While most Ephs know Cary Hairfield ’15 from the a capella group The Accidentals, the small circle of students taking studio art classes might know her for her unapologetic monopolization of the Spencer Studio Art building’s formerly white walls. But song and charcoal aren’t her only mediums of choice – art comes naturally to Hairfield in many different forms, despite her initial reluctance to concede to life as an artist. “I didn’t want to be an artist,” Hairfield said, citing her fear both of her future as an artist and of what her parents would say.
Art’s pull was inexorable, however, and Hairfield has found herself taking as many classes, in both art history and studio art, as possible while at the College. It all started in high school, when Hairfield was involved in photography, but she’s done much less in that medium since arriving at the College. “I took the Winter Study class on landscape photography my freshman year,” Hairfield said, “and it’s really the only photography I’ve done here apart from photographing my [other] work.” She started off her studio art career with the mandatory introductory drawing class, “Drawing I,” and continued exploring different media with classes on color theory and sculpture, and an open-ended tutorial that gave her free reign to experiment with whatever media she chose to.
Unlike most artists, Hairfield does not feel particularly attached to any one art form. “[The media I use] depends on what I’m doing. Photography might come more easily but I don’t have as much of a range in my photographs as I do with other methods,” Haifield said. Instead, she identifies her main area of interest as abstraction. “I never really do anything realistic or literal. I prefer working with abstraction. I don’t usually tell people what things are. I ask them what they see,” Hairfield said.
Prime examples of her fascination with the nonconcrete are the pieces she produced as part of her work in the tutorial “Erasure,” a studio art tutorial that explores the concept of what it means to erase – from erasing a pencil mark from a blank paper to the erasure of a people in the Holocaust. As part of her work for the class, Hairfield created her interpretation of a cancerous tumor – a sickly looking charcoal formation with many arms slinking out of its body. Her sequence of variations of the piece are a look at the metastasization of cancer but in a reverse chronological order – going backwards in time, starting from when the cancer has consumed all the surrounding area and progressing to when it was just a single cell, a speck of charcoal on a large white background.
Haifield experimented with corrosive chemicals, water, white paint and white wash to capture the metastasis effect, using a 15-by-30 foot wall in the hallway of the Spencer Art Studio as her canvas. Not knowing whether the building’s walls were permitted to be used as part of her work, Hairfield chose to work at night when, she figured, no one would stop her. “I did [the artwork] at night, from 2 a.m. to 6:30 [a.m.]. The cleaning crew got there at around 5 [a.m.], and they started on the first floor, so when I heard them I knew I had to hurry up,” Hairfield said.
Part of the piece’s appeal to Hairfield is the fact that everyone sees something different. “When I asked by tutorial partner what they saw when they looked at my work, they said they saw rolls of bandages,” Hairfield said. She was especially pleased with this interpretation’s relationship to the body, which was similar to what she had in mind with the cancer cells. In her class, Hairfield had worked with the concept of exterior versus interior, outside versus inside, and what you can see versus what you can’t see, so the idea of bandages also excited Hairfield because bandages are outside the body while cancer cells are within. “Everyone feels something different. When viewers tell me what they see, it tells me something about them. There is something in my partner’s experiences over the course of her life that prompted her to say she saw bandages,” Hairfield said.
Hairfield says that those who know her find her work surprising. “I’m a pretty bubbly, happy person, so when my friends come and see my art they’re taken aback by how angular, dark and twisted the pieces are and how much black I use,” Hairfield said. Largely due to the tutorial’s focus on erasure, Hairfield has been focusing on “difficult subject matter and what a lot of people would call tragic topics.” Her inspiration for the cancer piece is her mom’s successful battle with a relapse of cancer earlier this year.
Fittingly, the largely versatile artist is looking at a wide range of futures both for the rest of her time at the College and beyond. She is debating between graduating in art history or studio art and wants to incorporate art into her career, whether it be in owning and managing a gallery, curating in a museum or practicing law dealing with art thefts and forgeries. Even though these careers do not entail making art of her own, Hairfield sees herself always making art, whether or not someone wants to buy it. But until then, Hairfield will make art not only for herself, but also for everyone who walks through the halls of the Spencer Studio Art building.