A friend and I visited art exhibits at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) twice in 2016, each time in a different building. On the first occasion, we did not research in advance what exhibits would be on display, beyond checking the location and hours.
Upon walking into the Fox Building to see the MFA in Studio Art Thesis Exhibitions, the first piece of art we saw was a large piece of fabric, embroidered with words in cursive. The imagery was of Strawberry Shortcake and her adorable cartoon cat; the words were nothing I can repeat here.
The rest of the exhibit was similar: though the other pieces did not feature Strawberry Shortcake, the art took the form of embroidered fabric. Sewn onto many of the pieces were the responses of women who had filled out a survey for Jacqueline Bishop, artist behind the Female Sexual Desires Project. Other embroidered works by Bishop provided a sort of abstract visual to go with the words.
We had not known we would be seeing this particular exhibit, with its detailed and intimate language, but luckily, I was visiting with one of the few people with whom I would not find it awkward to visit such an exhibit.
The awkwardness surrounding the subject matter was a common thread in the respondents’ words. As the artist wrote in a Huffington Post article on what she learned from the project, “the third thing I’ve learned about female sexual desires: they remain sublimated under imagery of flowers, for example, and women were often afraid of their desires, and were even afraid to voice their desires because often what women wanted was so raunchy that it ran counter to the ‘good girl’ image that so many of them were raised with.”
Some of the survey responses incorporated into the art were difficult for me to read: on certain pieces, the shade of the fabric used for the embroidery and the shade of the background fabric did not provide enough contrast for my eyes to discern the words easily, or I found the embroidered cursive hard to decipher. Others had a layer of fringe fabric in front of the words, which I was tempted to push aside in order to read (don’t worry, I didn’t touch the art). It made me wonder if the artist herself felt the awkwardness, if she was putting another layer between the risqué words and the curious reader.
In addition to Bishop’s art, we saw works by six other artists in the galleries. The most memorable for me was Lindsey Bailey’s #bangagitatetransitrepeat, an installation full of color and sound and a variety of materials.
Later in the year, the same friend and I visited MICA, this time entering the Fred Lazarus IV Center to see the Baltimore Rising exhibit. The art filling the space reflected various artists’ responses to the protests and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray after an unbuckled “rough ride” in police custody. Though the pieces were inspired by this recent tragedy in Baltimore, they were imbued with a sense of history, with references to slavery, the Confederacy, redlining, and other historical examples that continue to shape and influence contemporary times.
We saw Baltimore Rising in early November, just days before the 2016 election. I remember the timeframe clearly for a few reasons: my friend’s birthday had just passed, and I had brought a cupcake for her. A SafeTrack surge on the Red Line (shutting down a segment of the local public transportation that would bring me to Union Station, where I then took a commuter train up to Baltimore) replaced trains with shuttle buses. And on the shuttle bus that I rode, a man stood at the front facing all the passengers, blasting our not-yet-awake ears with slogans like “Don’t get stumped! Vote for Trump!” for the entire duration of the bus ride.
Like me, Cara Ober (founding editor of BmoreArt) visited the exhibit shortly before the election. Her review of the show incorporates how the context of the election informed her understanding of the exhibit:
When I first visited Baltimore Rising, about a week before the election of Donald Trump, I had more criticisms of this show to offer. There was a sense of self-satisfaction that rubbed me the wrong way in places; there are gaps in curatorial vision where some works feel less relevant to the Baltimore uprising and more related to general issues of race, history, and the justice system.
But today, now that I am living in Donald Trump’s America, I am filled with nothing but gratitude that this show exists….
Personally, I found the historical perspective in the art illuminating, as in the case of Sonya Clark’s Unravelled – three loose balls of thread, red, white, and blue, from a deconstructed Confederate flag. Other works in the exhibit included sculpture, paintings, and photography.
The exhibition of students’ thesis art reflects MICA’s commitment to the “education of professional artists and designers, and to the development of a collegiate environment conducive to the evolution of art and design.” MICA’s mission statement also references “the vital role of art in society,” and Baltimore Rising demonstrates the vital role of past and current societal events in art.