I was on my way to Mason Hall when, out of curiosity, I decided to stop inside the Samuel T. Dana Building, home of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. I remembered how I would always walk past this building on my way to class and how I would think about its layout on the inside, wondering if it was anything special since it always felt like one of the University’s unique sub-institutions. After noticing a man walk inside without having to provide special authorization, I committed to my decision and followed in his direction. What I would come to realize after my experience in the Dana Building is how often we overlook an influential source of information: Art.
Once inside, I looked at the map for a general atrium area that I could explore before exiting the building on the opposite side to head to class. Upon entering Ford Commons, my eye was immediately caught by what was on the far wall: Five large paintings hanging evenly spaced, basking in yellow light as if in a showcase. One displayed a black and white shape that curled and weaved like a brain. Another one displayed what looked like a moonlit evening in a swamp, seemingly magical yet it felt tarnished. Another one showed a stack of logs that laid as though they were too damp to burn, articulating a charcoaled yet washed look. I didn’t know what to think of these. They were dark, but I could feel their essence of beauty and emotion, using black, gray, brown and green tones to portray themselves as the nature that can be seen just outside the heart of this city. Looking far to the left, I noticed a synopsis and found an explanation for this peculiarity.
The artist who created these is Helen Gotlib, a graduate student at the University’s very own School of Art and Design. She calls her work on display “Natural Abstractions,” a title she chose as a way to convey her liking for recreating ordinary objects using the exotic visualizations that she has for them. Combining the techniques of drawing, printmaking and mixed media processes, Gotlib’s recurring motifs in her artwork center around the subtle expressive beauty of nature’s life cycles. There is something powerful about students having the opportunity to display their combined passions of art and the representation of the environment, one that becomes mystical and enrapturing to their viewers as a result. Undoubtedly, this is what the curator of this gallery had noticed in students and had brought to life for that reason.
Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, the curator of the Art & Environment Gallery in the Dana Building, is a renowned member of the research faculty for the University’s School for Environment and Sustainability. With an extensive background as a visual artist for both local and international organizations, she has been reaching towards her objective to bridge the arts and environmental sciences and has been able to create the beginning of an interdisciplinary space here at this University with this gallery. She relishes in the idea of embracing different fields through collaboration and sees the gallery as an effective result of that: “We are bringing art to our school to strengthen our sense of community and facilitate dialogue among students, faculty and staff in the spirit of green-building philosophy.”
The gallery has been ongoing since February 2012 and has featured more than two dozen exhibits since then, displaying the artwork done by local and national artists whose passion for interdisciplinary projects has become evident with this gallery. The artists have expressed their motives for contributing to this gallery coincide with Adlerstein-Gonzalez’s mission statement: To create discussion. These students, professionals and instructors want their artwork to be seen to make the issues they care about more apparent in daily conversations. Many of these artists care just as you and I do, only they see that the most effective change will occur through their medium. If I were them, I would say the same.
Currently, I believe the University is undermining the talent and the resources we have on campus to instill the social change that our generation is working hard to create. After viewing the exhibit in the Art & Environment Gallery, I could feel the impression that the display was having on me. The professionalism combined with the emotion and the portrayal of the natural world not only made me think further about the attributed environmental issues but also allowed me to form a psychological attachment in supporting it.
Even though I deeply admired its all-encompassing aura, I felt within that it could be something more. After experiencing this medium of expression that had a lasting effect on my thoughts and my concerns, it felt natural to demand that it be projected on a larger scale than it currently is. I feel that this showcase deserves a larger platform, and ultimately the University hasn’t done enough to draw its students towards this medium of expression that could change their perspectives and priorities. I believe that if this University wants to achieve true positive change in terms of implementing a sustainable lifestyle into the academic body’s infrastructure, it must begin with giving the people a reason to want this change and it must expose the interdisciplinary themes between all of the subjects it has to offer to create a far-reaching drive for collaboration.
Kianna Marquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.