Student work gets deserved focus in Drawing I exhibition

Since March 24, The Palmer Gallery and the Old Bookstore have been filled with self-portraits, scenes from dorm rooms and intricately drawn limbs. The works come from Vassar’s Drawing I classes, their first exhibition since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each Drawing I student chose two to three works to be displayed in the exhibition, and though there’s distinctive variation among the pieces, it’s not hard to guess which ones are versions of the same assignment. For instance, many of the pieces depict ordinary spaces like hallways, staircases or studies. The renderings of bedrooms meticulously portraying everyday objects like wilting houseplants, radiators and stuffed animals particularly resonated with me and my own dorm room. Several works that are displayed in the Old Bookstore are depictions of the space itself. Professor Christina Tenaglia, one of the Drawing I instructors, explained that the verticality of the space makes it a unique challenge for students as they hone their skills. Its busyness is also an important element. “Sometimes students like to avoid drawing spaces with people, so this challenges them to get in there,” she said.

I had the chance to talk to Tenaglia and Professor Gina Ruggeri, who is also currently teaching Drawing I, about the course and how it is represented by the exhibit. Ruggeri explained that this beginner level class necessarily has more structured assignments than more advanced Studio Art classes. “Students often want a lot of freedom [in drawing] but it’s actually difficult when you’re learning—it’s easier to have parameters in place to work within and up against,” she explained. “We love to see different variations on the problem posed, and we do get a pretty wide range in attitude.” This range is definitely reflected in the exhibit. For instance, one assignment required students to depict hands and feet, and the resulting works show the feet of a figure about to step out of bed, hands clasped together, a runner in motion and many other scenes. Some students stay very true to life in their works, while others move farther away from reality with equally careful and impressive combinations of active but disembodied limbs.

Drawing I is a yearlong class, which provides a substantial amount of time for skill development. “Students are often surprised at the growth of the work over the year,” Tenaglia said. During their midterm review, students get a chance to choose which pieces they want to include in the exhibition. “There’s so much more work that they do than what you see in the show, but it is a reflection on some of the students’ proudest moments,” Ruggeri said.

One need only look at the masked models depicted in the exhibit to be reminded of the changes the pandemic has necessitated to nearly every aspect of students’ lives. Drawing I, clearly, is no exception. Tenaglia said, “I think that all of our perspectives have shifted and I’m not even sure we can totally verbalize the way that things have changed, but there is a shift.” When classes were online, professors spent far more time collaborating than usual in order to figure out the best way to do Zoom classes. When COVID restrictions made it difficult for live models to come to the classroom, professors brought in sculptures of human forms for students to draw. However, some things stayed consistent throughout. As Tenaglia explained, “The class is really centered on drawing the space and place around you, and becoming aware of it, and learning how to observe it, and learning how to draw what you see without assumptions of what you might think that you know. And that hasn’t changed; that can remain constant.” It’s a testament to the resilience of art in a time of uncertainty. 

The Drawing I exhibition will be in the Palmer Gallery and the Old Bookstore through April 3, followed by exhibitions of student work from other Studio Art Classes. A full list of dates can be found at the Palmer Gallery website.

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