Blending the Past and the Present to Produce Stimulating Art In a recent in-class project, seven W&L students used materials found around campus to discuss a broader historical narrative and create a piece now on display in Staniar Gallery.
Solastalgia is the notion of “a sense of distress and uncertainty resulting from environmental change and degradation or slippage in societal foundations.” While not a commonly used term, it is a concept introduced by visiting artist William Ransom. The artist was invited to participate with Sandy de Lissovoy, assistant professor of art at Washington and Lee University, and the students in his Land and Passage course during Winter Term.
De Lissovoy’s course was designed to demonstrate ways that sculpture can include places, walking, ecology and ephemeral materials. De Lissovoy’s students explored ways that sculpture and art practices express complexities of environmental subjects through visual art.
The examination of “solastalgia” led to a student collaboration with artist William Ransom for an in-class project.
Ransom worked with the students and displayed their final project in his recent show, now on display in Staniar Gallery. The show, “Solastalgia: On Hold,” is created on the premise that the solace of a known landscape or a familiar view can be lost if the natural rhythms sustaining it are disrupted.
Seven students from de Lissovoy’s course worked together to complete the piece for the show. The project, “Behind the W&L Façade: Not Unmindful of the Future but Avoidant of the Past,” considers the witnessing gaze of material and what it can communicate about the past. According to the artist’s statement, “W&L’s location in Lexington presents an opportunity to investigate national and local history through the lens of material witnessing.”
“We were all really excited to make this piece interactive because we want people to consider the footprints they leave behind, both literally and metaphorically,” said Clara Albacete ’23.
To get started, the students read about W&L’s history, going back to before the school even existed.
“It was a history most of us had never heard before, and we questioned why we had not heard it,” Albacete said.
The group met with Ransom virtually to discuss their ideas and plans for the projects.
“The artist pushed us to think outside of the box and consider how to make our art more thought-provoking,” she said. “He placed a big emphasis on the meaning and importance of the materials we were using, particularly in the context of them being witnesses to W&L’s history, encouraging us not to shy away from using the legitimate material itself.”
The finished piece is unique in more ways than one in that it is designed using materials found in Lexington, and all of the items relate back to each other. Materials included water from Woods Creek, moss, grass and various plants from between the Colonnade’s bricks, bricks from downtown Lexington, and wood from across campus and town.
“The students delved into some local history that William and I encouraged them to consider, but they insisted on bringing out what is real for them as students living and learning now on this campus,” de Lissovoy said. “That is not something I can teach, only something I can make space for.”
The idea behind the materials is the connection that blends the past and the present.
“As we found and collected items, we began to consider how they’ve seen slavery on these grounds, just as they’ve seen the Outing Club’s hike last week,” said Albacete.
When the work is disassembled, the materials will be made available for reuse in the studios or returned to the sites from which they were gathered. The students did not remove any Lexington bricks from town; those used in the piece are on loan from de Lissovoy’s personal collection.
Students also brought their individual talents to the work. During the creation, Albacete brought her sewing ability front and center; one day, she worked on the sewing aspect of the piece for six hours.
“I have quite a bit of experience in stitch-work, so I sewed together the canvas elements for the front piece,” Albacete said. “For me, working on the stitching was pretty exhausting because of how time-consuming it was, but as I was doing this, and particularly after it was completed, I felt a closer connection to the meaning behind our piece.”
Friendships were also formed during the class. The students weren’t necessarily close when they began their work, but a bond was made during the process of completing the in-class project.
“As we built the structure, we also built the friendship,” Albacete said. “Considering our project is based around this idea of silent material witnesses, it makes sense to me to say that our piece is a witness to our friendship.”
The entire show will be on display through March 19. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Staniar Gallery is open to W&L community members only via swipe card access to Wilson Hall from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (seven days a week). The exhibit and the students’ piece can be accessed remotely through a virtual gallery tour. Links to both the tour and the talk, which are free and open to the public, are posted on the gallery’s website.
“I hope that viewers who cannot physically be present in the gallery to walk on its floor and come close to the materiality collected and presented will use the virtual exhibition to immerse themselves in the installation as they read the student writing,” de Lissovoy said. “The installation and writing work together, and in this student project they amplify each other.”