The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston has been open for 34 years. And for every one of those years, they've made time for an exhibit called Young Contemporaries, a collection of multi-discipline art created entirely by CofC students. Every year, one can see an array of paintings, sculptures, photos and other pieces all created by students — and they don't have to be art majors to participate.
"Any student enrolled for this academic year, not just studio art majors, can submit work," says Brian Watson Granger, the manager of exhibits and programs. "So it's a great experience seeing the work done by students who aren't art majors. To be able to see how, for example, a computer science major or a chemistry major might do work that's informed by their majors, I think that's really fascinating."
It's also a bit overwhelming. This year, around 400 different pieces of art were submitted for consideration to be in the Young Contemporaries exhibit, by 140 different artists. It's the job of the exhibit's juror, a nationally-known artist, to pare down the list to a manageable 50 or so.
This year, that task fell to Dan Estabrook, a Boston-raised photographer who initially discovered photography through the underground magazines of the punk-rock and skateboarding cultures of the 1980s. Estabrook's work has been widely exhibited, and in addition to being an educator he received an NEA fellowship in 1994.
When the studio arts faculty at CofC chose him to judge the 400 contributions from their students, he took an instinctive approach when initially considering the pieces, and then dove deeper on the second, and third passes.
"I trust the process," Estabrook says. "I know that the first step is really intuitive. You're going through all the work and plucking out the ones that are speaking to you. But I also wanted to override my own biases, which meant that I had to go through all of the work several times to get a clear picture and to put a show together. And with 388 pieces or so, that's a lot of work."
To first trust, and then move away from, his instincts effectively, Estabrook relied on his years of teaching experience to guide him.
"We all have our personal choices and tastes in artwork," he says, "but as a teacher, your goal is to get a sense of what the student is after and to help them do it better. How do you strengthen that? How do you make sense of it? How do you get their point across? There's a way you learn to look at artwork from outside yourself and understand the students' own constraints and their own ideas about what they're after."
It was probably inevitable that the process of choosing the artwork to be shown in Young Contemporaries would make Estabrook nostalgic for his own days as a student, but there was a twist; he saw that these artists had a chance that he didn't have.
"I realized that this is an amazing opportunity for these students," he says, "something I didn't really have. In my undergrad career, I didn't have this chance to show interdisciplinary work together, and it's really exciting. I think you can see yourself as part of a larger community. It can feel sometimes like you're a solitary artist, like it's you against the world, and you have to claw your way into it. At least that's how I felt about it. But there's a kind of openness and a sense of welcoming from all the work that I saw, that made me really pleased and proud of what I saw from the College of Charleston community in a broader sense."
Estabrook also says he was surprised by the level of professionalism that he found the collection of 50 or so prints, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and mixed-media works.
"These are people who are still figuring it out as they go," he says, "but there are some extremely accomplished works. They weren't hindered by the things that they might not know. It seemed like they felt free to express themselves and to go on their own journeys and figure things out on their own, all while they still learn formal and technical things, And that's wonderful to see. The technical side can often be daunting to a student and keep them from exploring their own ideas, but I never got the sense that anyone was being held back from what they wanted to do in the works that I saw. It gave me a lot of hope for the future of art."