The summery scents of citronella and sunscreen greet students as they gather below the bell tower on a Thursday afternoon in late April. It’s pleasant and warm, even humid — hence the bug spray. “Does anybody need more?” asks Courtney Balestier, a writer and one of three VCCA fellows who are team-teaching this section of CORE 150 — Expression and the Arts. Right beside her: conceptual artist Shea Hembrey and composer Aaron Wyanski.
Today’s session is no ordinary outdoor class. It’s an art walk led by Carrie Brown, director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts, and a longtime professor of creative writing at Sweet Briar College. Brown knows (nearly) every nook and cranny of the 3,250-acre campus — including the lesser-known spaces she wants to show students today. (But shhh: What those spaces are is a surprise.) The students are just three days into the course, and the art walk will help them figure out exactly what they’re going to do for the rest of the three-week term. The assignment is intentionally vague: Come up with a site-specific installation created by a fictional artist, then draft a sketch and formulate a pitch.
The original course proposal sounds, of course, more complex. When Balestier, Hembrey and Wyanski applied for the inaugural SBC-VCCA Fellowship last year, the judges were impressed by their vision for “A Multiplicity of Narratives: The Immersive Art of Identity.” According to that vision, CORE 150 combines “the progressive sketching and design planning of visual artistry (Hembrey), the narrative development and world-building of the literary arts (Balestier), and the emotional resonance and abstract thinking of sound art (Wyanski), each discipline supporting the others to create deeper, richer work. Students will be encouraged to expand beyond their own lived experiences and create work from a more imaginative place, where a multitude of voices reside.”
Back in the Quad, students continue to trickle in from various directions. Birds are chirping excitedly. Suddenly, the bells startle everyone. Brown jumps up and starts to wave her arms, “conducting along with them,” as she calls it.
Then it’s time for class. Wyanski launches into an impromptu talk about sound. “Who hates the bells?” he asks. About two or three hands go up. “Who loves the bells?” Many more hands follow. “Who’s indifferent to the bells?” There are some. “Think about sound and your environment,” he challenges the two dozen students. “Why does sound exist?”
He goes into a quick history of bells, explaining that for a long time, bells would have been the loudest sound people would have heard — and the loudest sound humans could produce. Meanwhile, he is drowned out almost entirely by the countless birds that have gathered in the trees nearby.
The group splits into three clusters led by each fellow, while the whole pack is guided by Brown — past Memorial Chapel, out of the Quad and toward Sweet Briar Road. They pass through the traffic circle, by the Front Dell, past the old Bistro and the guardhouse. Then farther down Sweet Briar Road into the trees, toward U.S. 29. Just past the woods, Brown makes a sharp left turn into the field, stopping under an enormous elm tree. Its limbs spread low and strong, perfect for climbing on.
“It’s a display tree. You could hang pictures from it,” remarks Hembrey. “Imagine what could happen to the landscape with minimal intervention.”
“Does anybody know where we’re going?” asks Brown.
Everyone does. You can see it now: the old campus entrance with its small iron gates, just 50 yards or so downfield. Brown explains that it’s romantic and magical and “from a different time.” But Hembrey points out something else: that the highway noise disturbs that notion and brings chaos to it. There’s no way you could have a meditative exhibit in this space, he notes.
“This is one of those hidden spaces on campus,” Brown explains. “We tried to develop an itinerary of spaces that you might not ever have seen, moving from an intimate scale — this little hidden place — to bigger, most expansive areas, including a place that’s been there all along but which you’ve perhaps never noticed.”
And many of the students haven’t seen the original entrance — at least not up close.
“I’ve heard about the old entrance since I was a first-year, but I’d never actually gone to see it, so taking a walk down there was pretty exciting,” said junior Raven Minyard of Hohenwald, Tenn., after the session.
Senior Caroline Thomas of Appomattox had seen it, but never walked to it.
“The old entrance made me think about the changes that the school experienced before even I was born,” she said. “I think sometimes we forget how quickly things change in the scheme of life.”
Lily Peterson, a sophomore from Ashland, had never seen it. “The art walk helped to ground my ideas and inspired me to find ways to use the resources we have at Sweet Briar in a creative and innovative way,” she said. “Being able to think about these spaces in the context of art was very inspiring.”
