Fall 2016-Spring 2017 was the year of my Senior Studio Art Thesis. In the Fall, I began drawing at every lecture, event, and spontaneous gathering and continued doing so for a year. In the Spring, I began collecting interviews for a graphic novel on Asian American identity.
By the exhibition date in May, I had created two books. One was an 180-page sketchbook depicting events at Colgate University titled Notes & Doodles. The second was a 146-page comic book titled Where Are You From: Short Stories About Being Asian in America. The total process of creating and installing took over 400 hours and was cumulation of my progress as a Studio Art major at Colgate.
Throughout this process, I was also taking a full course load with multiple laboratory components, completing my double major in Biology, part of a Cancer Lab research project, studying to become an EMT, performing in the Nutcracker and Dancefest with the Colgate Ballet Company, working as a Graphic Design Intern, Vice President of the Organization of Asian Sisters in Solidarity, and acting in “This is Not a Play About Sex.”
It was an intense passion and will power + great support system + ridiculously caffeinated Dunkin Donut coffees that kept me going.
In April, I was nominated for Honors.
TLDR; I did not get honors. Here is the story of what happened when I confronted the institution.
So, naturally, I had to go.
On the way to question the Art & Art History Department, I ran into a friend who told me that he’d taken inspiration from my Studio Art Thesis to craft his final for his Introduction to Studio Art class. I smiled, suppressing the urge to reveal any other emotion. Since I began this project in the Fall of 2016, I have been stopped by underclassman and friends who said they had looked to my art as inspiration for their Studio Art projects. Today, I had to let them know that my art is not considered valid by the Art & Art History Department.
Upon arriving at Little Hall, our art building with a friend flanking my side as my support system, I was ready to ask why I had not received honors.
It was 4 p.m. We stumbled into a floor of nearly all empty offices. Passing the kitchen, we saw my art advisor. I told her that we were looking for someone to talk to regarding the Honors selection.
She told us, “Oh, Angel, we spent a lot of time on it last night. All of us talked about it for 5 hours. In the end, it came down to a really hard decision, the department’s overall decision,” she said, not taking ownership of her role in the system, a system in which she was complicit. Then, she ended by saying, “I would love to talk, but I have a meeting.”
“You have a life to live, as do I,” I said jokingly. “I get it.” You know, because it’s finals week and everyone is dying.
I think she was offended by my humor because she pointedly retorted with, “We’ll talk when you’re ready to have a considered conversation. And we’ll have to bring the entire department in, because, after all, it was a departmental decision.”
“Why does she have to defend herself in front of ALL THOSE PEOPLE who’ll invalidate her, again?” responded my friend who could no longer stifle her voice. “Why does she have to go through this? “Considered conversation?” What does that even mean? You are policing her emotions! You are…”
But my advisor had already turned her back on us and walked away.
The last thing my Asian sister and I wanted was for the Art & Art History institution to think we were complacent. So, we reconfigured my wall of doodles into a stronger work of activism. We were releasing stress (as it was finals week), channeling our passion through an artistic outlet, and making our message clear. We did not want to give the custodial staff any hardship… so, we reconfigured the artwork I already had up.
My book and corresponding display, Notes & Doodles, was already a critique on Colgate’s culture. Every other doodle was criticizing the fact that at Colgate, narratives of people of color of oppressed, that at Colgate, certain types of knowledge are valued over others, that at Colgate, privilege and working within the bounds of the institution is the only way to “succeed.”
So, I was surprised at the reaction of the art faculty when they came down to see my new piece in progress within a few minutes. I was doing nothing differently than what I had been doing before, other than making the commentary vastly more legible at first glance. Had they even taken the time to read my project?
In the process of painting, all of a sudden, faculty began arriving at our workplace. (Weren’t you all supposed to be at a meeting?) They came down looking either indifferent. One threw around a sassy remark, “Well this is a change.” Others stared at us in shock as if we were out of our minds… as if we were students who were tired of the system and actually… doing something blatant about it.
