2/18/2008 Pamela Babcock

Liberal Art

Science, Nature, and Philosophy Help Fuel the Passion of Five Alumni Artists

In the late 1960s, as Franklin & Marshall was moving toward coeducation and the country was in the midst of social upheaval, administrators got to thinking: How can we make the College more attractive to women and keep them engaged once they’re here?

One concept was to broaden the existing art program to appeal to these students. Although the College started offering courses in art in 1954 – 55, the perception was that women would be better-served by a richer fine-arts curriculum.

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“They figured they needed something compelling for the female students,” recalls Tyko Kihlstedt, emeritus professor of art & art history.

That line of thinking may seem sexist by modern standards. But the idea kick-started what is now among the College’s most well-rounded and forward-looking programs.

The Art Department, with a faculty of one, was formed in 1964. F&M formalized the department by making art an official major in 1966 – 67. Over the years, the program has grown with more staff and advanced opportunities for students. Fellowships and exchange programs in the United States and abroad afford students valuable real-world exposure.

In 2004, the term “art history” was officially added to the department’s name. Today, the department graduates about two-dozen students annually. Students who major or minor in art can elect either an art-history or a studio concentration.

Some alumni originally planned to become physicians but shifted their focus. For some, it happened after they took a few art electives, while others sought a creative outlet or refuge from the rigors of a science curriculum.

The department, the people it attracts and the program it offers demonstrate the value of the liberal arts experience, says James Peterson, an associate professor in the department. “It successfully strikes a balance between preprofessionalism and the liberal arts tradition,” he says. “Instead of just concentrating on narrowly focused preprofessionals who were born to be painters and architects and art historians and conservators, you hear the world ‘well-rounded.’ The word may seem vague, but there really is a lot of truth to it.”

Nearly Four Decades after the Program's Inception, Here is a Glimpse of what a Handful of Graduates are Doing:

Michele Buhrman Colburn ’76

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Michele Buhrman Colburn transferred to Franklin & Marshall from George Washington University. “I wanted a high-caliber college with a green campus,” Colburn says of her choice to attend F&M.

Now a visual artist who works in painting and mixed media, Colburn knew she was an artist early on. In junior high school she began copying drawings of Old Masters on her own.

At F&M, she received a degree in art history, then went on to study commercial art and design at Parsons School of Design, the New School and the Corcoran College of Art.

After spending seven years working in publishing and advertising in New York, Colburn returned in the mid-’80s to her hometown of Washington, D.C., to take a job as a public affairs specialist of The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where she has also conducted art-making workshops.

In 2004, Colburn became certified as a secondary level art teacher, and went on to teach in the Arizona and Maryland public school systems.

Her work is inspired by nature, geography, personal experience and world events, and her paintings often feature a distinctive juxtaposition of imagery and a sense of humor.

Colburn’s oil painting That Olde Gang of Mine , 1996, was accepted into the permanent collection of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in 2007. This humorous, surreal painting of scientists was shown at F&M in the 1990s and in the Artists at Work exhibition at the Smithsonian’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.

“The scientists are morphed and have animal heads reflecting their areas of expertise,” Colburn explains.

Colburn says she is currently working on a Ten Years After work, which she describes as similar to That Olde Gang of Mine . It also is a figurative piece with “this half-beast, half-human bent.”

While each of her professional experiences “has informed my knowledge of the business of art,” Colburn’s favorite job by far is teaching.

“Especially when a student ‘gets it,’ and takes a fundamental assignment and makes it his or her own in a very creative and visually stimulating way,” she says.

Colburn has been in numerous juried group shows in D.C. and out west, and in December 2007 was featured in “Small Rays of Hope,” a juried show with the Rhonda Schaller Studio and Gallery in Chelsea.

She says her favorite work is probably not made yet. But for now, she considers Desert Series, 2006-07, her best. Made over a year, the nine mixed-media canvases explore themes of loss and separation and were inspired by Colburn’s experiences when a friend was deployed to Iraq.

“It has some teeth, and some intense personal experiences behind it,” Colburn says. A sampling of her work can be viewed at michelecolburnart.com.