First-year Lauren Jones of Danville had spotted the entrance only from a distance, out of a car. Walking to it made her realize how much of Sweet Briar’s history she doesn’t know, and it made her want to know more.
“Imagine you’re an artist and this is your site visit,” Hembrey says. He points to a grouping of young magnolia trees that have been planted between the old gates and U.S. 29. Magnolias are the oldest trees in the world, he adds. “You could use that fact to evoke time.”
Balestier takes a thematic approach. “What are you curious about? Are you curious about land use? Environmental concerns? The idea of a female community?”
Wyanski jumps in. “How do you feel in the space?” he adds. “Let’s explore that.”
As Hembrey concludes, “Every little detail is a trigger that could lead to something.”
Today’s art walk, which will also lead to some old barns on Dairy Road and a water tower that overlooks campus, is an opportunity for the students to find inspiration for their project and choose a specific site. There may be follow-up “micro-walks” to explore their sites later on, Hembrey explains, but this is the big one. The fact that students won’t have to actually create their installation, but “merely” come up with a concept — as well as a finished drawing of it — opens the door to lots of possibilities.
“This is their chance to really think big,” he says.
Two weeks later, the students have begun to understand what he means. Through the instructors, they’ve been exposed to dozens and dozens of works of contemporary art: sculpture and conceptual art, sonic art, a variety of literary forms. Most of it was brand-new to them. As Brown says, the course has “exploded their sense of possibility not just as artists but as thinkers, as people who are attentive to the world around them. I promised them at the beginning of the semester that the course would blow their minds, and it’s been so much fun to watch it happen.”
Jones, a computer science major with a minor in mathematics, was feeling inspired. “Not having to actually create the project has allowed my creativity to run wild,” she said. “For example, I want running water in my art piece.” Jones is creating glasses that help the viewer see through the eyes of the visually impaired. “It is definitely getting me out of my comfort zone and that is why I took this class. There are so many ways to think about how to get to your final piece. In programming, I can use different pieces of code to get to my final piece.”
For Minyard, an English and creative writing major with double minors in history and medieval and Renaissance studies, having this much freedom is equal parts exciting and daunting.
“I think the most challenging aspect was actually figuring out what to do,” she explained. “We had to think outside the box. There were so many things we could do, and that in itself was intimidating.”
But the art walk made all the difference — especially once the group headed back into the forest.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the woods pretty soon after we walked a bit down Sanctuary Lane,” Minyard said. “Even though there are lots of sections of woods on campus, being surrounded by trees away from the main part of campus really makes you feel like you’re somewhere else entirely, and I wanted to invoke that feeling in my piece.”
Her artist character is a 74-year-old woman who sculpts furniture out of vines, covering them with leaves and moss. Visiting the rickety barns near the Art Barn inspired Minyard’s installation. “I’ve been to the barns before, but it’s always so interesting to look around at all the things that don’t actually belong there, like shopping carts and furniture,” she said.
Peterson, a studio art major who is pursuing an Equine Studies Certificate, says having no financial or time constraints because her installation won’t actually have to be built lets her develop ideas to their fullest potential. But she’s with Minyard. “My biggest challenge was working through the almost limitless artistic liberties,” she said. Even though she had already fulfilled her CORE requirements before, having the chance to learn from VCCA fellows during the immersive three-week format was something she couldn’t pass up.
“This class has differed from my other art classes at Sweet Briar by having a focus on conceptual ideas instead of technique, which is rarely taught in traditional college classes,” Peterson said. “Because of this, the class has required a lot of critical thinking and creative experimentation, which has been greatly beneficial in developing my overall artistic style.”
Minyard agrees. “While Sweet Briar’s faculty is amazing, it was kind of refreshing to be taught by instructors who were completely new to Sweet Briar. Because we had three instructors, it was like having three mini classes in one. I enjoyed seeing how each subject came together into our final project. This class has been a unique experience, and I hope we continue to offer classes like this in the future. It’s a good way to get students to start thinking in new ways.”
Students showed their final visions in an exhibition in Babcock Gallery on May 12.