First to visit my piece was my art advisor, the teacher I had allowed to guide me through this project, whose departmental advice on my pieces I had upheld more than anyone else. What is so painful is how patronizingly my art advisor then addressed me, especially after I had believed that she was a person who was understanding of my works, of me as a person– how she could distill my anger and pain from four years at an oppressive institution into her perception of me being petty for not getting honors.
She said, “You know, I’m sorry you didn’t get honors, Angel. It’s a good piece. This wasn’t about the content and intent. It was never about the content. It was also about the presentation, display, formal qualities. Your work was just not at the threshold for honors.”
I was silent.
“Professor, I do not think I can have a considered discussion right now.” I whispered. I could not speak. I had just been emailed that my 400 hours of work, 6 nights I fell asleep at my desk at the Art Department, 5 mental breakdowns from emotional stress from reliving the trauma of my own experiences of micro-agressions and racism and vicariously living through the violent experiences of others, a month of sleep deprivation, 66 book sales, 33 interviews, 180 drawings at hour-long lectures, and all of the support and prayers from my friends and family were not enough to be deemed worthy of honors because I lacked adequate “formal quality.” I was not ready to have a calm, complacent discussion. I would not be appeased.
Albeit seeing me in distress, she continued, “You should be glad that you were nominated. Some people weren’t even nominated.” I knew that she was well-meaning. But 1) Stop policing my emotions. And 2) The fact that I was “nominated” over other works of art was in itself problematic. Many people in my class are students of color and also made works validating their ethnic/cultural/racial narratives, their identities, their lived experienced…And, to be honest, their oil paintings and video art had different formal qualities that my art lacked. If this decision were truly about formal quality, they would have been nominated, too. It felt like this was the model minority myth at play. It felt like this use of institutional validation was just another means of pitting minorities against each other. I was no longer proud of my Honors nomination.
So, in the calmest tone I could muster, “Professor, I am not in a good place to talk right now. And quite frankly, at this point, I feel like you are trying to make yourself feel better more than you are me…”
“No, no,” she denied. “I am not. You made a good piece. I want all of my FSEM (First Year Seminar) to read it. I hope that it can find a place here in the department-” Why would I want my art to exist in a space that does not deem it “art,” in a space that tries to commodify me (I want a copy! I want you to make copies for my class!) without validating my humanity?
“I know, it’s hard,” she persisted. “But it’s like how I get rejected from grant funding ALL THE TIME! I know how it feels.” She literally just compared the silencing of every minority narrative, over 100 peoples’ stories, in my works to the rejection of her printmaking projects that cater to aesthetics, not social activism…
“You’re missing the point,” my friend exclaimed. Her brush hit the wall harder.
“Professor,” I sighed. I am exhausted by those with white privilege being unable to see the pain they, albeit unintentionally, cause. I was in pain. Always spoken at, and never listened to. “I can’t engage in a considered conversation right now.” I continued painting on the wall, “Our stories are valid,” as my friend smack-smack-smacked her brush against the wall to make a point that we would not stop writing nor be silenced.
She finally walked away. It shocked me that only when I use my art do people see me. My voice alone was not enough to merit a meeting with her earlier…
We had finished painting, so my friend and I, as well as a friend who had watched and supported us, collapsed on the couch near the wall, exhausted.
Suddenly, the Chair of the Art Department came from the elevator and strut toward us. “What is this?”
“This is her art,” my friend responded. I was on my phone, no longer wanting to acknowledge people who now requested my time without having respected my earlier request for theirs.
“I’m not talking to you,” the chair rudely retorted toward her. “I’m talking to Angel.”
My two friends looked at me, their body language crumpling inward as we, people of color, were forced into contact with this white, male authority figure. If you looked at me then, tear-stained and exhausted, you would not have deemed me fit to having a calm, rational conversation. But that is what this man expected of me. He appeared to expect that, at his command, I would drop any semblance of emotion, and be able to engage in an eloquent conversation about the pros and cons of painting large letters on a wall.
“I do not think I am in a good place to have a considered conversation right now,” I told him. I wanted him to respect my state of mind, to be understanding.
Instead, he retorted, “Let me ask you, Angel. Would you have done THIS if you HADN’T been nominated for honors?”
Invalidate. Invalidate. Invalidate.