Abe Geasland ’90

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Abe Geasland designs sculptural furniture and is a technical assistant to New Orleans sculptor Lin Emery, who makes kinetic aluminum sculpture.

Geasland considers himself a furniture maker first, and a sculptor second. He uses enigmatic functional and found objects that are primarily mechanical in origin to make work that he calls “postindustrial primitive.”

“As furniture, my work has more in common with the craft world than the world of sculpture and painting,” he explains, “I take from both worlds.”

Geasland began working for Emery four years ago after moving to New Orleans from Lancaster. She designs the work, and Geasland and another assistant do the fabrication. “It gives me a chance to hone some unusual skills,” he says.

In Lancaster, Geasland spent a dozen years working with Alan Swanson ’71 in his downtown studio doing commissions and furniture work. “It was my apprenticeship,” Geasland says. “It was a great experience.”

Geasland’s home and work suffered minor damage during Hurricane Katrina. “I was one of the lucky ones who had a job and a place to stay,” he says. In the aftermath, he felt there was an increased sense of camaraderie in the art community. “There was a good deal of interdependence going on,” Geasland says.

Geasland was born in Kansas, but his mother’s family is from New Orleans and he lived there until he was 11. His parents moved to Texas, then Colorado, before Geasland set off for F&M.

Geasland was a philosophy major when he began taking a few studio classes. “I was always comfortable making things. I did that in high school and at home. But I wasn’t looking to make art. I was more into the process of making objects.”

Before long, he declared a double major and was able to design “my own direction. The idea that I, as a major in the Art Department, was making furniture was not antithesis to what the school was all about. I spurred myself to do more because I had the support from the faculty and other students.

“That’s the virtue of a liberal arts college,” Geasland observes. “It all counts for something as long as it’s pursued with a sense of dedication and highmindedness.”

Over the years, Geasland has been involved with dozens of group and solo shows.

“It’s not so much about having a show at the Whitney as it is being able to make the things I feel like making,” he adds. “It’s not about a high level of productivity or sales to me. It’s more about being satisfied with the work I do, no matter how long it takes.”

Amee Pollack ’90

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Amee Pollack always knew she was going to be an artist. But her family had other plans—she was going to be Amee Pollack, M.D.

“I never intended to be a doctor, but I found a school that worked for the family and for me, as far as my wanting to be the artist,” says the former science student.

The Pottsville, Pa., native graduated with a degree in art history and sculpture and then earned an M.F.A. in book arts and printmaking from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

These days, Pollack makes work with writer-artist Laurie Spitz under the banner Spitz & Pollack. They refer to their work as “sociopolitically charged, handmade social commentaries.” They’re actually books filled with metaphors and puns that feature interactive pop-ups and movables.

“Everything we do invites the reader to take action,” Pollack says. “It’s like a piece of sculpture when you open it.”

Pollack’s work (ameejpollack.com) has been in dozens of solo and group shows, including The Center for Book Arts in New York and the Print Center in Philadelphia. Spitz & Pollack work is in the collections of The New York Public Library, National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The artists are represented by Vamp & Tramp Book Dealers and Proteus Gowanus Gallery in Brooklyn.

Over the years, Pollack taught printmaking and bookbinding at area colleges and spent seven years as a public school art teacher and visiting artist in New York City.

Pollack says one of her favorite works made with Spitz is a dictionary conceived in 2004. “Bush was re-elected, and it was quite upsetting to Laurie and me,” Pollack says. “So we created a dictionary with movables, and it was a reinterpretation of words for our times.” Manipulate the circle, and the word “oil” becomes “spoil.”  “Reason” becomes “treason.”

Pollack sold her Manhattan apartment a few years ago so she could continue working full-time as an artist. She and her husband live in Jersey City, N.J.

At F&M, Pollack felt she got a leg up on the New York art world by working closely with sculptor Linda Cunningham, emerita professor of art & art history, who helped build F&M’s studio art program.

“She was not just a working artist, but somebody who was in New York City and eager to share what she knew,” Pollack says. “She brought a lot of visiting artists to F&M, and the trips to New York were great.”

Pollack ultimately plans to make wall pieces, which will have a movable component to them.

