Church’s artistic lens captures semester-long nautical trip

The Palmer Gallery will show exhibition featuring photos taken by Vassar’s own Monica Church, the Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery. The photos were taken during the Semester at Sea. Photo: Sam Pianello
The Palmer Gallery will show exhibition featuring photos taken by Vassar’s own Monica Church, the Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery. The photos were taken during the Semester at Sea. Photo: Sam Pianello
The Palmer Gallery will show exhibition featuring photos taken by Vassar’s own Monica Church, the Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery. The photos were taken during the Semester at Sea. Photo: Sam Pianello

In the Semester at Sea program, students sign up to travel across the world while concentrating on the journey and the places they encounter along the way. Faithfully documenting such an excursion requires the patience and willingness to capture each place both as it is and how the traveler sees it. Artist Monica Church undertook such a task last spring, when she and her family went on a Semester at Sea trip that took them to countries such as Mexico, China, Vietnam, Ghana and Mauritius, to name a few. The Vassar community has the chance to view these colorful and engaging photos in the current Palmer Gallery exhibit, entitled, “24,000 Nautical Miles…Photos from a Circumnavigation.”

Church, the Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery, went on the trip this past spring with her husband, Robert Brigham, Professor of History on the Shirley Ecker Boskey Chair of International Relations at Vassar, and their daughter, Taylor. The trip celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Semester at Sea program, which annually brings together about 700 juniors, as well as gap year students and lifelong learners across the country. Brigham spent the time teaching a course on human rights and international relations in a non-traditional classroom setting. “Think of this as a floating campus making ports of call in Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana and Morocco,” he explained in an emailed statement. “In each port, we did field labs connected to our on ship courses and then also struck out on our own to explore.”

While Brigham taught, Church ventured into each location, and, after purchasing a new, professional camera, Church was ready to document the trip through her own artistic lens. “I knew that I wasn’t interested in taking traditional travel photography, so my hope was to continue to find the type of things I’m interested in, just in different environments,” she stated. “I’m a colorist, I’m trained as a painter…So when I’m making work, I’m not referencing the history of photography, I’m referencing the history of painting.”

In total, Church took over 3,000 photographs, which she pointed out was a rather low number, given the number of miles covered on the trip. “A lot of people on the trip took so many pictures there their computers were full,” she recalled. “But I don’t shoot that way. I was trained with film, so I still kind of shoot less images than most people, especially people who are purely digital.”

Once Church and her family returned to the States, the tales of their journey piqued the interest of Assistant Dean of the College and Director of the Office of Campus Activities Teresa Quinn. In her office, Quinn is in charge of coordinating the exhibits in the Palmer Gallery. “I had an idea about approaching Monica about the exhibit before this opportunity came to be,” she explained. “Of course, I’ve known Monica for years as an artist, as a photographer…I thought it was just so amazing that she had this incredible opportunity to go on this excursion.”

When a previously scheduled exhibit fell through during the summer, Quinn saw an opportunity to finally display Church’s work in the Palmer Gallery. “So the moment this opening in the schedule became apparent, I approached her and said, ‘if you can do it,’ because I knew she had thousands of photographs and you know, the real task is to go through all those,” she remarked. “There’s just so much space in the Gallery—you can’t show everything, so how do you go through and try and curate the show, and pull the work that you think is important that really tells a story.”

This gave Church about a month to sift through thousands of photographs and print the 35 she thought would most like to show. She said, “With this many photos, you need a deadline, so this forced me to edit it, to make a portfolio, which is what I wanted to do, but left to my own devices, it might have taken me a lot longer to do it.”

The story Church told ranges from young children to sleeping adults to a single tree in front of bright, pastel purple walls. These are not the images one would find in a tourist guide. “Monica is an intrepid adventure traveler and these photographs clearly capture that aspect of her art,” Brigham wrote. “I tell my Vassar students that I wish they could smell some of the places we talk about in class. I think you can smell the countries in Monica’s photographs. She has such a strong sense of place and color. These photographs are works of art and excellent chroniclers of our voyage around the world.” Quinn echoed this sentiment, and was equally impressed with the quality of the photographs and their ability to draw in the viewer. “I’ve seen some of the photographs and they’re incredible,” she declared.

Quinn hopes that Church’s photographs inspire viewers to put some of these locations on their “must visit” travel list. “I think we’re going to have an amazing experience when the show opens,” she remarked. “To be able to follow along on her journey and for many of us who do not have the opportunity to visit these places, to have a glimpse of what it must have been like to go on this incredible journey and visit these places. So for me, you know, I think I’m going to live vicariously through Monica, and I think for many of us, that will be the case.”

“24,000 Nautical Miles…Photos From A Circumnavigation” opened September 9 and will run through September 17. Church cites her motivation as the creation of a series more engaging than a slideshow to bring the viewer into the journey. “I guess in a very simple way, I want people to see how I saw the trip,” she remarked. “Instead of sharing my travel photos, I wanted to show them the unique things I saw on the trip that are uniquely the way I see them, as opposed to where everybody was taking the same picture.”

The relatively short length of the exhibit is exciting for Church, who is eager to share her art. “It was a wonderful chance for me also because it’s not a huge long period of time so in terms of doing it, it provided me an opportunity to share my experience with the College community as well as produce this body of work.”

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