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Volume 72, Issue 136, Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Life & Arts

Of their own design

Four groups of UH student artists find inspiration in collaboration

by CAITLIN CUPPERNULL
The Daily Cougar

Four groups of UH students and professors stepped out of their artistic comfort zones and into each other's this weekend with exhibitions that marked the culmination of a semester-long process of collaborative artwork.

Collaboration Among the Arts is a course offered to students in the Moores School of Music, the School of Theatre and Dance, the Department of Art, and the creative writing program. Now in its third year, the course takes students from each of these disciplines and divides them into groups headed by a professor from each department. Each group is given a budget of $1,000 by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which helped create the program, to make and present a work of art.

"The goal of the course is to open these artists' eyes up to what it's like to work in another artistic discipline aside from their own and to give artists more tools to use to create their own work," Karen L. Farber, director of the Mitchell Center, said. "We are founding this on the idea that artists from one discipline really have something to teach to artists from another discipline." 

The Mitchell Center brings collaborative artists to campus and encourages students to not only collaborate with others but to incorporate various art forms into their individual work.

"What we're trying to do is cultivate collaboration, even if it's interdisciplinary work with one artist working with themselves in different disciplines," Farber said. "And ideally in the long term we will break down those barriers between art forms so that they don't ever get built up in the first place for the students here on this campus. So they begin to see that artists have opportunities beyond what they may have thought." 

Students are given an enormous amount of freedom in the course, and creative opportunity was clearly evident at the groups' exhibitions Saturday and Sunday in the highly diverse themes and mediums incorporated throughout the projects. 

Stories from an Empty Place showed Saturday at the Commerce Street Artists' Warehouse. It was an interactive exhibit that allowed audience members to experience three UH students' and faculty adviser Nick Flynn's interaction and collaboration with a group of 50 fourth graders. Focusing on the concepts of space, storytelling and description, the group had the young students take photographs and write stories about an empty space. Using video footage, the students' photographs, handwritten stories and audio, the group created a layered exhibit that physically represented their semester of work. 

"This event is mainly a way for an audience to witness and be a part of the process that we went through," Trinidad Hernandez, a doctoral resident in the College of Education, said. "Showing how that experience that we had as collaborators -- the students as collaborators, but also the four of us who went into the school -- show how it's important and why it's important."

While Stories from an Empty Place conveyed a semester-long experience, other groups chose to focus more directly on their finished product. Bree Edwards, program manager for the Mitchell Center, said each group looked at the course differently, and that both the process of collaboration and the actual art making were essential to the experience.

"Each group has its own dynamics of how they're going to collaborate … and each of these groups, and with each of these artists in their own right, have faced a really big challenge in this class," Edwards said. "So whatever is the outcome, I think that the process has really been the challenge and the focus of the class. … I don't want to minimize (the final products), but the process is really important."

Creative writing senior Signe Cluiss said her group's project, Cover, incorporated collaboration among the artists involved but was also very product-centered. The group took inspiration from photography and digital media graduate student Tala Vahab Zadeh's photography. Originally from Iran, Zadeh's work often studies women and limitations that can come from the covers they wear. 

The Cover exhibition Saturday at CSAW consisted of three screens surrounding a nude female mannequin. Projected on the center screen was a documentary of women from various cultures describing why they cover themselves. The group projected images of women shrouded in their culture's form of covering on the two side screens, and the presentation was preceded and concluded by music education graduate student John Henry playing music on a keyboard. 

"The first function (of the mannequin) was that it's casting shadows in somewhat meaningful ways on the two side screens with images. And it's constantly there in the middle. And the mannequin is very sensual, so in a way it's being covered by the images of these people," Cluiss said. "And the second function of the mannequin was to hopefully get people to walk around it and see the shadows and interact with their own shadows in there, too."

For Cluiss and Zadeh, the project was one of personal growth as well as collaboration.

"I had never interviewed anyone," said Cluiss, who conducted the interviews with the women in the documentary. "I've definitely done something that I've never done before, and I feel like I grew as a person."

Zadeh also felt a personal tie to the project. 

"It was very interesting for me because personally, as a feminist, I am so against (covers)," she said. "And I kind of started working on this project with this view. … So it was very interesting for me to see that there are some women in this world that are covering themselves and they are OK with it."

In Covering Ground, group members planted gardens in abandoned lots around Houston as a form of "environmental graffiti." The project is an ongoing one, and the group's exhibit Sunday at the Lawndale Art Center featured photographs, video footage and audio of their process. Visitors were encouraged to take a short walk to a nearby garden the group had planted.

"We wanted to do something where we got out into the community," creative writing senior Eric Todd said. "We wanted to do something that would be as much an experience for us as a presentation."

The group's original project idea evolved throughout the semester, adapting to realistic capabilities and outside influences.

"We had this grandiose idea of throwing seeds out at vacant lots and them just exploding," creative writing junior Joel Hughes said. "And then we started contacting professionals, and they were like, ‘You can't do that, it won't work.' We had to minimize the plan and it evolved into these smaller projects."

The group also had a local artist paint a mural and wheat paste it on the boarded windows of an abandoned building surrounding a lot where they had planted a garden. Shortly after it was completed, however, the group returned to find it ripped down.

"Part of the theory was taking spaces back that had been abandoned as our own. And part of the process of the (the mural) getting ripped down is the realization that there are people that are interested in this space outside of ourselves," Hughes said.

Hughes also said participation in the course opened up new artistic paths for him.

"It opened up a different avenue for me where I'm sure I'll find a lot of inspiration," he said. "I'm a poet, and at the time I had been writing a little, and it was always kind of on the same avenue, but this just opens up a different gamut of sources where I can come back to."

Collective Playground was also presented Sunday at the Lawndale Art Center. The installation represented shared childhood experiences and imagery. 

"We wanted to explore this idea of the subjectivity of memory, but how many children, many childhood memories, have shared experiences whether they believe it or not," creative writing graduate student Stacey Higdon said.

The installation featured a ceiling made of layers of gauze and fabric embedded with images of a cat, leaves and tree branches. Cicadas made of wrapped wire were placed along the walls, and throughout the room, and muffled audio played in the background. The images in the piece were taken from the group members' childhoods, and with the help of Michael Remson, their faculty adviser, the group found that they all featured images of nature. They used this foundation of collective yet individual recollections to build their piece.

Though some students in the course had collaborated before, many found themselves in a new experience. 

"This was my first time to work collaboratively, especially with individuals outside of my discipline, and so that was really a great experience," said graphic communication graduate student Noora Alsalman, who worked on Collective Memory. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Painting and drawing graduate student and group member Norberto Gomez Jr. had some experience with collaboration, but not to the extent offered by the class. He said collaboration can bring about important changes in an individual's artwork.

"It takes you out of your element and pushes you, because at some point you can get really stuck in one thing that works, and you keep doing it over and over again … and so you never really grow from there," Gomez said. "You really need to go another level, and sometimes other people need to tell you that."

Collaboration Among the Arts is offered in the spring semester. Interested students must submit applications and be accepted into the course.

"I think that curiosity to learn is kind of the best thing that we have," Edwards said. "My hope is that (this course) allows people to kind of follow that curiosity a little bit."

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