Art & Culture

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Writing About Art

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Writing About Art

By Maya Arthur.

The day was brisk, but still warm. It was nearing the end of fall.

We stepped out of the cab to find a woman in front of a green door.

The façade looked like nothing special: just a small building with a nondescript door. On one side of the door, there were frosted glass block windows. We couldn’t see the inside of the building.

We entered an office and the woman—the Coordinator for Penn's Art and Culture Initiative— led us through the studio to find artist Sarah McEneaney in a chair eating a cookie, her dog Trixie by her side. She was relaxed, her face happy and bright. Inside the building was a treasure trove of art, books, music, and trinkets that Sarah had collected over the years. Despite its exterior, her house was anything but nondescript: her whole personality could be seen in the art hanging from the walls and the many animal ornaments (mainly dogs and cats) placed aroundher living room and studio.

Sarah talked of her recent travels to the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. She also elaborated on her art; her process. Each piece she painted represented part of her life, like a chapter in a book. Some were colorful. Some were dark. Some were red. They showed the time she was arrested with her sister while riding bikes in Center City, her time in a residency in Texas, the time she was sexually assaulted in her home—the very home everyone was crowded in, eating cookies and petting Trixie.

There were dozens of paintings of her home and Trixie and her recently deceased cats. Sarah was in these scenes too, drinking water in her kitchen or preparing to paint in her studio, never in the background, but never in the spotlight either. Sarah spoke of her experiences without a waver in her voice, matter-of-fact and confident.

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Sarah McEneaney was just one of the many highlights the freshman seminar Writing about Art offered. The first highlight was its instructor, Susan Bee. Writing about Art was not a class where we stayed in the classroom being lectured or taught to do something a certain way. Susan Bee gave us a freedom that I had never quite experienced in a class before. To that freedom Bee added her knowledge of art and writing and a sense of what each means to her personally as an artist. She used both of these realms to teach us not only how to write, but also how to critique the art at hand. Our class learned to decipher the different contexts art can have, and how to express those contexts in writing. It was a class where we explored diverse topics—sometimes going very off-topic, but always learning something. One memorable class, we delved into the topic of Kara Walker and the implications of her installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, which then led to the topics of Emma Sulkowicz, performance art, and rape culture. 

It was a fun and engaging three hours. Our class came together once a week over conversations like the one above, as well as reading and critiquing each other’s pieces.

In addition to our in-classroom explorations, we visited museums like the nearby Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), where we saw Nicole Eisenman's paintings, sculptures, and monoprints; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where we saw David Lynch’s artistry; and even the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The visit to MOMA was probably the biggest highlight for the class; we went on a Saturday when the museum was packed. Our class looked at two exhibits—the Matisse exhibit, featuring his famous cut-outs, and the Robert Gober exhibit, featuring his sculptures and his collection of works by other artists. While Matisse’s work struck me with awe and wonderment, Gober’s shocked me in a slow, muted way as I attempted to understand his sculptures and the dynamics and placement of his work, which constituted a subversive critique of social justice issues from the AIDS epidemic to societal racism. We couldn’t stop talking about it and couldn’t wait to go back to Penn to write about it.

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After the MOMA trip, Raphael Rubinstein, an art critic and editor, attended our class to share his experiences with art and take a look at our pieces about our visit to MOMA. That class, I realized that I could do something I enjoyed so much—writing about art—and actually get paid for it! Rubinstein talked to us about the correlation of other writing forms like poetry and how it can apply to art criticism. He read some pieces from his books and talked about the process of editing an art magazine. He opened our eyes to an occupation that most of us thought was long gone in the past.

Maya Arthur is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, planning to major in Communications and minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies. She works at Kelly Writers House as the Creative Ventures Program Assistant.

Banner image: Maya Arthur with Sarah McEneaney's painting (work in progress, detail).