Art faculty showcases ‘Reflections on Whitman’

As easy as it may sound, putting pictures to words can be a complicated matter. But complicated or not, that was the task members of the art faculty were given when they were asked to hold an exhibition of pieces based on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

The English department approached Lois Fichner-Rathus, associate professor of art and former co-chair of the department, about joining in on the Walt Whitman Symposium last year.

“The art faculty thought it was a great idea,” Judy Masterson, director of the College’s art gallery, said. “They read the book, created work for the show that imaged the excerpt they chose, brought it in and up it went.”

Although the gallery had never done anything like this before, 18 professors jumped at the chance to be a part of the exhibition, which is entitled “Reflections on Whitman” and opened on Sept. 14.

Kenneth Kaplowitz, who has been teaching at the College for 34 years, chose to participate because he was intrigued by the challenge of such an exhibition.

“The theme was an interesting one,” he said. “Trying to illustrate a poem by a famous poet whose work I wasn’t very familiar with originally. I’d heard of him, of course, everyone’s heard of him.”

After reading “Leaves of Grass,” Kaplowitz chose two poems to bring to life with four small works.

One pair of the laser print diptych works is entitled “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” According to Kaplowitz, the images have a tie to the idea of creation.

Kaplowitz had a bit of experience putting words to images, having done some work for his own poetry years ago, but found this to be a different experience.

“I think it’s more difficult to illustrate someone else’s poetry,” he said. “You can’t see the images that the poet had in mind. It’s more of a personal interpretation, more subjective.”

Another one of the featured works in the exhibition is “Slumber,” an acrylic on canvas done by Bruce Rigby, professor of art. The painting of snow-covered woods was inspired by “Song of Myself, 21.”

“I enjoy nature and spend time walking our dog in the woods behind our home,” Rigby said of where he got his inspiration for the painting. “One winter day, the natural, rugged beauty of freshly fallen snow caught my eye and I knew it was fit for ‘Song of Myself, 21.'”

In addition the excitement of participating in the Whitman Symposium, the art faculty members were also happy to be in an exhibition together.

“It’s great to do something like this,” Fanky Chak, assistant professor of art, said. “The way we put all the faculty together. We also advertise ourselves as a department to people outside the College.”

Chak has gum bichromic prints entitled “New Paltz, 8905” in the exhibition, but said that his favorite piece is “Something Lacking,” made by Liselot van der Heijden. Her work was inspired by “The Unexpress’d” and consists of grass and dirt shaped to spell out “something lacking.”

“I love the ideas,” Chak said, going on to mention that the piece could inspire different thoughts in different people. “I like the challenge of reading that particular piece.”

So far, the exhibition has been met with nothing but good reactions. According to Masterson, there were considerably more people at the opening of this exhibition then the gallery has seen in the past.

Jenna Garrison, freshman graphic design major, and Michelle Nugent, freshman fine arts major, attended the opening of the “Reflections on Whitman” to check out the kind of work their professors do themselves.

“Some of our teachers are in this and it seems really interesting,” Garrison said. “The idea behind it – take a passage and create art from it.”

“It’s their own interpretation of the passage,” Nugent added.

The “Reflections on Whitman” exhibition will run through Oct. 19 and at least one professor would like to participate in something similar in the future.

“I’d be willing to do other things along this line with other departments,” Kaplowitz said. “It’d be interesting to interpret music, for instance, or scientific theories or historical events.”