Student View: My experiences as a research assistant, curator, and artist
In this Student View column, Amanda Rose ’21 shares how she learned the significance of fine arts as a form of self-expression for people from underrepresented backgrounds and discovered the world of curation.
From an early age I was drawn to visual art and enjoyed expressing myself through drawing. I was always creating and illustrating my own picture books, eager to begin a new sketch. This love of art has stayed with me over the years, and it was this passion for creating art that prompted my decision to become a Studio Art and Art History double major at St. Olaf College.
I wanted to expand my artistic abilities and also learn more about various art movements and styles throughout history. The Department of Art and Art History at St. Olaf has enabled me to explore this interest, and it has opened my eyes to other aspects of the art world. The department has also embraced me as part of a friendly and close-knit community. When I visited campus as a prospective student, I noticed that the students in art classes were extremely welcoming, and many of them found time to greet me as I toured the Center for Art and Dance. I also felt a sense of excitement and acknowledgement when I presented my art portfolio to faculty members and then received the Fine Arts Scholarship. This scholarship has been valuable in supporting my artistic studies each year at St. Olaf.
Throughout my undergraduate studies at St. Olaf, the excellent art classes and facilities have empowered me to improve my drawing and painting skills and have given me the opportunity to experiment with printmaking and other mediums. I have displayed my work in several exhibitions and in multiple locations across campus, and have received encouraging reviews. At St. Olaf, I am also a TRIO McNair Scholar. This program has opened the door for me to engage in important art-focused research. It has supported me during the process of applying for art internships and graduate programs to further my studies. The skills that I acquired through TRIO McNair have been invaluable in preparing me for my future career path and enhancing my overall confidence.
In the summer of 2020, I received an incredible opportunity to conduct research as part of the TRIO McNair Summer Research program. I was a research and curatorial assistant for Professor Hannah Ryan in the Department of Art and Art History at St. Olaf. The research I worked on focused on the visual culture of African American communities in New Orleans in response to traumatic events. In recent years, New Orleans has been shaped by a series of difficult events. African American residents have faced challenges to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For instance, New Orleans photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick had their home and photography studio destroyed by Katrina. After the water subsided, they were able to salvage the remains of their flooded studio. Years later, they began printing their water damaged slides and negatives. The bleeding colors and distorted images ended up being stunningly beautiful, and they were fascinated by the resulting images. Surprisingly, they no longer consider them damaged.
Like Calhoun and McCormick, many other African Americans in New Orleans have been affected by traumatic events including Hurricane Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic, and police brutality. To assess the visual culture of African American communities in New Orleans, I examined residents’ responses to past and ongoing events across media: public art, photography, poetry, and beyond. I analyzed literature from the post-Katrina era and viewed the documentary series When The Levees Broke. My research findings demonstrated that in the post-Katrina era, the visual culture of New Orleans’ African American communities reflects themes of resistance, hope, and resilience in response to trauma.
At St. Olaf I was immersed in the important work of curation when I was invited to provide curatorial assistance for an exhibition curated by Professor Ryan, We No Longer Consider Them Damaged: The Abstract Photographs of Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, held in the Flaten Art Museum. I generated programming and didactic materials for the show. While curating the exhibition, I worked collaboratively with my faculty mentor and the artists. I learned to conduct research independently, and created a presentation for the virtual undergraduate research symposium hosted by the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program and TRIO McNair. This research experience helped to prepare me for future graduate-level research. Through this experience, I also aimed to increase awareness of two African American artists who have not received much recognition in their field.
Surprisingly, I discovered the world of curation unexpectedly. As a first-year student in 2017, I submitted some of my artwork to UPRISING: Narrating Black Presence and Expression on the Hill. UPRISING is an annual art exhibition series at St. Olaf that was created by Shaquille Brown ’19. The series began as a response to the protests against racial discrimination on campus in 2017. The exhibition aims to create space for marginalized voices on campus by reaching out to students, building an artist community, and displaying student work. The show features many forms of creative work, and facilitates collaboration among students from a wide variety of academic fields. UPRISING encourages BIPOC students to participate in the Fine Arts. In addition, the exhibition harnesses creative expression in order to bridge differences and address forms of discrimination that cause pain in our communities. The show is normally hosted in February to coincide with Black History Month.
Shortly before Shaquille graduated in 2019, she invited me to help with continuing the exhibition series. In fall of 2019, I became co-curator alongside fellow co-curator Bridget Asamoah-Baffour ’21. In 2020 we organized a show titled UPRISING III. Our opening reception, held on the evening of February 13, 2020, drew 190 visitors, including students, faculty, staff, and local community members. It was extremely exciting to see how well-received the exhibition was!
In the fall of 2020, UPRISING became an official student organization at St. Olaf. I am currently Co-Coordinator and Lead Curator of UPRISING, alongside Co-Coordinator Asamoah-Baffour. This year’s show, UPRISING IV: Visions and Reflections, is currently on view at the Flaten Art Museum until April 12, 2021. This year’s exhibition is centered around reflections on local and global events, as well as visions of Black joy, Black beauty, and Black futures. Some of the artists use their work to address global issues such as police brutality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and protests against police violence.
Throughout the process of organizing UPRISING, we have received incredible support from Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson. A grant from the To Include is To Excel initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was used to support our exhibition for two years. This funding allowed us to purchase materials for student artists, host an opening reception, and purchase materials for the exhibition space. We also received support from the Art and Art History Department, the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, and the Student Organizations Committee. This experience has given me a new perspective on organizing an art show and working in a gallery setting. Furthermore, the connections I have made through UPRISING have allowed me to meet and interact with other students from underrepresented backgrounds. This has inspired my future goal to continue organizing art shows that give a voice to the voiceless and promote diverse perspectives. Research will be a crucial part of this work, as it will allow me to get feedback from community members and make improvements for future exhibitions.
This fall, I will begin my graduate studies and work towards obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree. This will prepare me to teach university-level art courses and illustrate children’s books. I am extremely grateful for the amazing research and curatorial projects I’ve been a part of at St. Olaf. I have made valuable connections with other artists, and gained skills that will be extremely useful in my professional career. Overall, I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn and grow as an artist, researcher, and curator during my time at St. Olaf.