Living With Art Initiative aims for educational depth while enhancing living and working spaces

Students choose art
Senior Maggy O’Donnell (left) and junior Cecilia Mahan have a hard time picking a favorite piece.

Shortly after President Meredith Woo arrived at Sweet Briar, she devised an unusual plan: hang art everywhere, including in students’ residential rooms. This fall, the Living With Art Initiative was announced in a letter to students explaining that they would be able to select a framed work of art for their rooms through a lottery.

“You — and every student — will have the opportunity to have your own private exhibition space,” she wrote in August.

Woo’s goal is to display more of the thousands of objects in the Sweet Briar College Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The collection is an integral part of the teaching curriculum. Works are shown in Pannell Gallery each semester, and art history students routinely use it to curate museum and gallery exhibitions.

Some pieces are also exhibited in administrative buildings, but Woo saw an opportunity to go much further.

Art being framed

“I want visual art to be a major part of the Sweet Briar experience for each student,” Woo wrote in her letter. “I believe a more proactive display and use of artworks in all residence halls — in your rooms and in the parlors — will add depth to your education outside of the classroom.

“Art collections in a collegiate setting should be in service of learning, whether in classrooms, in galleries, or as we plan to do, in the halls and rooms of residence buildings.”

Beyond enhancing the liberal arts curriculum, Woo believes the “vibrancy and color” that the art will infuse throughout campus is a way to both “lift our spirits” and fulfill our mission.

Laura Pharis will attest to both. Pharis, a studio art professor and multimedia artist, is helping with the enormous task of selecting, cataloging and framing about 350 pieces. It’s painstaking work to safeguard both the provenance and the condition of the art. Registrarial assistant Nancy McDearmon is providing guidance on museum practices and procedures.

Pharis recently came home after a day of combing the collection, feeling exhausted but curiously happy. She puzzled over her mood, she said, until the reason dawned on her.

“Looking at the art just kind of puts you in a better place. I hope it will be a good experience for students and I hope they will research their piece. I do believe that being around art changes you — that it can be fulfilling.”

Student choosing art in Pannell

Beyond the pleasure of looking through the collection, Pharis likes imagining the kind of student who would enjoy a certain piece.

“I might think a music student would like this or a [medieval and Renaissance studies] student would like to have a certain medieval print. We have some really old prints in the collection.”

Although the process is still ongoing, Pharis says some Peter Milton prints are among the selections by living artists. She also picked a work by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th-century Italian known for his etchings of Rome. The work is from a series of 16 prints known as the “Carceri d’invenzione” or the “Imaginary Prisons.”

“It is powerful,” Pharis said of the latter. “It would take the right student to like that piece, but I think students will like it.”

All of the art will be selected, framed and installed in student rooms by the end of the fall semester. Seniors will receive theirs first, then juniors, sophomores and first-years. Pharis said they are taking care to use UV-filtering plexiglass and safety hangers to protect the art.

Justin Rice and Laura Pharis
Studio art professors Justin Rice and Laura Pharis sort through Sweet Briar’s extensive collection.

About 350 additional works from Sweet Briar’s decorative collection also are being hung in the residence hall parlors, Prothro dining rooms and other public spaces. Many of these are by contemporary professional artists, faculty members and Sweet Briar students.

Pharis says she is glad to see art from both collections going up around campus, especially after what had been in public spaces was removed in 2015.

“I’m a visual artist. If you ask me if I would rather my work be in a drawer or on the wall, I’m going to say the wall every time,” she said. “So I’m excited about the project. I think it’s an audacious plan.”

Seniors and juniors selected their artworks in late October; sophomores and first-years will get to choose theirs Nov. 27-30.

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