There’s an old saying that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It is especially popular among art students who feel that their brilliant work remains unappreciated by their teachers, who couldn’t possibly make anything as good themselves. I doubt, however, that many students at the Durham School of the Arts feel that way.
The Durham School of the Arts, the city’s wildly successful middle- and high-school arts magnet program, has been in the news lately. DSA now outranks every other school in the system on student achievement as measured by the state’s end-of-grade tests. And DSA students who took the SAT last year brought in the highest average score among the Durham high schools. Hmm, it seems there really is something to be said for the curiosity, creative problem-solving and discipline required by artistic practice.
For the past few years, the Duke University Museum of Art has mounted exhibitions of DSA student work at the end of the school year, and this year, work by students from the school’s first class of graduating seniors was also shown at the Durham Art Guild. Now we can see some of what influences those talented young people–the work of their teachers. Art in Motion, currently on view at the Duke Institute of the Arts gallery, includes at least two pieces by each of the seven artist-teachers.
Sarah White’s work, earthenware wall sculpture, is the strangest and the least representational in the exhibition. She makes forms that bring to mind alien body parts or mutant undersea growths, and heightens awareness of their interior and exterior surfaces by using smooth, pale colors on the inside to contrast to a crusty and pocked gray glaze outside. Sculpture and ceramics teacher Larry Downing is showing several clay and mixed-media pieces. While all of his charming works are composed of recognizable parts, including many figures of birds sculpted in clay, they are less representational than allegorical and invite prolonged consideration.
Photographers Darrell Thompson and Alan Dehmer are probably the best known of all the DSA artists. Thompson likes to put together several images to make one larger scene, arranging them into non-rectangular physical form, which he emphasizes by placing them in mats cut to the same shapes. His signature pieced-photographs are here, but there is also one crisp single image, “Maeve,” a silver gelatin print of a little girl in a checked dress, that shows how good he can be when he focuses in. Dehmer, whose work has been seen for years at Manbites Dog Theater, has two gum bichromate prints here that are quite beautiful. The process, which gives a soft coloration to the large-format prints, makes them seem like windows onto a former time.
Kim Page is represented by her oil-stick and pastel drawings, including a pleasant rendering of amaryllis flowers on a dark ground, and Rodney Berry is showing three large figurative compositions. The most successful of these is an interesting self-portrait in chalk, watercolor and collaged paper. It comprises multiple views of his head and shoulders in slightly different positions, showing the struggle to see oneself clearly, and the difficulty of exactly locating oneself in the world.
Locating oneself in the world, making a place for one’s culture, and asserting the existence and validity of that culture’s past and present are themes in Paul Evans’ mixed-media assemblages. Two are on display here, but Evans is also having a solo show at the N.C. Central Museum of Art, where numerous works are on view. Evans has a bold style and has already developed a core vocabulary of symbols and shapes that appear again and again–thus looking at several works is more revealing of his ideas than perusing any single piece can be. Common motifs include stylized designs derived from West African textiles, gold weights, masks and sculptures; railroad tracks, chains and manacles; dance-step diagrams, the ace of spades, and reproductions of historical photographs depicting African Americans.
An intriguing piece at Duke refers to the intermingling of black and native blood and cultures in the 19th-century American Midwest. The NCCU show includes several works from Evans’ Carolina MFA show and last year’s N.C. Artists Exhibition, but it also includes some new works. These don’t appear to be completely resolved, but “Big Air,” in particular, is more ambitious than anything Evans has done heretofore. This show and Art in Motion should completely quell anyone’s lingering doubts about these teachers’ credentials as working artists.