Visitors to the USM Art Gallery were greeted by a highly detailed and life-size pencil drawing of a rotary telephone. It hangs from the receiver, the loops of its cord stretched and irregular. Rendered in black and white, the drawing’s simplicity is heightened by the lively watercolors flanking it. The drawing, Absence (2022), by Anna Labbe, won first place at the 2023 Juried Student Exhibition, Parallel Convergence, which opened at the USM Art Gallery on March 9th with a reception and awards ceremony.
On the evening of the reception, the brightly lit gallery quickly filled with student artists, professors, faculty and members of the community. Framed works lined the stark white walls, while sculptures and multimedia pieces sat on tables and pedestals placed around the room. As the group gathered together for the awards ceremony, visitors bumped shoulders, careful not to brush against any of the delicate objects.
While only six of the pieces in the exhibition received prizes, every work was selected by a jury. This year’s panel was made up of art consultant and gallerist Phoebe Cole, who works with Alice Gauvin Gallery and Powell Fine Art Advisory; writer and artist Kelsey Halliday Johnson, and Jenny McGee Dougherty–a practicing artist and the Associate Director of Artists at Work and Alumni Relations at Maine College of Art & Design. All university students, regardless of major, can submit artworks for inclusion in the annual exhibition which “fosters student preparation for professional art settings and processes, provides feedback from art professionals in the community, and exposes their work to a wide range of viewers,” according to the Art Gallery website.
A plethora of styles and mediums were included in the exhibition. In addition to drawing, painting and sculpture, etching, ceramics, photography, digital art, mixed media collage, book arts and fiber arts were also represented. Form and subject matter ranged from portraits to abstract pieces to practical dishware, and often blurred traditional lines. Cecilia Drysdale, for example, evokes Frida Kahlo’s expressive art with her Self-Portrait (2022) made from wood, paper, wire, acrylic paint and ink. For Dougherty, “it was impressive to see such a spectrum of influence in this group of work.” Cole noted that the variety in mediums was one of her favorite things about the group of works.
But as is sometimes the case with such a large collective of creativity, a theme still emerged. While the exhibition may be characterized by variety, Kat Zagaria Buckley, USM’s Director of Art Exhibitions and Outreach, noticed “a lot of art exploring journeys and connections: those missed, memorable and made.” This prompted her to consider the “convergence of two beings who sometimes miss each other.” While their paths may cross in parallel, they never meet. “Other times,” she mused, “they run head-on into one another.” The title Parallel Convergence is the distillation of these ideas, encompassing them “in its playfulness and consideration.” The playful and the serious were certainly both on display in the gallery, as Emma Estes’ yarn Cuttlefrog (2022) sat across the gallery from Danna Wiggins’ oil on gessoed paper self-portrait (2022). In the latter, the human form fills the image, but is cut off just at the eyes, denying the viewer the connection traditionally associated with a portrait.
Whether or not they sensed a theme, Dougherty and Cole looked for similar things when choosing the pieces for the show. Dougherty “looked for…quality of technique and also if the piece pushed the boundaries in terms of subject and approach,” while Cole said she made her “selections based on the strength of the techniques used by the artists, and how well they manipulated the material.” Neither seemed daunted by the task of judging such disparate works. According to Dougherty, the artist can play with any medium and “reexamine its contexts.” Cole looked for works in which the viewer could readily access what the artist was trying to communicate. She noted that she relied on her expertise as a gallerist to look at the “polished and finished qualities of the works,” and asked herself if she could sell the work in a gallery or place it with a client.
While Labbe, who is completing her BFA in Art Education with a concentration in Painting and Drawing won first place for Absence, Molly Rea (BFA with a concentration in Sculpture) won second place for the plywood sculpture Fixation (2022). Third place was awarded to Submerge (2022), a stoneware and glaze abstract sculpture by Krystal Yavicoli (BFA with a double concentration in Painting & Drawing and Ceramics). Isabella Deep (BFA with a double concentration in Photography and Digital Art & Design) received an Honorable Mention for her photograph, White Ribbon (2020); second honorable mention went to Gloria Steiger (BFA with a concentration in Painting & Drawing with a minor in Art History) for her large-scale oil and charcoal work, Will at rest (2023). Rose DiMuzio (BFA with a double concentration in Painting & Drawing and Ceramics) took home the final honorable mention for her oil portrait You Look Tired (2023). Labbe, Rea and Yavicoli were awarded cash prizes, while those with Honorable Mentions received gift cards.
