Danielle Gustafson-Sundell (G98) knows the experience well. When she started graduate work in the master's of fine arts program of the Department of Art Theory and Practice, she was a painter, but she was struggling with her work, applying layers of paint that were much too heavy for the canvas. No matter how hard Gustafson-Sundell tried, she just couldn't squeeze all the ideas floating in her head into her paintings. Faculty members understood her predicament. "They could see things that I couldn't see," says Gustafson-Sundell. "They helped me to 'jump off the wall' and start making sculpture and installations."
She made the leap by covering a brick with a knit stocking cap from her grandmother. Then Gustafson-Sundell sewed other bricks into soft fabric such as pantyhose until she had enough to cluster them in piles on the floor. When I pulled my ideas into real space, my ideas about the self and the body became clearer, and I could make metaphors through the language of abstraction," she explains. "The act of making hard brick into a soft object is about nurturing something that shouldn't be nurtured. The work also refers to my childhood."
As further proof of her transformation Gustafson-Sundell created a spiral out of old zippers whose faded colors reminded her of Girl Scout uniforms. It is on display in the exhibition "Artists/ Alumni: Recent Graduates of the MFA Program of the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University" at the newly renovated and expanded Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. The show, which opened in May and runs through July 8, reflects the difficult creative quest of 34 alumni artists who, like Gustafson-Sundell, have been victorious in grappling with their artistic demons.
"A lot of the graduate students feel that they have to produce work that is all of a piece right away, but usually it goes through a period of disassembly and then reassembly," says noted artist William Conger, a professor in the department. "That can be very stressful but, of course, it is supposed to be, although we try not to make them feel too uncomfortable about the process of disintegration."
The work of Helidon Gjergji (G00) also took on a whole new aspect at Northwestern. A native of Albania, he had been studying art in Italy before he came to the United States for the first time to get his master's degree. He considered himself a painter, but he was so struck by America's throwaway mentality that he started assembling discarded TV sets and plastic bags to express his concerns about the abuse of political, religious and economic power.
Steven Carrelli (G95) was creating easel-size paintings of human figures when he began his graduate work. "I was representing them in a stiff way as symbols, not as people," he recalls. "I wanted to make the modern equivalent of an icon, but they were hokey." Then teaching assistant and fellow MFA graduate Maria Tomasula (G89) encouraged him to do still lifes and let objects do the talking, while professor James Valerio helped him achieve empathy with the objects. "He wanted me to touch the painting over and over again to create a human interaction between me and the subject in the painting so that it was not just a likeable object but a meaningful object," says Carrelli. These transformations are reflected in his work in the exhibition, which consists of seven small trompe l'oeil paintings of wrinkled business envelopes sealed with wax. "I wanted to take ordinary objects and treat them as though they were very special in order to create a sense of pleasure," explains Carrelli.
The fact that Michelle Grabner (G89) was pregnant when she was at Northwestern played a role in her work. She recalls being encouraged to fuse her personal life and her artistic world. Grabner began to look for inspiration for her paintings in the traditional domestic images of a family's hearth and home and found it in the grid structures of the patterns in paper towels and woven curtains. "If I hadn't made the connection between my artwork and the backdrop of everyday life, I probably would have stopped painting," she says. "But now my work is becoming more abstract so that it doesn't look like cozy crocheted blankets anymore."
Transformative moments sometimes come after students have graduated, according to Conger. That was the case for Bernard Williams (G90), who painted realist portraits and historical subjects influenced by European masters while he was in graduate school. Only after he left the department did he begin to find inspiration in his African American heritage, the cultures of Native Americans and the peoples of ancient Mexico. His concerns are reflected in his work in the show. "It rumbles about colonialism, conquest and loss, technology versus religion or ritual, and fears," he says.
Tomasula followed a similar path. Her parents are from Mexico, but when she came to Northwestern she turned away from the art she knew when she was growing up. "It was Spanish colonial art in churches by unknown artists and crude folk carvings, which were second-rate kitsch," she explains. Tomasula discovered the masters of the European and American art world at Northwestern. After graduation, however, she returned to her origins. "I have found a way to combine what I learned in school and what I know from my own heritage," Tomasula says. "Going to church was always a sensory overload experience for me, and now I try to make paintings that appeal to all of the senses."
