Vassar’s legacy, meaning-making explored in art class installation

Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News.

As you drive through Vassar’s elaborately detailed main gate, towards Main Building, there are a few things that become obviously apparent: the beauty of the building’s front façade; the library’s magisterial presence casting shadows over the lawn; the abundance of green spaces that spread everywhere on campus. Moving closer reveals more and more subtle details. Underneath the bell atop Main, to the right of the ornate flower beds, stands a statue of Vassar’s founder and namesake, Matthew Vassar. However, if you happened to glance over at the statue this past week, his likeness was adorned with a range of various objects, each with its own unique significances and connections to this campus, details large and small.

         The placement of these objects comprises the first assignment of Bart Thurber’s Art 125 class “Vassar Collects.” Taught in collaboration with artist Mark Dion, the pair sought to create a reflective project with which each student could find their own unique connection. Thurber spoke to me over the phone about his own thoughts about the project, “It’s an installation that reflects on Matthew Vassar, and the legacy of the college.” The goal was simple: Find artifacts that shed light on the question of legacies and their impacts for future generations, either in terms of Matthew Vassar specifically or more generally the values of foundational figures such as him. The requirements for the object were likewise minimal, simply found artifacts that would serve to broaden or enhance our overall conception of Vassar’s legacy. Thurber further described, “We wanted students to feel like they could reflect critically on the individual, on the traditions, and I think a number of the students did so.” And so, on Nov. 1, the students of Thurber and Dion’s class each brought their unique artifact out onto the lawn in front of Main and arranged them together in a display at the foot of our founder’s statue.

         The installation featured a range of various artifacts, reflecting Thurber and Dion’s encouragement to find objects that expressed each student’s genuine interpretation of Vassar and his legacy. One student chose to feature a plastic wolf, commemorating the Stockbridge-Munsee Native American Tribe, an acknowledgement of their presence on this land before the establishment of Vassar. Another student, upon learning that Vassar was an immigrant, included a passport photo of her mother, also an immigrant. The artifact served to commemorate this shared experience. One student planted daffodils, as they would bloom during March, the birth month of Matthew Vassar’s niece, Lydia Booth. Booth was a primary force behind motivating Vassar to found an educational institution for women. One student chose to bring a mirror, in order to symbolize the need for self-reflection and consideration of the very kinds of issues that this installation was seeking to highlight. Regarding the installation and its wide range of student-provided artifacts, Thurber noted “[The installation] is really at the heart of helping all of us to look anew at the ordinary, how it can take on new meaning, things that are sometimes thought of as common material things, how they can be repurposed, re-considered, reflected on.”

         One of Thurber’s advisees Jordana Judd ’23 played a key role in the creation, preparation and execution of this assignment. Individually, she contributed a pencil from the Loeb. Judd expressed how this installation impacted her conception of Vassar and his legacy. “The installation helped me reflect on [his legacy], this feeling that me and Matthew Vassar have similar values in that we both really cared about art, and how the Vassar College Art Gallery both played a really big role in our lives.” Vassar had previously been a figure of nebulous background, whom the student body knew relatively little about. What led him to found the school? What did his life look like prior to doing so? However, as a direct result of this project, those participating gained the opportunity to find connections to a figure simultaneously so entrenched and detached from their daily lives.

Thurber described his inspiration for the project as having come from many notable installations across the country. He was fascinated by structures like Earnest Hemingway’s gravesite, the living commemoration of Nez Percé tribe’s Chief Joseph and the wishing shrine in Tucson, AZ. “I was struck by these temporary, makeshift installations, and what people choose to leave, and the meanings they have for the individual,” he explained. 

As for how Thurber’s class carried out and assembled the Vassar installation, Judd described that each student had the chance to present their object and place it themselves in front of the statue: “Everyone put their object down, in conversation with one another. Everyone was building off of each other.” Despite having only found out about their classmates’ objects minutes prior to presenting, each student was still able to form connections between their artifacts and others’, finding significance within this web of relations.

And so, when all was said and done and placed, what stood was a testament to the diversity of our experiences, the lasting impact that legacies can have. Students grew to understand the ways in which we form meanings with things, and how we may go about repurposing those materials for different kinds of meanings. What remained clear to all involved was our shared ability to find ways to connect to something, our ability to attach ourselves to causes and ideas that we believe strongly in, concepts that span generations and speak to people past, present and future. “So often we think of our intellectual journey at a college as a very personal one,” Thurber emphasized. “The fact that we have so many perspectives and that we are all learning from one another, it’s a confirmation for me that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we learn so much from one another.” And while the installation has since concluded, art students and curious minds alike can continue to engage with the lasting values of self-reflection and togetherness that this installation fostered.

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