From the ground up: Collaborative arts community at UMass coalesces within walls of innovative building

Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2014
Ask Chelsea Sams about her work as an artist, and she’ll tell you, “Place makes a difference.”

The University of Massachusetts master’s degree candidate in studio art, who transferred last year from Florida State University, was speaking generally about UMass and its progressive approach to arts education. But it’s a sentiment that runs more particularly through the veins (and the ducts of the state-of-the-art ventilation system) of the Studio Arts Building on the Amherst campus.

The facility boasts more than 50,000 square feet of instructional space where the studio art program’s 16 faculty members housed in the building teach a dozen graduate and nearly 200 undergraduate students. Here, the artists spend their university years studying sculpture, painting, photography, computer graphics and ceramics.

Before the contemporary glass and brick building, located near the southeast entrance of campus, was completed in 2008, the studio art community was underserved at the university, says Francis Merrigan, the undergraduate program director of studio art. Previously, the department was spread thin across campus in 19 facilities. A building once dubbed the “art barn” is now used to house manure and fertilizer, while others have since been condemned or demolished.

If a solution had not been found, Merrigan said, the art department likely would have been reduced to a few basic classes that barely touch the type of in-depth curriculum found in its current offerings.

“It came to a head: Either we’re going to have an art department, which I think is an important part of a university, or we’re not,” he said.

Open floor plan

The structure’s key location at a main entrance to campus demanded that it be constructed as a “signature building,” implementing cutting-edge design while also blending into the existing campus, according to a report by the UMass Building Authority.

The building boasts two large undergraduate work spaces, each with about 15 individual studios that are used by seniors working on their theses. The layout — roomy cubicles that are open to common space — encourages collaboration among the students, says Jeanette Cole, associate director of art department, who teaches painting. Inside the studios for seniors, for example, students can easily chat with classmates. That, Cole says, gives birth to artistic collaboration, a hallmark of the program.

“They keep rubbing up against each other,” she said. “They see each other’s ideas and react to them.”

Because the art department doesn’t segregate students by artistic discipline, the studios bring together students from all specialities, Sams says.

“I think people are more open and they have this idea that ‘we’re all artists,’ ” Sams said. “The Studio Arts Building is one of those rare places where all the constituents of a department can come together.”

Senior studio art major Rebecca Cann says that exposure to the other art students is integral to her education, and the creation of her art.

“It helps me gain perspective on my own work,” she said. “I need exposure to other artists’ creative processes. It reassures me that I am not alone.”

At the same time, she adds, it’s a plus that artists can set up their own cubicles to their liking.

“I get distracted by the visual stimulation of already-made things,” she said.

Cann’s space is minimalist, framed by picture windows. A lone drawing taped to a window punctuates the whitewashed space. She says she feels lucky to have such a spacious studio with its high ceilings adding an “element of possibility” to her creative process.

Her current work, a series of multi-colored swirls with varying textures, is inspired by people, or what looks like people.

“Personified energy is the best way to describe it,” she said.

A walk across the room to another bank of cubicles reveals a radically different space. The cozy studio of senior Kristen Mounsey is littered with knickknacks — a wooden shelf, computer parts and books. Seating comes in the form of a brightly colored and well-worn recliner and a stiff chair set in front of a deep brown, weathered desk. A double major in studio arts and natural resource conservation, Mounsey says she is interested in the relationship between the man-made and the natural.

“I’ll start with a certain line that I’m drawn to. Like how roads look from a high vantage point,” she said. “I’ll try to recreate a line in the way that it wanders.”

Communities, large and small

Sams, the grad student, says she’s been interested in creating nature-centric art since her undergraduate days at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly. She began crafting sculptures of extinct animals, something she says would be impossible without the help of modern science. Though driven by an interest in the anatomy of extinct animals, she says her work is now motivated by a more conceptual drive.

“It was an activist impulse, I think,” she said.

Her latest project offers a solution to issues involved in zebra finch research — she is creating a device designed to photograph the flock. The work is being done in collaboration with the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the university.

An example of the work, on display in the second-floor atrium of the Studio Arts Building, is a series of intersecting strips of UV-reflective film spread across each of the atrium’s two enormous windows. Its purpose: to deter migratory birds from meeting their demise at the hands of the impermeable yet fully-transparent glass.

“I feel like it was irresponsible not to do something, so I took it on,” she said.

The atrium that houses Sams’ installation is the common area of the building, the only place not dedicated to the creation of art. Cole said students often eat lunch there with their peers.

Social motivations

While Sams’ work might represent an extreme in the cross-disciplinary execution of art, for graduate student Priya Nadkarni, a painter, working with a more traditional medium does not mean creating a more conventional piece. Painting, she said, is not as limiting and strict as people often imagine.

One example of her work, a three-paneled piece that was displayed earlier this month at her thesis show at the Hampden Gallery on campus, features a paint-simulated collage effect depicting scenes centered around women of color. She says this effect is a response to the type of rigid thinking presented by the historical canon of painting. A distinctively postmodern notion, Nadkarni hopes to draw attention to the legacy of presentation of images of women through her work.

“A lot of time painting gets put into the category of this very modernist, very white male oriented way of making art that’s almost anti-democratic,” she said.

Having completed her undergraduate degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Nadkarni has been inspired, she says, by the benefits presented to an artist at a large state university.

Nadkarni says the sense of community that develops among undergraduates at UMass, in particular, is also evident among graduate students there.

“The first couple years grad students share studio spaces, and there is a lot of interaction and collaboration,” she said.

However, as she prepared for her MFA thesis show, she said, she needed to filter out distractions, which she was able to do in her own studio.

Coming full circle

Entry-level undergraduate classes are often taught by graduate students like Sams and Nadkarni. Cole said the role of teacher often bleeds from the classroom instruction to the studio.

“If you’re an undergrad, you might look in that room to the graduate students as a role model,” she said, referencing a graduate student’s studio.

Sams and Nadkarni say they embrace that mentoring role. Sams, for example, has been involved in the development of UMass Skill Share, a program that encourages community and exchange among artists of every level. Other members of the group are Catie Heitz, an undergraduate student, MFA students Sheila Bell, Tovah Rudawski and Brendan McCauley.

“It has been really great to get to know the other artists in the building,” Sams said. “It’s challenging working outside of your own studio and comfort zone, but ultimately the connections made are beneficial to the people involved and their artwork.”