First-of-its-kind, student-curated exhibit at FIA features "Self-Expression"

FLINT, Michigan—The wood engraving shows an artist sitting secluded near the mountains, looking off into the distance, tool in hand, ready to create his next masterpiece.
Or maybe he’s just enjoying the view in this untitled self-portrait. 
It’s art, after all. It can be interpreted in many ways.
“Self-Expression” is the first student-organized exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts by graduate students at the University of Michigan-Flint.
It is a study in analysis and interpretation, researching and digging deeper into the messages that culminates into a unique exhibit featuring 20th century self-portraits.
“What I wanted them to experience was the step-by-step process of how you curate a show in a professional museum and how to research works in this kind of way,” said Sarah Lippert, associate professor of art history at UM-Flint. “We talked a lot about how to balance primary and secondary sources, and how to balance research information with information that the average visitor to the collection wants to hear.”
Students in the “Advanced Museum and Gallery Management,” an arts administration graduate course, worked with the FIA to develop the exhibit.
They wanted an interesting, engaging, one-of-a-kind exhibit—but soon discovered the real challenge: 
How do you decide what to curate when there are endless possibilities?
“They came in and looked through about maybe 60 to 80 pieces with the help of the FIA staff, and they realized there was a theme about self-representation that they wanted to portray,” Lippert said. “For aesthetic purposes, they chose to go with all black and white. And then once that part was finished, they moved to researching the individual artists and the works.”
Self-portraits can tell a lot about an artist, but they can also be very mysterious. 
Focusing the exhibit around lesser known artists, the graduate students researched each of the pieces to explore the artists’ lives, understand historical context, and reveal relevant insight into the self-portraits.
And, that made all the difference, said Mary Kelly, an arts administration student pursuing her master's degree.
“You have an idea of the image in your head and a sensibility about what this artist might be like. And then you go to research and discover you were very off-base and it was something completely different,” she said. “With some of the artists that I researched, the work they do other than their self-portrait is completely different. So that made it even more fascinating.”
Remember the man sitting secluded near the mountains, deep in thought, art tool in hand? That’s Herbert Ogden Waters. 
The woodcut reflects one of the students’ research findings: Artists often created self-portraits showing themselves in the creative process. 
“When artists represent themselves, they tend to do so with a lot of iconography,” said Lippert. “What they represent is, sometimes what they look like, but it’s usually more how they feel about themselves as artists.”
The students were given a lot of creative freedom when curating the exhibition and it features a variety of printmaking techniques.
“An exhibition, if done the right way, is supposed to be kind of a historical event,” said Lippert. “These works in this room will never be in this room together again.”
The Self-Expression Exhibition is located in the FIA’s Graphics Gallery. It is open at all times the FIA is open: noon to 5 p.m Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m Sundays. The exhibit continues through July 30.
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Read more articles by Reyna Hurand.