For many seniors, the spring semester can invoke some pretty stark sentiments. There are feelings of sadness for the last semester of the last year of college ending, the realization that time is moving forward and life is advancing just as quickly, the knowledge of knowing that it’s finally time to use every experience and educational event in a practical sense: a lot is happening.
One of those things, coincidentally, for a lot of seniors is actually their senior thesis. Realized in alternative ways as a paper, project, research or any other approved means of demonstrating acquired skills and knowledge within different departments, many students find in their thesis a space to create and formulate a medium through which their best selves can be determined and demonstrated.
This was precisely the case for Religion major Emma Sharon ’16. For her, creating and contributing to a space in which the best aspects of religion could be expressed through her own personal context and understanding was critical. Elaborating on the appeal and enticement of religion within her personal life, Sharon said, “Religion has played a major role in my life, mainly in the form of ritual. With the exception of Vassar, all of the schools I’ve attended have been religious institutions, so I’ve spent many hours sitting in services that I, raised non-religiously, would only be able to participate in marginal ways.”
For Sharon, that marginalized presence was simply insufficient; the idea of religion to her as something formerly unapproachable inspired her major declaration. Sharon explained the impact of her initial exposure to religious rites: “Unsurprisingly, I became fascinated with religion and religious identity and ultimately chose it as my major area of study as an undergrad.”
Thus, Sharon found herself in the current endeavor of her senior thesis; that is to say, she sought to create a sacred space on campus, one that dually was open and accessible to the public while maintaining significance and sacredness. Seeking to establish her knowledge and understanding of various facets of religion in a way that was still immediately accessible to others, Sharon’s thesis was made manifest in a created space in the woods behind the lake.
Sharon explained her personal connection to her project further: “During my time here, my interest in religion, spirituality and the internal life has intersected with my search, both personally and generally, for ways of truly taking care of myself and others in psychological and emotional capacities. For me, this project was an experiment in creative collaboration and the making of an intentional yet spontaneous space. It’s also about finding and making homes and anchors in the places we find ourselves.”
Abstracting from her individual experience towards the holistic objective of her thesis, Sharon elucidates, “Building this space was a way of opening up a conversation on ritual and the ways in which it can manifest in everyday ‘secular’ life. When I think of this space, I like to imagine people seeking it out for quiet contemplation, creating music or drawing with friends, meeting with orgs, eating lunch or any number of things we do for the well-being of our souls.“
One of Sharon’s colleague and other collaborators, Liliana Sabsowitz-Silverman ’16, also insinuated this distinction of creating contextual space with distinctions: “I think that the process of building the space was also really special because in the academic setting we’re in, it’s rare that we really get outside and work with our hands and for me, not doing any art classes, it was wonderful to use the paint and not feel any pressure to make it ‘fine art’ or anything. It was a very warm and welcoming space where all ideas are good ones.”
Colin Cederna ’16, having visited the space, said, “I don’t think I ‘found’ myself but the space was extremely comfortable and fun for me. Emma opened it up for people to make the space what they wanted, she just provided the tools and the canvas.” Kate Finney ’16 who helped decorate the interior space said, “Material-wise, I found painting to be a great experience, because so many people I know were all together in one space creating something together. If you look at the walls, you can see everybody’s styles and the places where they blended together and were influenced by each other.”
Finney continued, “I don’t know that Emma’s project is the kind of thing that ever really feels finished. I see it as a representation of collaborative and creative processes, which works to create a shared space of possibility. Because it’s outdoors, it’s a new space every time I return to it. But beyond that, the space changes depending on the intentions or the people you bring into it.“
Associate Professor and Chair of Religion Jonathon Kahn, Sharon’s major advisor, expressed a similar satisfaction with Sharon’s enterprise. “Emma’s project is exactly the sort of senior project that the Religion Department loves to see: she’s extended her study of ritual theory into the lived and material world.”
He went on, “Her own expertise and direction in construction and design of the ritual space was central to the work she did. Emma’s experience in joining her academic work to an embodied experience and practice represents a type of academic-based learning that promises to stay with her for years to come.”
As an English major, Finney was surprised by the impression Sharon’s thesis had on her. “I do find Emma’s more spiritual pursuits quite interesting. I see religion as a system of symbols used to interpret the world and, as an English major, I see these symbols appear over and over because they’re the symbols that people have been interpreting and making use of in their art for thousands of years.” Cederna additionally contemplated the lasting effects of Sharon’s work. Musing, Cederna concluded, “The space was lovely, creating art is one of my favorite ways to spend time. I just hope the paint doesn’t harm the ecosystem.”