Place/Citizenship in the Liberal Arts

By Adam Wolpa

The artist plays a very particular role on the liberal arts campus, to be a visible presence, to be understood as a visionary, and to cultivate a persona that somehow exists outside of the norm. The artist-person points in new directions and is a living model for reinterpreting the world; so, it becomes the work of the artist to travel and exhibit this person, this public self. The artists’ identity then is not only the genesis of plastic production, but in a way, it is the product itself.

“The art department... gives artists a venue to exhibit themselves. It has helped to create a figure [of the] journeyman artist, whose work must be made on site, whose presence is demanded, and who travels from installation to lecture, supported by a network of grants, alternative spaces, and universities.”
(Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, University of California Press, 1999.)

And so the academic artist, producing a public self as a means to engage in the contemporary discourse of the field, is tied to his/her identity professionally. On the liberal arts campus, this is an excellent reason for pursuing the development of the students’ identity, persona, and citizenship. The studio art classroom is not just for developing skills or critical thinking and articulation or decision making, but it is for the formation of citizens, whose identity is linked to place and to social responsibility. Certainly, identity is phenomenologically tied to place in its formation. Who we are is contingent upon where we are, but it is crucial to actively engage place as a means toward citizenship, community development, and social justice. We must give students a lens to help them see and connect to the world around them. Even in the art world, we see the movement towards citizenship.

“As public art shifted from large-scale objects, to physically or conceptually site-specific projects, to audience-specific concerns (work made in response to those who occupy a given site), it moved from an aesthetic function, to a design function, to a social function.”
(Mary Jane Jacob, “Outside the Loop,” Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago, Bay Press, 1995.)

As the students become professional artists and travel to exhibitions and to visiting artist gigs, they are required to enact their sense of place on site. They must position themselves in and to each place, responding to the physical environment, the community, geography, etc. Whether it be exhibiting a sited project or engaging in any form of discourse, the artist is forced to address place directly. Here at Calvin College, then, it becomes important to teach this positioning, and to connect students to their place, as a means of establishing a sensitivity and language to be used in the future. In other words, these art students must become citizens, who play an active role in their community, understanding and contributing to place, and it is this connectedness that they bring with them to each exhibition, critique, or lecture.

The PLANT! project at Calvin College served as a vehicle to connect students in sculpture to the place of Grand Rapids. Whether or not it was a success as an art project, students acquired a deeper understanding of Grand Rapids, and of place, which will inform their future work and citizenship. This project became about seeing, and about engaging the geography and culture of the city. As students worked in groups to convert unused urban spaces into working gardens or studios or sites for discourse, they experienced a healing of certain disassociation and alienation.

“[Lucy] Lippard contends that since our sense of identity is fundamentally tied to our relationship to places and the histories they embody, the uprooting of our lives from specific local cultures and places- through voluntary migrations or forced displacements- has contributed to the waning of our abilities to locate ourselves. Consequently, a sense of place remains remote to most of us. And this deficiency can be seen as a primary cause of our loss of touch with nature, disconnection from history, spiritual vacancy, and estrangement from our own sense of self.”
(Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2002.)

As students actively connect to place and understand it as a significant factor in their production of artworks or their production of persona, they acquire the ability to contribute meaningfully to their community, wherever that may be.

Currently a professor of sculpture and drawing at Calvin College, Adam received his MFA from U of Iowa. He also is on the Visual Art Committee at the UICA and works in his studio at 106 S. Division.

Posted on October 12, 2006 7:18 AM

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