“Chockablock” student exhibit opens in Weingart as remodeling plans threaten to remove gallery space

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Art by Irene C. Wickwire, featured in the “Chockablock” student art exhibition at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

Nestled into the galleries located in the Weingart Center for Liberal Arts are 75 works of art, ranging from large sculptures to delicate prints. Featuring student art from all levels of Studio Art classes in the Fall 2019 semester, the “Chockablock” student exhibition opened Feb. 13. The exhibition will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through April 3. Professor of sculpture, photography and interdisciplinary arts Mary Beth Heffernan had the idea to host the exhibit in order to celebrate work by students from a wide range of majors, Heffernan said.

Ella Morner-Ritt (senior), an English major and art & art history minor with a studio art concentration, has two pieces in the exhibit. According to Morner-Ritt, everyone should have the chance to see their work in an exhibit, regardless of their level of experience with art.

“It’s really exciting to just walk in and see my art next to art that I really otherwise respect,” Morner-Ritt said. “To see my work amongst really talented artists’ work is pretty remarkable.”

Morner-Ritt said she wanted to learn how to embroider, but that every art practice has a history and embroidery has been a symbol of women’s subservience and domesticity throughout history. “Blue in the Head” features a column of vintage photos featuring exclusively women, with each face embroidered over in different shades of blue thread with the needles left to hang down.

“I thought [the women in the photos] were so beautiful, and at first I wanted to embroider on the background to bring them out,” Morner-Ritt said. “And then I realized that removing them from their background was a violence in and of itself, and I kind of leaned into that and decided to actually remove any identification you could have with anyone in the portraits.”

Morner-Ritt said she is very grateful for the Art Studios Manager Christopher Wawrinofsky, who helps students with their projects and was responsible for designing and setting up the “Chockablock” exhibit. According to Morner-Ritt, Wawrinofsky’s words of encouragement are a guiding light in the studio arts department.

“Every time I’ve seen [Wawrinofsky] and every time I’ve been working on something, he’s been there to be like, ‘This is so valuable. What you have to say is so valuable,’” Morner-Ritt said.

Art by Olivia Foss (left) and Makayla Keasler, featured in the “Chockablock” student art exhibition at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

Madeleine Giles (sophomore) is in the process of declaring her major in art & art history with a concentration in studio art. One of Giles’ two pieces in the exhibit is an assemblage piece — a medium similar to collage, but three-dimensional. The piece resembles a rosary, but features June beetles among the beads and a praying mantis in place of the cross. According to Giles, the piece, “Bug Rosary,” represents a positive spiritual symbol in place of the rigid religious upbringing that she struggled with throughout her life.

“Recently this year, I have found that my strength comes from myself and also the earth and nature, and I feel really connected to that stuff more than anything that’s quote unquote ‘divine,'” Giles said. “So it is kind of like an homage to the natural, as well as a celebration of the natural.”

Giles said society tends to see art as less academic or intellectual than other fields of study in higher education, but getting to have her work exhibited helps her feel more respected.

“For me, being able to have my art in a space like this reinforces, maybe for my friends, that this is my work,” Giles said. “This is serious for me. I want to be taken seriously.”

Irene Wickwire (first year) is another student whose art was selected for the exhibition. According to Wickwire, her untitled piece — a plaster cast of her own face covered in life-sized images of her facial features — explores the dissociation from one’s identity that occurs when being photographed. Wickwire said although the cast fits her face exactly and the images are pictures of herself, the collage of images creates an uncanny and creepy replication of herself that represents that disassociation.

Wickwire said being approached by her professor to have her work in the exhibit meant a lot to her, and she is very excited to have her piece in the show.

“It’s really cool that there is an opportunity for the wider student body to come and see what people are doing and what people are creating,” Wickwire said. “I’m just happy that fine arts has a little place to exhibit.”

Art by Lori Berberian, featured in the “Chockablock” student art exhibition at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

According to Heffernan and Wawrinofsky, however, Occidental has tentative plans to refurbish the larger of the two gallery spaces in Weingart to create office spaces next summer. According to Wawrinofsky, exhibition opportunities for students are a vital component of any liberal arts experience. Without that gallery, the only space left for exhibitions would be the Oxy Arts building off campus.

“Programming at Oxy Arts is pretty rigorous and jam-packed. Meldia [Yesayan] is the new director, and she has been doing a good job of creating a very rigorous program, but I don’t know if that leaves a lot of room for student exhibitions outside of their senior comps exhibition,” Wawrinofsky said.

According to Heffernan, exhibitions are an important way for students to engage with the world around them.

“Showing work in our galleries has been an important part of our art program, and it’s a space where community is formed, where dialogue over work happens,” Heffernan said. “It’s an important part of our pedagogy. We need these spaces.”