Illuminating hidden hubs of creativity on campus

Professor Levin’s studio, filled by his artworks on various medias, is just one of the treasure chests tucked behind Driscoll dining hall. photo courtesy of Nathaniel Boley
Professor Levin’s studio, filled by his artworks on various medias, is just one of the treasure chests tucked behind Driscoll dining hall. photo courtesy of Nathaniel Boley

Near the College’s heating plant stands an unassuming black door labeled #51. When unlocked, this door leads to three of five artists’ studios tucked behind Driscoll dining hall. Building #51 houses the works of professors of art Steven Levin, Aida Laleian and Barbara Takenaga, while professors of art Michael Glier and Amy Podmore have other spaces behind Driscoll. These studios were established in 1998, when the space formerly used to store coal for the College’s heating plant was converted and divided into separate studio rooms. All tenured or tenure-tracked art professors at the College receive studio space: Laylah Ali and Liza Johnson, both currently on sabbatical, have spaces near Water Street Books on Water Street, in a College owned property called Grundy’s Garage.

Through door #51, down a small flight of stairs, and across a white hallway occupied by bicycles and a curious display of dead flies spread out on a tray, is Professor Laleian’s studio. Laleian has had space at the College since she began teaching here 26 years ago. She and Professor Levin at first briefly shared a space at Grundy’s, but both part-time tenured professors now have their own spaces behind Driscoll.

Laleian is working on the two latest pieces of a collection which currently includes five pieces. Her process involves embroidering images digitally manipulated in Photoshop and printed on scrim (a lightweight fabric). She describes the works as “a combination of collages and montages.” In addition to embroidery, the pieces incorporate the textures of other materials like shiny cotton and heavy duck (a kind of canvas). She describes herself as having “always been something of a surrealist.” Laleian combines images from disparate shootings; “I have a data file of images that I collect while I travel.” These works incorporate photos she captured of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat shot in the ’62 Center, a Grecian lamp and the frescos in the monasteries of Bucovina, Romania that she saw on a 2009 trip back to her homeland. Laleian describes a process of continual experimentation and growth, emphasizing the necessity of flexibility and adaptation as she confronts the challenges of working with unique materials. “The meaning of the piece is defined by working on it. It can be altered substantially in the process,” she said.

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her work on scrim, Laleian printed images on porcelain and subsequently colored them by hand with oil paint. She has also printed on canvas, silk and backlit transparencies similar to those of subway advertisements. These works now line the walls of her studio. Laleian describes her experience of purely digital image-making for over a year as “deadening,” explaining her dissatisfaction with the immateriality of digital images: “Images are important to me, but so is crafting an object.”

Across the hall, Professor Levin surrounds himself with taxidermy, boxes of small statues and knick-knacks, old scrapbooks and his own oil paintings. Levin says that he has “always been a still life painter,” and is inspired by collections of things he keeps in his studio and at home. Pointing out one of his specimens of taxidermy, Levin explains that the head was necessarily removed from his home to his studio when the combination of antlers and low ceilings placed the antelope’s nose at chest height at home.

Levin is “always working on a bunch of paintings at a time,” and states that his paintings cannot be categorized into discrete collections. Although he recognizes that his work has become increasingly chaotic and collage-like, Levin says he didn’t consciously embark on this shift from his more ordered and organized earlier pieces. “It didn’t dawn on me for a long time,” he said. Levin has produced work in a variety of sizes, and has lately been inspired by old scrapbooks he finds at estate sales or online. He also mentioned his interest in the frames of his paintings. Beautiful frames from the 19th and 20th centuries border his works, which Levin has found are surprisingly cheap and easy to come by.

The Williams College Museum of Art has hosted Studio Art faculty exhibitions, and select art students may request or be invited to see their professors’ art. Although a modest Levin “can’t imagine why they’d be interested,” he welcomes student curiosity in his work. It seems these hidden centers of creativity on campus have been largely unappreciated by the general student body, but perhaps they have simply gone unnoticed.