By Tommy Dong, '19, Coker College office of marketing and communications intern
One of the most culturally appetizing places on the Coker campus is without a doubt the Cecelia Coker Bell Gallery. Every year, Coker sends out a call for artists across the country to submit applications for the chance to produce a one-person show at our campus gallery. These calls are advertised in places such as Professional Artist magazine an on the College Art Association website, www.collegeart.org. On average, Coker receives 100 artists’ submissions each year, but only five out of those 100 will be given the opportunity to exhibit their work at Coker for one month each.
Most recently, Coker has opened an exhibit of the works of Michael Benevenia, displaying many of his sculptures and several paintings. Benevenia’s main source of inspiration stems from the Civil War, particularly the war’s medical aspects. When speaking with Coker students, Benevenia brought up how Civil War medicine impacts the way he creates and “mends” his sculptural forms. On Benevenia’s website, he states, “I see amputation as symbolic of the continuing divisions rising in American society.” Early medical practices are more than just a source of influence for Benevenia; they are also a metaphor of American society from the Civil War up to modern day. Benevenia began his research after learning about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. His art connects past with present, demonstrating that the grief and wounds in American society predating the Civil War are still unhealed.
When deciding which artists should be invited to Coker, the art experts here on campus, including art professor Jean Grosser and gallery director Renny Prince, like to include artists with various styles and approaches to their work. While Benevenia’s work mainly deals with sculptures, another recent exhibit in the Coker Bell Gallery was the work of Kathleen Thum, which featured her oil paintings. Thum’s paintings use crude oil and recycled motor oil as a replacement for the traditional ink and paint. Like Benevenia, Thum is also inspired by recent history: in this case, the 2010 BP oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon incident lasted for several years and deeply influenced Thum’s work after she visited the area and saw the after-effects with her own eyes.
The selection processes for Benevenia, Thum, and many of the Coker Bell Gallery’s previously chosen artists show some recurring themes. One of Professor Grosser and Director Prince’s chief concerns is that the artist’s work will be able to expand a student’s outlook and opinion about the creative process, and that thought provoking art will challenge and inspire. Visual art can take many forms and communicate with an audience in many ways. For many students attending Coker, a trip to the art building is the first opportunity that they will have to view contemporary artwork in a gallery setting. The artists in question are always invited to attend their exhibit’s opening night. For those who are not able to attend, a Skype interview is set up in the gallery.
Understandably, Coker isn’t able to invite every great artist in the country to campus. Even though only being able to select five artists can be limiting, being able to receive around 100 applicants every year allows Coker to still have more than its fair share of fantastic artists whose artwork impacts students in a positive way. So far, Coker has had the honor of inviting artists from countries such as France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, and South Africa. I can’t wait to see who Coker invites next.