Make me feel at fault. Make me feel like I am an individual who can easily be silenced by the institution, that I am the problem.
Though I was triggered into action by my small instance of injustice in a large fabric of injustices committed against students of color/students of marginalized identities, this retaliation though creating a larger doodle out of my doodle wall was never about ME getting Honors. This was about questioning the priorities of the Art Department. Questioning the fact that funding goes to brining in guest speakers but not student art work. Questioning how art is graded, evaluated, and honored. This was a statement about how the department does not understand nor respect me as a Person of Color. This is a statement about my concerns with the institution as a whole and its definition of art.
What hurts me is not that I personally did not receive Honors. What hurts me is that I could not pave the way for other students of color who want to make art about their race/heritage through the medium they love, and also be validated by the collegiate institution. It hurts me that I could not do this for them.
This art piece was not only physically taxing due to the time spent working on it, but because of the emotional labor. I thought that I was finally validating my narrative, the narratives of those who have been oppressed and silenced at Colgate… only to be reminded of how “unseen” we are by the dominant parties in society.
What hurts is that I was not the only one whose voice and artistic vision was silenced by the Honors process. So many beautiful, meaningful, and novel pieces and narratives brought to life by my artistic peers have been stifled by the Art Department….
How many times have we been asked, “Is this art?”
THIS. IS. ART.
This issue of institutionalization has been a concern for me with this department for all four of my college years. For four years, I have been invalidating myself, denying myself the desire to produce art for the sake of achieving success, for validation in the form of my GPA or for an Honors nomination.
It is only now that I finally realized that the issue did not rest in me as a student, but in the institution and its misled, narrow-minded prioritization of a view of art rooted in Western tradition.
How many times have I been asked “Is that art?”
For how many years did I create meaningless sketches of cubes, still lives, portraits, to appease the Western vision of art imposed on me by this department?
How many times has this project been challenged? Have faculty told me that adding words to images was not aesthetically pleasing. That I should have stuck with watercolor portraits of Asian people. Words on drawings? Art as a means of storytelling? Why can’t you just do abstractions?
So, I have started fighting. I will not be silenced.
I had put put too much faith in an institution. I was disillusioned, having mistaken my advisors’ “support” along the way as genuine when it now feels like shallow facade, much like so many aspects of this institution.
The same goes for Art History. White Renaissance artists are always favored over anything involving feminism… Is the department afraid of viewpoints it does not understand?
I can only hope that future students of color remain aware of the biases of the department, and retain their artistic visions. Having known students who wanted to do art, but did not want to cater to the institution’s standards… I wonder if a Colgate knows how many students they have lost because of their inability to understand the diversity they so blatantly advertise on brochures.
Colgate Art & Art History department… do you know how many voices and insights you have silenced/are silencing?
** UPDATE: May 10 ** Below is from an email from the Department regarding their decision process for awarding Honors.
** UPDATE: May 11 ** Below is the email from a faculty member of the Art & Art History Department in response to my art piece and blog post.
After reading those emails and reflecting on what other faculty members told me personally, it seems that the Art Department says they have standards… but it turns out they do not? That does not invalidate the entire Honors system?
Although the Colgate Art & Art History department failed to fully support me through my artistic process, I do have several reasons to thank them.
You did not directly fund any artists (while spending copious amounts of money on guest speakers and dinner banquets for them). However, thank you for allowing me access to the printer and the many reems of paper used to print out draft copies of my book. And thank you for the Woodshop department for helping me create book displays.
Thank you for allowing me access to the large wall by the auditorium as well as the gallery space. Although no one in the department was explicitly supportive of my art piece (and rather, tried to intimidate me to take it down), thank you for not censoring the revision of my art. Having access to the gallery space allowed me display and share my work to the wider campus audience and through social media.
While the Art Department faculty made me feel alone and unsupported during this project, many fellow Colgate peers, friends, and faculty and staff from other departments and areas across campus, were an immense source of support. This entire project, which ran from September of 2016-March 2017 definitely could not have been completed without the supportive members of Colgate’s campus. Thank you for helping me see my art as valid. Thank you for helping me out of my silence.