In search of the miraculous

This summer, Portland State painting instructor and Bachelor of Fine Arts Coordinator Tia Factor led 10 students from the School of Art and Design on a trip to Berlin through the study-abroad program. They learned about the fall and rise of Berlin while exploring the city and meeting artists who work there. Upon return, the students were challenged to interpret what they learned into artwork for a show, which ran from Oct. 4–27 in PSU’s Littman Gallery.

Walking through the gallery, I enjoyed trying to piece together visual representations of the artists’ memories to feel like I had seen Berlin, too. Although each perspective was unique, experimental and industrial elements brought the work together for a cohesive show. It seems this group must have traveled a great deal by foot because they really got into street aesthetics.

Hector Ornelas painted shapes he found in graffiti, while Karl Freitag collected the remains of posters he saw plastered around the city. Danielle Caramagna incorporated industrial materials like concrete into her paint pours, and mimicked marks she’d seen with spray paint. To see dirty walls imitated with such admiration made me wonder what we’re not appreciating while caught up in our busy lives. Zoe Naimo’s painting on a giant unstretched canvas extending out onto the floor suggested we might widen our perceptions of where beauty lives and what art is.

According to BFA student Jay Kathrens, some of the best parts of studying art in Berlin were unexpected lessons. “If you isolate yourself, you won’t grow as much as a person,” he said. “Especially as an artist, it’s important to expand your frame of reference and see what’s out there. It’s our job to look, and to really see things. In Berlin, as it is in the BFA program, the biggest thing we’re getting is perspective on, later in life, how to be an artist. How to interact with artists and curators. We’re learning how things actually get done.” For this show, Kathrens displayed a large collection of photographs from the trip.

Melissa McGhie covered the widest range of media in the show: a giant found-object sculpture of a boat, three paintings and a sound installation. McGhie recorded noises of the city and people around her in Berlin and layered them on top of each other to create a generally peaceful, ambient sound collage. Instead of playing the piece over speakers for everyone in the gallery to hear at once, she decided to play it through headphones, expressing the loneliness of memory, surrounded by people who do not share the same experiences. Much of her work centered around sociopolitical themes, particularly regarding transportation and water in the city.

Factor reflected warmly on the Berlin trip and gallery show. “I think the show was really valuable because it helped the students synthesize their experiences in Berlin,” she said. “If these were art history students, they might process what they had learned by writing about it; but since these are fine art and design students, creating art is a more effective way to process what they’ve learned. It also provided one more chance to meet as a group and reflect on Berlin together.”

The Littman Gallery, located in Smith Memorial Student Union, is one of many places on campus where students and the public can see innovative and experimental art shows throughout the year. Many of this show’s participants will have BFA openings throughout the year.