The artistic journey at Northwestern does not just take place in the studio, it also includes an exploration of the reasons for the choices that artists make. "The faculty always wanted to know why you were doing something, so you really had to think about it," recalls Louise LeBourgeois (G94). "My landscape paintings are a metaphor for evoking memories of an emotional state, but I couldn't have articulated that before I went to graduate school."
If the works in the exhibition were arranged chronologically, they would reflect the evolution of the Department of Art Theory and Practice. From 1985 until 1999, when William Conger was chair, the emphasis was on painting, drawing and printmaking. In 1997 photographer and video artist Jeanne Dunning joined the faculty, and she became chair in 2000. Since then video, film, sculpture and installation art have become important elements as well.
"The show looks like a diverse roundup of contemporary art, but it denies that there is any signature Northwestern style," says James Yood, assistant chair of the department and one of the co-authors of the exhibition catalog. "Our purpose is to challenge the students to maximize their own visions so they become the artists they were meant to be."
The small size of the department, currently with five full-time professors, four full-time lecturers and five part-time lecturers, enables the five new graduate students enrolled each year for the two-year program to get individual attention.
"It was like being Rhode Island," says printmaker Audrey Niffenegger (G91). "You're a full-fledged state, but you are a very, very small one surrounded by big ones like the journalism school and the law school. Still, it was nice to be with people who were hellbent on making art. They were very high-quality, serious people doing what they were doing with great depth."
But being a part of a large university offers advantages. Molly Briggs (G98) studied printmaking at Northwestern, coordinated the production of the exhibition catalog and worked closely with Yood, Dunning and assistant professor Judy Ledgerwood on organizing the show. She wanted to create images of botanical illustrations and cell growth in her work. "I found the underpinnings for them from reading scientific publications for the layperson at the library," she recalls, "and being at a place where there are other forms of research being done and disciplines being practiced was inspiring."
In fact, as a reflection of the ways in which various art forms are overlapping today, Briggs in 1998 received a grant from Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Research to put together an exhibition entitled "Habitat," which combined a series of her photograms with a presentation by a performance artist.
Both works examined society's changing ideas about human habitats. Briggs has two pieces, Latheo and Pollux, in the current exhibition. They are photographs of blue images that are a cross between abstract paintings and cells seen through a microscope. The color suggests water from which life evolved. "Combining art with evolution is a way of getting at questions of how art is made and what it means," she explains.
While master's degree candidates come to the Department of Art Theory and Practice to develop their artistic abilities and hone their visions, they also learn the crucial details of creating a career as an artist. Tomasula recalls the experience she had with professor Ed Paschke. "Because he was famous, he was able to take us to visit and talk to critics, collectors and curators," she says, "so I got a glimpse of how the art world works in a practical way."
A course called Professional Practices gives graduate students the crucial building blocks they need for making a living as an artist. "When I came to Northwestern I had a very romantic idea of what it meant to be an artist," says Gustafson-Sundell, "but we learned how to write a CV and our artist's statement. We had to pretend we were applying for a teaching job and give a slide presentation of our work."
Graduate students also gain work experience because they benefit from paid teaching assistantships, which may add a new dimension to their set of career goals. "I didn't know that I wanted to teach until I went to grad school," says Gustafson-Sundell, "but I discovered that I love being in the artists' community and talking about art and exposing students to new ideas."
Putting the information about making a career as an artist into practice, however, is not always easy. "The first few years [after graduation] seemed like some sort of boot camp where everyone is cobbling together whatever they can," says Gustafson-Sundell.
LeBourgeois, who met and married Carrelli when they were at Northwestern, also knows the feeling. "The first three years were tight," she says, "but now I find that the persistence paid off. I'm represented by three galleries, and I could actually make a living even if I quit my teaching job."
Success for an artist, however, is not measured in monetary terms alone. "The faculty at Northwestern were good about explaining how to have a career, but it wasn't all about fame and money and turning yourself into someone who is on the cover of art magazines," says Niffenegger. "Everybody was more interested in what it is to have a meaningful internal life. I feel that as long as you have the freedom to make your work, you are successful."
Nancy Maes (WCAS61) is a freelance writer based in Evanston who frequently covers the arts.