“There’s a lot of work out there that is visually interesting, but it doesn’t linger in your mind,” Pollack says. “If you have had an experience with my work, I’m not going to say it changes you, but I hope you remember it.”

Julie Allen ’92

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Santa Monica, Calif., native Julie Allen considered becoming a psychologist. When looking for a college, she pondered: “What’s the opposite of Los Angeles?” Her answer? “Amish farmland.”

After receiving her art degree at F&M, she headed to New York where she earned an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts. Over the years, she has had dozens of group and solo shows, including a recent one at McKenzie Fine Art Inc. in Chelsea. This spring, her sculptures will be included in “Made to Deceive: An Exhibition of Trompe l’Oeil Art” at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

Allen enjoys making mostly sculpture and drawings, and her work often revolves around food and clothing.

“I get curious this way,” she explains. “You’re on a bus and you overhear two people speaking. They’re having a conversation about food, and it can last 20 minutes. And I think there’s a lot more embedded in this than ‘we ordered the duckling.’

“Part of what is being talked about are issues of desire and ritual,” Allen says. “It’s necessary on a daily basis to eat, but it has a lot more meaning than ‘I need caloric value to run the engine that’s my body.’”

Allen tends to use materials “that everybody knows and has held in their hands.” Think wax paper, plastic wrap, candy, balloons, cigarette foil and gumballs. “None of them is precious—they cost very little.”

Since 1993, Allen also has worked as a freelance textile designer for Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret and now Sears. She renders designs using a software program called U4ia cad design and prints them on large sheets of paper before the information is sent to mills.

“We work a year in advance,” Allen says. “Sometimes I go to a store a year later and recognize some of the prints I did.”

Allen, who lives in Chelsea, also teaches art at the New York Center for Art and Media Studies, a program of Bethel University. She also lived in an old mill outside Rome in 2001 as a visiting artist at the American Academy, where she taught herself Italian.

“No one spoke English where I lived, so it was very hard and humbling but also so much fun,” Allen says.

She describes her work as having a sense of longing for the objects she is making.

“Many times there is an ephemeral quality to my work, and the materials are ones that don’t last, in the same way that the human body doesn’t last forever and food doesn’t last forever,” Allen says. “It’s a sad part of my work that I don’t love. But it’s a necessary part.”

Matt Skopek ’96

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Matt Skopek has had several brushes with greatness. As a painting conservator, he has spent much of his career working on pieces by artists such as Picasso, Richard Diebenkorn, Matisse, Clyfford Still, Joan Miro, Edward Hopper and Robert Motherwell.

Since August, he has worked as an assistant conservator at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

“I always had a passion for art in high school, but I was also good at math and science,” Skopek says. A pre-med major for almost three years and on his way to getting a minor in art, he then felt a pull.

“When I got overwhelmed by the science and it just wasn’t enjoyable anymore, I found myself going to the studio more and more,” he says. After graduating with a degree in studio art, the Syracuse, N.Y., native realized he could do something that involved both science and art, by working in conservation.

“Science touches every aspect of the job,” Skopek explains. “You’re involved with the chemistry of the object since you’re trying to intervene in some way to preserve or repair the work of art and at the same time not affect the original materials.

“The job also involves understanding the chemistry of materials you are using on the object, how they’ll interact as they age, what environment the work will be in and how it needs to be handled. Plus you need to know how to read X-rays and use infrared technology, which are often used to determine the underlying condition of an object.“

In 1999, Skopek got a certificate in conservation from Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy. Four years later, he received an M.A. in conservation from Buffalo State College.

Skopek interned at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and later had a series of fellowships at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for five years. “Working at the Whitney is very different from the much larger MoMA. I have to wear a lot more hats now,” Skopek says.

“I love coming to work every day,” Skopek says. “There’s always a new challenge and new crisis, which can be terrifying, particularly when working with new materials and living artists. But that’s one of the reasons I got interested in Modern art.”

In 1996, Skopek designed and helped fabricate a tribute to Geoff Pywell, an assistant professor of theatre at F&M who, along with his wife and son, was killed when their car was struck by a drunk driver. The anodized aluminum sculpture, resembling three flyleaves, is engraved with quotations from dramatic literature and located outside the Green Room Theatre.
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