During the Spring of 2019, artist Carrie Mae Weems visited Athens, Ohio for a series of engagements through the College of Fine Arts, The Kennedy Museum of Art, and University and community partners. This weeklong artist engagement had far reaching impacts on the student participants.
Courtney Kessel, gallery director of the Ohio University galleries and co-chair of the visiting artists committee, got to work as soon as renowned artist Carrie Mae Weems left town. It had taken three years of planning and preparation to bring in Weems, a MacArthur Fellow, for three separate programs: a lecture in the Baker Center Ballroom, an exhibition at the Kennedy Museum of Art, and a masterclass with approximately forty-five students that concluded with a public performance in the Radio Television Building’s Forum Theater. With the buzz of Weems’ energy still in the air, Kessel began inviting masterclass students to share what it was like to work closely and intensely with the artist.
“I didn’t want Weems to just do a lecture and studio visits with people,” Kessel says, reflecting on the masterclass. “I was interested in a longer-term relationship with the university community that can only happen with time. Hopefully workshopping with the artist enabled students to take away something special. To follow up, I asked each student if their experience and artwork had changed from working with Weems.”
The “Genius Grant” recipient’s visit and masterclass were, Kessel discovered during her interviews, intensely significant for these artists, many of whom had to arrange for a week away from their regular classes in order to be able to participate. When Kessel developed the workshop, working closely with Distinguished Professor of Theater and Playwriting Charles Smith and Educational Programs Coordinator at the Kennedy Museum of Art Lisa Quinn (M.A. 2019), she decided to emphasize its interdisciplinary nature by opening it to students at all different levels across the College of Fine Arts. In the interviews, students, from undergraduates to doctoral candidates, again and again described Weems’ force of presence and the clarity of her insights. Participation in the masterclass was not only a way to receive personal feedback from Weems, it was also an opportunity to see how the artist responded to other students’ work, pushed them to work harder, and led the group as a whole to the eventual live performance. Many participants also noted the importance of Weems’ own work as an African-American woman committed to examining racial and gender inequality, and her current focus on police violence against young African-American men, as helping to bring a meaningful national conversation to campus.
Quinn Hunter (M.F.A. 2020) said that “getting to spend so much time with her, just hearing the way she responded to other people’s questions, seeing the way she staged or maneuvered so many people to create this wonderful performance over the course of the maybe twelve hours we spent together was inspiring. She has this sort of power when she speaks.” For Hunter, another benefit of participation was the masterclass format itself, which brought together students from across different fields of practice. “I think it was really nice to get outside of Seigfred Hall,” Hunter said. “I feel like I spend so much time within this building and within the confines of my studio that getting to meet and work with other grads was really exciting. We as a cohort see each other’s work so much and are sort of stuck in the physical objects and maybe a little bit of performance that we make. But getting to watch people who have been doing something different just a football field away was an expansive and opening experience. It gets you out of your own head a little bit.”
For third-year undergraduate John Christian McWilliams (B.S.S. Dance & Film 2020), the masterclass was “unique” and “well-worth the time investment.” Responding to McWilliams’ video on high school shootings, Weems instructed him to cut the video’s length in half. “She wanted me to hone in on the core message rather than keep it long,” McWilliams said, “where it explored the idea but kind of lost the message during that exploration. She limited me to three minutes from six, so that I could really display it at its purest. In the end, I was able to cut out enough that I totally got it.” McWilliams added that, “The prompt and the masterclass came at the right time for me,”—he had recently taken a research class on art and protest—“and this was like a test to see if this is what I wanted to do. I feel like this is the path I want to go down now, this was the proof to do it.”
Ceramics student Carolyn Nicole Hunter (B.F.A. '19), whose own work focuses on social justice and restorative justice, said, “[s]he had a demeanor that was very gentle but very assertive too. She humbled you in a way that made you want to do better. We had a very productive conversation about being a Black artist at a predominantly white institution—I think it helped me so much but it also helped the people in my community understand the place where I was coming from. As a whole, I think her visit really, really benefited this campus, and it brought a lot of good and positive energy.” As to the workshop format, Hunter described it as “amazing” because “you have all these people who are really passionate about doing art, to the point that they are obviously aspiring to careers in the field. Carrie was very, very good at facilitating. She understood us as humans and she really did her best to try to get to know us.”
Conducting the interviews, for Kessel, was a fantastic opportunity to relive the workshop and feel Weems’ presence anew. “If you listen to the interviews, you’ll hear this term over and over again—generosity. It’s a quality that she exudes, it must be in her nature. She’s a giving, dear soul. And she’s brutally honest. She would critique with sweetness and firmness at the same time.” The other phrase that Kessel repeatedly heard was “thank you.” Students thanked Kessel for the opportunity to make truly interdisciplinary work with their peers, and for allowing them to have a voice in a conversation, an important conversation, that could be difficult to bring up with their professors.
Besides archiving the experience the interviews had a larger purpose as well: to take stock of the masterclass. What was most effective for students? How could it be improved? Should the College of Fine Arts bring more artists to campus for extended workshops and masterclasses in the future?
The answer: a resounding “yes."