Fall 2004

A Thousand Words


"We demand this freedom to choose who we are and what we become, but how free are we, in truth, to choose these things?" — Jeff Stokes

It's the first of many challenges to the viewer of Constructed Identities, a remarkable recent exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art. It's not a "real" picture at all; rather than dispassionately recording the outside world as a photographer is "supposed" to do, Nicosia and the other artists in the show create the scenes they photograph.

There are pictures of people (Zhang Huan's Family Tree [2000] is a series of nine portraits of Huan as his face is gradually covered by calligraphy), pictures of landscapes changed or imposed upon by humans, such as the work of Miles Coolidge, and even pictures of toys: Heidi Zumbrun's Rabbit shows an eyeless bunny shredded by her puppy, a grotesque yet funny reminder of the damage life inflicts without malice.

These works and those by Diane Arbus, Samuel Fosso and others construct the identity of the subject, the viewer and the photographer himself.

This exhibition was curated by WSU students taking Art History 523: Museum Techniques 1, a class taught by David Butler, director of the Ulrich. The class is meant to open up possibilities, he says: An artist has to "keep that day job. It can at least be a job that keeps you in touch with the arts. There are careers in museums that students may not have considered."

Rebecca Rolph, a student in the class, agrees: "This class seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn firsthand how art museums function and what is required to put an exhibit together."

The class took field trips to institutions such as the Salina Art Museum, and Butler called in other members of the Ulrich staff to lecture on marketing, volunteer recruitment, education and curatorship — thus providing, as he puts it, "a survey of museum skills."

"To curate," explains Cristin Call, another member of the class, means "to organize the pieces of art in a way that's either thematic or chronological structures. You have some kind of overlying idea that brings the works together." This show's theme emerged as students researched photography already in the museum's collection and discovered, in Rolph's words, "that many of us ran across the same theme, photography as more than a passive observer of life."

From there, the five undergraduate and graduate students narrowed their focus, researching and even interviewing artists and working with a scale model of the gallery. "Coming up with a plan of how we wanted them physically placed in the gallery was difficult," recalls Call. "There was a lot of debate on the best way to arrange it. We went with a more straightforward progression from documentary and portrait photos to more abstract forms of identity, like farmland."

"It takes a lot of heads to put together a good exhibit," says Rolph, reflecting on what she learned in the class. "Each person adds something unique and different to the experience." Call says that she "learned a lot about how the museum as an organization is structured." Both agree the class was an important experience.

Students also wrote a catalog of the exhibit, published online at www.ulrich.wichita.edu/photography. Much more than just a description of the pictures, the catalog delves deeply into each artist's concept of identity and the way it is captured through his or her lens. "Even a mother taking a picture of her daughter before prom is making choices about subject matter, composition and content. Photographers ... record a reality of their own choosing," Call writes in the introduction.

Along one wall of the gallery were Sarah Faust's three 2000 photos of her mother, taken through the lattice of her kitchen window, which holds the scenes at a distance. Faust's own reflection, with her camera, is eerily superimposed on the glass. It is a metaphor for this exhibition — and perhaps photography in general: the camera, while it may never lie, always bears the mark of the photographer's identity.


Keeping the Kiwi

New Zealand's Unique Ecology

A Swinging Good Time

Wichita State's alumni association and athletics department team up for Rockin' the Roundhouse.

A Thousand Words

"We demand this freedom to choose who we are and what we become, but how free are we, in truth, to choose these things?" — Jeff Stokes


These Gleanings entries survey the current university scene.