dabble. Then along came a student named Linda Perry, class of 1964, who wanted to graduate with an art major. Other majors had to complete a thesis or comprehensive exams, neither of which would test the skills and knowledge of a visual artist. She was asked to assemble an exhibition of her work as a sort of visual thesis, and the program became formalized as a major. That graduation was the catalyst for a more focused educational program for aspiring artists, hence the 40-year celebration.

Today, at any given time, says Arthur Skinner, head of the art department, between 45 and 50 students have declared visual arts as their major. The college has graduated almost 400 of them.

The point of this nonjuried exhibition was to get as many alums as possible to participate. About 120 students answered Skinner's call to submit work; some responded from as far as New Zealand. The only requirements were that the art submitted be recent and not too large.

The main venue is the Arts Center in downtown St. Petersburg, with more at Elliot Gallery and Lewis House Gallery on the campus.

As with most open shows, this is a mix of those whose talent or drive compelled them to become art professionals and those who found other callings but continue to enjoy making art for their own pleasure. Each work's wall label includes a few "where they are now" sentences, a wonderful addition that reinforces the reunion atmosphere.

What a diverse group they are.

Several have found prominence in the art world. Mark Pauline (1977) founded Survival Research Laboratories in the late 1970s, a well-known performance group that stages contests between fabulously sinister remote-controlled robotic machines in front of large audiences, a concept that had to have been the inspiration for current mainstream versions today. Pauline's contribution is a video of a recent performance.

Ward Shelley (1972) is another artist with a national reputation. Now a New Yorker, his installations have been reviewed in national magazines and the New York Times. Most of his art requires massive spaces, but for the alumni exhibition he sent a drawing done in 2003 for an exhibition at a gallery in Brooklyn. Williamsburg Time Line Drawing is an inventive history, structured like an archaeological record, of the Brooklyn community's art scene from 1979, a period he dubs "When Giants Walked the Earth," to 2000, a period he dubs "The New Frontier," and is full of gossipy connections, art events and romantic intrigues.

Bede Clarke (1983) now teaches at the University of Missouri. His ceramics also receive favorable notices from the national press and have been included in five books on the art of ceramics. His dense wall plaque, Vesuvius, looks like a shard cut from a cave wall charred by flame. A tiny cauldron is affixed to it and a red glaze emanates from it like fire.

Many graduates have made names for themselves locally, including Paul Eppling (1971), whose signature metal animal sculptures need no introductory label; Betsy Orbe Lester (1993), a teacher at Eckerd whose visual vocabulary incorporates feminist metaphors; and Ruth Pettis (1978), a first-rate calligrapher.

Some graduates parlayed their artistic impulses into tangential careers. Geoffrey Ahlers (1993) continued his studies at the University of Cincinnati, and photographs of a set design for an opera at its music conservatory are on display. He's now a professional scenic designer. Robert Barnes (1972) developed the world's first newsroom computer system, for CNN, and has an Emmy for a documentary he made while working for TBS. Now he teaches digital art. His print, To the Point, of rocky outcroppings rising from a body of water, shows the dramatic possibilities of digital manipulation in the hands of a computer wizard.

If you watch television, you have seen the work of Jonathan Keeton, co-founder and creative director of Radium, a digital effects company in San Francisco. He sent clips from an 'N Sync video and a number of commercials. Linda Perry Tavernese (1964), the student who started it all, is a graphic designer but keeps her hand in the paint pot, sending a Van Gogh-esque landscape.

Most interesting are the varied careers of so many. Aimee Bagur Nelson (1967), who contributed a watercolor painting, owns the Tea House Spa in Santa Cruz, Calif. Nick Schwartz (1998), who sent a stacked, wood-fired ceramic piece, is producer of the Flynn Creek Circus in Mendocino, Calif. Melanie Taylor (1974) was one of the first architects to work at Seaside, the acclaimed planned community in Florida's Panhandle, and sent some examples of her work.

Taryn Sabia (2001), who earned a master's degree in art education from Harvard, is now studying for an architectural degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. Allison Dawson (2003) earns a living as a massage therapist while continuing to create art. Stuart Hyatt (1997) was recently an artist in residence at the Coleman Art Center in Alabama. As a community project, he composed music and lyrics that were recorded by singers in the community and designed the CD jacket. The record company distributing Up in the Clouds has recommended that design for a Grammy award. Both the jacket and the music are part of the exhibition.

Elaine Raybourn (1985) works at Sandia Labs in New Mexico and developed game software that encourages finding nonviolent resolutions of difficult situations, software that is being used by the military. Her contribution was a magazine article about the game.

There is the In Memoriam component here, too. A ceramic vessel by the late John Eckert is included, as is an etched glass panel by Rick Risser, a promising artist who died young. The late Robert Hodgell is honored in a four-panel pastel by Frje Echevarria (1966), who has taught painting at the University of Northern Iowa for 30 years.

More than anything else, this exhibition demonstrates the value of the education these students received, more than the aesthetic value of any specific work on display. Such a liberal arts education encourages an open mind and far-ranging explorations of ideas. It empowers in a general, nonvocational way that can seem anachronistic, even scary to today's college students, but in fact (and I know this from personal experience, as a liberal arts graduate with no specific training to do anything) can be liberating.

Crane writes in the catalog, "Risks are always taken. I think ours paid off. . . . The evidence is here."

So here's to those who bear witness to that evidence, the classes of 1964 through 2003.

-- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

REVIEW

"Forty Years and Counting: The Eckerd College Visual Arts Alumni Exhibition" is on display through Oct. 29 at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., and Elliot Gallery and Lewis House Gallery at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, all in St. Petersburg. Art Center hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. (727) 822-7872. For gallery hours at Eckerd, call (727) 864-8345 or (727) 864-8342.

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