On Friday, one week after the fire, the Institute’s student-run Painting Club, a group established in 2010 to foster a supportive artistic community, assembled for its monthly meeting in temporary space in the first floor M.F.A. galleries in Steuben Hall. While closer quarters in contrast to Main Building’s 6th-floor studios, impressive work already lined the walls including self-portraits for Professor Joseph Smith’s drawing class and vivid canvases slathered with donated paints almost in defiance of the flames. One student even painted images of the fire in a cathartic gesture.
The meeting was led by senior and Painting Club President Matt Black, who sat in front of his own precinct of the ad hoc studio with the motto “Work Will Set You Free.” Black sees it as “a reminder to not fear hard work and to realize that my labor will produce something greater than the work that was put into it,” he explained.
“I wrote the same quote on my drawing desk in the 6th floor studio on the first day of class last semester,” he said. “I wrote it because I knew I would be working more than I have ever before this year and needed to remind myself of the benefits of working and dangers of laboring in futile pursuits.” Of course, now it is imbued with another layer of meaning.
As the dozen or so members of the Painting Club assembled, they talked about the new studios the Institute was building for them in the ARC Building. “The 6th floor wasn’t great, but we loved it,” remarked one student of the old space with its irregularly-sized warren of studios. “Maybe we will love the new space.”
“Home is where you make it,” reminded Professor Shirley Kaneda, the painting coordinator. While new studio space cannot bring back their lost work and the fact that they won’t have their solo thesis shows, Professor Kaneda reminded the students that the administration was trying to plan a group show of work.
Black shared the encouraging news that, in a gesture of solidarity, their fellow seniors at Parsons The New School for Design had invited them to be part of a joint show in March, where Pratt students could show their work—what they are able to create in that short time, be they mono-prints, small drawings, or paintings—together with Parsons seniors. The work of Parsons students in the Fine Arts, Illustration, and Photography programs would be offered for sale, with all proceeds going to the Pratt Institute Main Recovery Fund to assist students in the Department of Fine Arts who were affected by the recent fire.
Throughout the meeting, seniors and affected underclassmen came into the gallery toting their new art supplies, provided by several art supply companies as well as the Institute in the form of gift cards.
For both students and faculty, it is clear that there is no one way all are coping with their loss, but for most it is an emotional experience. “Feelings must have their say if they are to be used in a positive way later on, and this is especially so for highly creative people,” said Catherine Redmond, an adjunct associate professor who teaches seniors painting. “The remarkable thing about artists is that their heightened sensitivity and ability to be vulnerable enough to create with abandon is coupled with their tremendous capacity to endure.”
“This is especially so in painting, where they follow a calling that guarantees nothing monetarily. It takes tremendous drive in a money-driven culture to be brave enough to pursue one’s dreams,” Redmond explained the students' feelings. “Listening to each other with mutual respect is the platform for their repair.”
Many of the seniors’ work focused on memory. Memories of a culture and family in a different country. Memory of a vibrant landscape that whooshed by on a morning run. Along with these memories comes the emotion of that experience. And now these memories have another layer of meaning and emotion.
Student Elina Ansary, whose photorealistic work focused on resurrecting past moments in objects, was initially at an utter loss. “My work is based a lot on personal experience, so losing all my memories and physical evidence of what I’ve been doing definitely has an effect on the way I think about what I do,” she said.
Adjunct Professor Dennis Masback holds to a positive outlook on the devastation. The day of the fire he told the New York Times: “I’m here to tell my students that even though all the work no longer exists, all the time, and the effort, and what they learned making the works still exists, and nothing, not even a fire, can take that away.”
Text: Bay Brown
Photos: Kevin Wick