Once a year, Sweet Briar students get inspired by the College’s vast art collection to create their own works of art — from essays to short stories or poems, from music compositions to photographs and paintings. On Monday, the Sweet Briar College Friends of Art announced the winners of its 2018 student prizes.
There are awards for Writing and Studio Art, as well as a Multidisciplinary prize. In recognition of the College’s new Living with Art initiative, a fourth category was added this year for students wishing to write about their experience of choosing a work of art for their dorm room and coming to know that work over the past academic year. Each prize comes with a $500 award. All submissions were inspired by a work of art in the College’s permanent collection, which encompasses more than 4,000 pieces.
The Studio Art Prize was awarded to Richmond native Courtney Nelson ’20 for her photograph “Catherine,” which is based on the photograph “Domestic: Miggie and Ilene” by Catherine Opie. Opie’s piece was displayed last spring during Sweet Briar’s “116” exhibition in Pannell Gallery, which included 116 works of art, as well as artifacts, to tell 116 years of College history.
“I made a slow circle around the gallery,” recalls Nelson, a sociology and environmental studies double major. “I stopped. An eye-catching flash of flesh among a mesmerizing blue pool left me in deep thought.”
That image, she says, stuck with her for a long time. “The photo was provocative yet simultaneously innocent and peaceful. When working on my own photography project, Opie’s piece stayed in my mind and I would constantly have images pop into my head of what I wanted to capture. The idea of a woman in a white dress floating in the water came to me; I couldn’t let it go.”
Nelson took the picture at Sweet Briar’s Lower Lake in early April of last year.
“Despite the cold water, she portrayed the innocence and serenity I envisioned in my head,” Nelson says. “In addition, the sheerness of the dress reminded me of the vulnerability of being exposed similar to Opie’s photo. I am grateful that I was able to find inspiration for my own work in Sweet Briar’s collection.”
Music major Ellis Carroll ’20, from Crofton, Md., won the Multidisciplinary Prize for her composition “Misty Morning.” Carroll was inspired by the photograph “Morning Jewels” by Sweet Briar professor and internationally renowned photojournalist Medford Taylor.
“My composition was originally a graphic score, which means it was just lines and shapes on a page,” Carroll explains. “I took those graphics and played it on the piano until I was satisfied with how it sounded, then input it into a Musical Instrument Digital Interface in [Sweet Briar’s] Sound Art Production and Analysis (SARPA) studio. From this program, I was able to use a piano, cello and viola to create the original melody, more texture and add layers into the piece. Medford Taylor’s piece helped inspire me because I saw the relationship between my own compositional process and the spider’s process of creating its web.”
When she isn’t experimenting in the sound studio, Carroll participates in the voice program and choir, which is currently recording the College’s century-old Sweet Briar Song Book. It’s a fitting project for the legacy student, whose mother, Priscilla Newton, attended Sweet Briar in the 1980s. “I wanted to come to Sweet Briar because it has such a personalized experience for learning, with hands-on activities in classes, small class sizes and faculty that are actively engaged in your educational experience,” Carroll says.
This year, the Writing Prize was shared by two students. Sophomore Raven Minyard, of Hohenwald, Tenn., received it for a critical essay about the photograph “Edith and Grandmother, Christmas 1969” by Emmet Gowin.
“I originally wrote this essay for my Survey of Art History I class last semester,” says the English and creative writing major. “For the assignment, we were supposed to pick a piece of art from the ‘GRRRL Power’ exhibit in Pannell Gallery, and while there were so many pieces that I liked, I kept going back to ‘Edith and Her Grandmother.’ There was just something about it that really captivated me, which was actually surprising to me since I generally prefer paintings to photography. There was this overall defiant mood to the photo, and I knew there was a lot to be said about it and how it related to feminism. I really liked how Edith had no shame about exposing herself to the camera, and even though this is all we see of her, I thought her character was worth further exploration.”
Senior Emma Thom, an English and creative writing major from Lynchburg, impressed the judges with her short story “Try to Remember,” which was inspired by Félix Bracquemond’s “Geese in a Storm” — and by her own family history.
“The story is about a woman in her late 20s named Virginia,” Thom says. “She is a wife and a mother and is from a rural neighborhood in North Carolina. At the heart of this story is Virginia’s journey with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, an unrelenting disease that took control of my own grandmother’s life. A few of the hallucinations mentioned in the piece are ones my grandmother experienced and, though comical, were sort of terrifying in their strangeness. My mother was told that my grandmother had mentally left this world and she wasn’t coming back. I wanted to attempt to capture the ways in which my mother entered that other world and continued to love and care for my grandmother as if caring for a newborn or a toddler.”
Thom chose Braquemond’s piece because she liked the idea of an impending storm in her story.
“It can serve to add a great deal of tension,” she explains. “I love the rural landscape in the etching and the way the sun is carefully peering through the clouds. The final moment in this story with Virginia and her mother depicts the two of them in this open field, surrounded by geese, and Virginia notices the sun grazing her mother, making her seem almost angelic.”
The Living with Art Prize was awarded to Stafford native and music major Katherine Leaver ’18 for her essay “Living with Salvador Dali’s ‘Velasquez’.”
“I wrote the essay over spring break, when I had some distance from campus,” she says. “I have been talking about the Dali piece pretty much from the day I got it, but being more reflective took a few more weeks.”
A photo post on the College’s Facebook page — part of a series to illustrate President Woo’s new initiative — featured Leaver in her room with the piece. The comments it sparked from alumnae, parents and students also served as inspiration for the candid essay.
“It’s funny, but my hair is wild in the picture, just like Velasquez’s in the etching,” Leaver writes in her essay, which describes how she became acquainted with Dali’s piece: “The work was hung in my room over Thanksgiving break, and when I returned, Velasquez was staring at the library. At first I was concerned; I’m a colorful and bright person, and the etching is in black and white. But after a few days, I started warming up to the actual piece, not just the artist. The piece itself is small, with Velasquez seemingly made from scribbles. I stared at it a lot at first, trying to memorize all the squiggles. I’ve even started trying to doodle in the same style. I learned I should have taken a drawing class during my time here at Sweet Briar.”
Like Carroll, Leaver is a member of the choir and is recording the Sweet Briar Song Book — a process that is reflected in her Senior Thesis. She is also the vice captain of Skiffle USA, president of GLOW and secretary of the Inter-club Council. “The first time I chose Sweet Briar, I loved the people and the promises of what my four years here would look like,” she recalls. “I chose Sweet Briar a second time for the opportunities to help shape a new Sweet Briar that would be viable for the future.”
Faculty judges for the FOA awards this year included Professor of Art History Chris Witcombe; Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English John Gregory Brown; Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Melora Kordos; Professor of Studio Art Laura Pharis; and Professor of English and Creative Writing Carrie Brown, who also serves as director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts. Several members of the Friends of Art board also served as judges. They included Susan Stephens Geyer ’74, Elinor Plowden Boyd ’74, May Carter Barger ‘81 and Mary Page Stewart ’78.
“The Living with Art initiative inspired by President Woo, and the renewed presence of artworks in common rooms and public spaces on campus, represented an enormous undertaking for faculty and staff,” Carrie Brown said. “Both efforts suggest the value the community places on art in general and on the value of art in humanizing — and beautifying — the physical spaces in which we live and work. It was a pleasure to see the range of student submissions for all the prizes this year and to know that every year, these prizes help deepen the students’ relationship with art and with the College’s collection specifically.”