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Ross Gay '96 interacts with students.

Ross Gay ’96 interacts with students.

The career path of an artist is full of unknowns—and that’s as it should be, accomplished poet and painter Ross Gay ’96 told Lafayette art students when he visited campus this semester. Gay was one of six graduates who returned to their alma mater to take part in the inaugural session of the Alumni Arts Institute, in which they held hands-on workshops and discussions about what it takes to be successful in the art industry.

Gay, the author of two acclaimed poetry collections and a professor at Indiana University, reminded the students to be cognizant of the idea that art is an artifact of the process of transformation and self-discovery that the artist experienced in making it.

“If the road is familiar, or completely familiar anyway, then the thing made is unnecessary,” Gay says.

But while an artist must find his or her own path, it doesn’t hurt to get a little advice from those who have gone before.

View and share images from the Alumni Arts Institute on Flickr

Workshop with Alaina Lackman ’09 and Ellen Rose ’09

“I think it’s useful for younger people to have conversations with older people, and vice versa,” Gay says.  “Also, it’s nice to have someone say something like, ‘Read Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” tonight.’  Or, ‘You need to read these six books—or else you won’t know what your project could be.’ This kind of thing.  Nuts and bolts.”

Film and media studies major Paige Nelson ’12 (Wyckoff, N.J.) found her experience with Gay to be very moving.

“We ended up writing three poems at the end of the exercise and my poems were personal and powerful reflections of things going on upstairs that I would have otherwise ignored,” she says. “I am no poet and was shocked that Ross was able to so easily allow me to get to a vulnerable place of emotion and creativity.”

Sponsored by the art department, the Alumni Arts Institute is the brainchild of Ed Kerns, Clapp Professor of Art. This semester was the pilot program for what Kerns hopes will become a yearly event, with the potential to grow into a larger ongoing program in which art alumni participate in workshops, residencies, exhibitions, and related events, Kerns says.

“There is nothing like the shared Lafayette experience across generations of students with which to build connectivity and powerful teaching experiences,” Kerns says. “Our alums are very successful in many fields, including the arts, and this is a way to showcase that success over the years since the artists have reached a level of maturity here.”

A Lafayette education in the arts provides a strong foundation for making a living as an artist, as evidenced by the success enjoyed by the alumni who took part in the Alumni Arts Institute.

Painter Marissa Halderman ’09 of Doylestown, Pa., emphasized to the students how her Lafayette education helped her develop as an artist and gave her other advantages in her career.

“Lafayette prepared me to be able to communicate the formal, technical, and conceptual aspects of my art.  This skill has separated me from many artists and has helped me to exhibit and sell my work.  The studio experience from classes and EXCEL research taught me technical skills, but, more importantly, gave me confidence in myself as an artist,” says Halderman, who participated in a two-person show at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts last fall and recently completed a painting commission for the lobby of a law firm in Austin, Texas.

Gay also says that his interactions with faculty at Lafayette helped shape him.

“I had wonderful teachers, Ed Kerns, Lee Upton, and many others, who assumed I was smarter and more capable than I actually was—and so I had to become that.  I was lucky to be challenged and told, ‘Nope, that’s not good enough.  Start over.’  I was lucky to have teachers who asked me questions I was incapable of answering,” Gay says.

When considering alumni to invite to participate, Kerns tried to match the interests of the current honors and upper-level studio art students. The Alumni Arts Institute included several recent graduates with media savvy, along with some seasoned professionals who have worked in the field—all of whom had taken upper-level courses with Kerns and completed honors work with him.

Interacting with alumni is a great networking experience for students and helps them to see their potential future in focus, Kerns says.

“The arts take a little longer to have success in, and the hard-won professional accolades held by our alumni that students see are truly inspiring to them,” Kerns says.

Workshop with Allison Thompson ’09

Jordana Loft ’12 (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a double major in English and art, says that meeting the alumni through the program helped her to recognize that thinking outside the box is a critical component to success in the arts.

“Embracing the process of art and allowing ideas to unfold are such invaluable lessons that transcend the canvas and pave their way through everyday life, for life, too, is a boundless whirlwind of learning and creating,” Loft says. “With the help of my professors and the returning alumni, I learned to kick my fear of getting started to the curb and embrace the process of creating art, one simple step at a time,”

The other alumni who shared their experiences as part of the Alumni Arts Institute were Beth Federici ’86, an independent filmmaker, educator, and media activist; Alaina Lackman ’09, a photographer, painter, digital media specialist, and designer; Allison Thompson ’09, a painter and performance artist; and Ellen Rose ’09, a Brooklyn-based artist, jewelry designer, and travel photographer.

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  1. Tom Brown says:

    It is great to see how other people have made it in this industry. It definitely is not an easy industry, but with passion and determination we can do it. I always look for mentors like Ross Gay who can inspire me.

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