Beyond the Museum

By E.G.B.

Brett Cook, an artist, has a warm smile and a gift for putting others at ease. He likes to greet strangers with hugs instead of handshakes. In mid-April, when he came to Pruyne Lecture Hall to talk about his work, some students in the audience could hardly contain their glee. To judge by the students’ faces, and by at least one muffled squeal, listening to Cook was as thrill-worthy an experience as meeting a head of state or an A-list celebrity.

Cook spoke about using art to give other people a voice. In the early 1990s, he collaborated with a fellow artist to paint, without funding or permission, a pair of outdoor, public portraits of Rodney King, the African-American taxi driver beaten by Los Angeles police officers. For another project, Cook talked to homeless people about what it means to be homeless, and then incorporated their answers—one man said he was “just waiting to die”—into portraits he installed on the streets. In yet another endeavor, Cook asked students at a school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to make self-portraits. Cook drew outlines of the portraits and then invited the community to color in the outlines with oil pastels. “In the history of Western art,” Cook told the audience, “the subject almost never has a voice.”

In the fall, Cook will facilitate a collaborative art project at Amherst. That project was the subject of conversation at a dinner held at Lewis-Sebring after Cook’s lecture. The meal brought together students, faculty and staff to brainstorm about the purpose and parameters of the as-yet-undefined campus venture. “The art,” Cook said at the dinner, “is really just debris from the experiences.”

Cook’s talk was the last in a three-part lecture series organized by visiting artist-in-residence Wendy Ewald, who teaches a course on art as a collaborative, community-wide endeavor. “It’s a growing contemporary art practice,” she explains. The president’s office sponsored the lecture series. The earlier speakers were Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist whose text and photos were included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and Dawoud Bey, whose photography is in the permanent collections of numerous museums.

This semester, 13 students from all Five Colleges enrolled in Ewald’s course. Each student completed a project. Andy Tew ’07, a psychology major, collaborated with a local 14-year-old named Erik Munson. Tew photographed Munson and then placed transparencies on top of the photos. Using markers, the boy drew all over the transparencies. One image shows Munson with scales on his face.

For the course, Mount Holyoke students Martha Martinez ’09 and Rachel Bickel ’08 asked members of the local Baha’i community to visually express how they find calmness. Martinez signed up for the course after participating in a collaborative art project as a child. “It was transformative for me” she says of the childhood experience, which involved dance and costume design.

At the end of the semester, as Martinez, Bickel and Tew wrapped up their projects, Ewald looked ahead to the fall collaboration with Cook. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” Ewald is a photographer who has spent much of her career creating art with children. Students in her course next semester will spend time working closely with Cook. To Ewald, one purpose of the on-campus collaboration is to show that art does not belong only inside a museum. What’s more, she hopes that through the project, her students will learn to engage the entire Amherst community in an artistic pursuit. “It’s not the idea of, I’m going to help you,” Ewald says of collaborative art. “It’s that we’re going to do something together that includes your voice.”