News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 9, 2012

Students produce art about ‘Our Town’

By Dave Taylor
Indiana State University

TERRE HAUTE — Gabrielle Roach’s views of “Our Town” focus on youthful rites of passage: eating cotton candy at the Banks of the Wabash Festival, splashing in the Deming Dipper or just relaxing poolside at the east side park, or taking a refreshing summertime drink from a garden hose.

Austen Leake concentrates on the community’s landmarks, ranging from the iconic Sycamore Building and Vigo County Courthouse to views of Fairbanks Park as seen from the Wabash River.

Ben Delnat thinks buildings, too, but his view leans toward the macabre. He wonders what might happen to familiar Terre Haute landmarks once their human caretakers are no longer around.

From late May to early August, the three Terre Haute natives studying at Indiana State University joined seven other students, who hail from other towns around the state, as “Sycamore Artists Residing in Our Town” (SARIOT), the university’s first summer research program for art students.   The program paid the students $3,000 each to produce original artwork under the guidance of faculty members Fran Lattanzio, Nancy Nichols-Pethick and Glenn Dunlap.

Roach photographed some of the people of “Our Town,” then re-created her photographs in oil canvas paintings.

“I focused on the small town, Midwest America, and … on the small things,” she said. “I tried to think of things that remind me of my childhood. It kind of sounds like a cliché, but life is a lot simpler where we live.”

There is nothing “deep” to her work, Roach said. “It’s not anything that’s supposed to make a statement. I hope that one day I can create things that are a little more active and a statement but these are just enjoyable. I really love where I live and I hope when people look at these they can take that away and love where they live, too.”

Leake’s photographs, taken at sunrise or sunset, sought to “try to capture Terre Haute in a way that someone hasn’t seen it who’s lived here their whole life, or something way out in the woods that no one’s ever seen before,” he said. “I really hope that people will think this town is a little less bland.”

Like his fellow students who participated in the program, Leake appreciated the opportunity to throw himself into his work for what amounted to a full-time job for much of the summer.

“It was a great experience to have the freedom to do things with some deadlines, but not necessarily a rubric,” he said. “To get paid to do art is a pretty rare experience and I may not be able to do it again. I really like to be able to capture the essence of a city like I did during the summer. I have seen a lot of artists with similar opportunities, such as Robert Frank with his classic, ‘The Americans.’ I hope an opportunity comes up in the future where I can do what I did in Terre Haute for other towns.”

Using digital photography featuring well-known buildings and scenes from Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife area, Delnat created surreal images of how a post-apocalyptic Terre Haute might appear after nature took back man-made structures.

“As people, we think the things we make will last and last, but the truth of the matter is that the moment we stop tending and taking care of the world that we live in nature’s just going to take it right back,” Delnat said. “I want to give a glimpse of the frailty of our town. As much as we think we’ve harnessed nature and can control nature, the moment we turn our back, nature’s just going to take everything back. I just want people to enjoy them. I want people to look at them and get them thinking.”

Delnat also played it straight and created a series of prints featuring products made, or formerly made, in Terre Haute, such as Clabber Girl baking powder, Rex coffee and Champagne Velvet beer, which ceased production in 1958 and enjoyed a brief revival from 2000 to 2006.

“What better way to embody Terre Haute than to show examples of what we produce. A town is only as good as what it makes,” said Delnat. “All of the products that I focused on in my art are still in production or are being reproduced, but the brands are still alive.”

The SARIOT program “provided a tremendous opportunity for students to engage in self-directed creative research,” Nichols-Pethick said. “I'm sure that all the participants will look back on the experience as a formative one that will lead them to more confidently pursue exhibitions, grants, residencies and other professional opportunities.”

The entire College of Arts and Sciences will use the theme “Our Town” for a semester-long series of lectures, performances and activities during spring semester 2013. During that time, students will engage with the theme “Our Town” in the classrooms and in the community. Nichols-Pethick said college Dean John Murray allowed the SARIOT program to use the theme in advance.

“It seemed like a great way to give the program participants a starting point for their creative research, while tying in with upcoming events,” she said.

Sponsored by the Indiana State art department and the university’s Center for Student Research and Creativity, the idea of SARIOT was to do for art students what ISU’s long-running SURE, or Student Undergraduate Research Experience, project has done for science students. That is to provide opportunities that closely reflect those students will find in a real world where they are not limited by 50-minute classroom sessions or two-hour labs.

In addition to providing experience for the 10 students, the program will provide a funding boost to an equal number of local charities.

The students’ work is on display at Halcyon Gallery in downtown Terre Haute. Reflecting a trend among artists toward community involvement and activism, each student has selected one piece that will be sold in a silent auction that will continue throughout the exhibition, which is scheduled to run until Sept. 22, with proceeds going to not-for-profit agencies the students have selected.

“Contemporary artists are much less likely to work in isolation in their studios,” Nichols-Pethick said. The trend is toward community involvement and activism.

“These kinds of interactions raise the public profile of art and artists, and remind students in the creative disciplines that they can and should be active members of their community,” she said.