When asked what set the winning pieces apart, Dougherty said that they embodied “an ambitious approach to art making,” and that the top three pieces were each “examining the medium in exciting ways.” For Cole, the prize-winning pieces “had a sense of completeness to them.” Each piece’s concept was developed, giving them a unique and “contemporary” feel. Dougherty also mentioned scale and format as elements that she particularly appreciated about them. These qualities are in part what is most striking about Absence. The long, vertically-hung paper is an unusual size and shape, while the clarity, precision and scale of the subject matter is arresting. Despite the realism of the telephone, it seems to float in space against the blank white background. It feels complete, as Cole said, yet there is something slightly unsettling about it. Curious about the inspiration behind the piece, I asked Labbe about her process. The insights she shared with me speak to her thoughtfulness as an artist:
“The process of making Absence was simultaneously aligned with and divergent from my usual process and artistic themes. Most of my artwork surrounds an idea of memory, and in previous pieces I’ve attempted to recreate specific memories via graphite drawing–which is my preferred medium. I’ve drawn scenes from my life–such as my mom cooking dinner, or my sister and I reading books as children–which are prominent memories that I wanted to capture in an effort to re-experience and share them. I realized that in my artwork I was spelling out a lot of details, putting the memory out there exactly as it was, and not really leaving much up to the interpretation of the viewer. With Absence, I wanted to challenge myself to evoke a memory and any inspired feelings by being less specific about my subject matter.
I chose this phone from my childhood home as the subject matter because I have a plethora of memories and emotions surrounding the phone. The way in which I drew it was similar to how I had done all my other pieces, in pencil on paper, aside from the scale. I work primarily in graphite because I really enjoy getting lost in the details, which leads me to working small nine out of ten times. Absence was my first time drawing this large, and it was a challenge that I–and a wise professor of mine–gave myself to break out of the box of drawing small pieces and explore how scale can make an artwork influential. My goal with the piece was to recreate this object that I had plenty of associations with and bring it to viewers so that they might make their own associations with it. It was a bridge between how I wanted the artwork to serve my memory while also bringing others into that world. I hoped that the life-size scale–which is the real, measured size of the phone from my house–would ask people to confront the piece and any feelings or memories it evokes in them. I struggled with titling it for a while before settling on Absence, as a few conversations with peers and family left me feeling like that was one of the common threads/emotions inspired by it.”
Labbe’s words certainly relate to the theme of Parallel Convergence; the drawing’s sense of space creates room for Labbe’s memories to run alongside the viewer’s. The phone dangling from its hook seems to leave a question unanswered: Was connection made, or missed?
While the opening reception was mainly meant to celebrate the exhibition entries and winning pieces, the Art Department also handed out its Discipline awards and several scholarships:
- Art & Entrepreneurship Award: Claire Richardson, BA in Art & Entrepreneurial Studies, Concentration in Painting & Drawing.
- Art History Award: Robin Davis, BA in Art History, Minor in English.
- Foundations Award: Crystal Reynolds, BFA in Art Education, concentration in Ceramics. ● Art Education Award: Olivia Dyer, BFA in Art Education, concentration in Painting & Drawing, Minor in Book Arts.
- Book Arts Award: Lillian Duda, BFA in Art Education, concentration in Painting & Drawing, Minor in Book Arts.
- Ceramics Award: Krystal Yavicoli, BFA, double concentration in Painting & Drawing and Ceramics.
- Painting & Drawing Award: Gloria Steiger, BFA, concentration in Painting & Drawing, Minor in Art History.
- Photography & Digital Art & Design Award: Tabitha Burgess, BFA, double concentration in Painting & Drawing and Photography & Digital Art & Design.
- Printmaking Award: Jake Perry, BA, concentration in Painting & Drawing. ● Sculpture Award: Shalyssa Hamberger, BFA, concentration in Sculpture. Scholarship Awards:
Juris Ubans Award:
- Claire Richardson, BA in Art & Entrepreneurial Studies, concentration in Painting & Drawing.
- Lillian Duda, BFA in Art Education, concentration in Painting & Drawing, Minor in Book Arts. Nicholas Giroux, BFA in Art Education, concentration in Painting & Drawing.
Donald L. Dimick Award:
- Mason Hampton McBreairty, BA Double Major in Art History and Social Work.
Parallel Convergence was on view at the USM Art Gallery through March 25, 2023. The next scheduled show is the 2023 BFA and BA Exhibition, which opens on April 6, 2023 with a reception from 6-8 p.m. The Gallery is open regularly Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.