@ Wunderkammers: a community builds

Students work with N.Y. artist to create ‘cabinets of wonder’

Jen Pepper
Students made vitrines from Mason jars during the Accessibility art project titled “Wunderkammers — Community Builds: Community Collects.’

Item Features Editor
ivym@theitem.com DEC.07.08

Why do we collect? What is it about great-grandmother’s ancient china tea set that gives us a feeling of comfort and pride? Those sharks teeth you found at the beach over the years aren’t worth much money, perhaps, but their value — that’s another story.

And it is value, the personal and moving meaning of things collected, that inspired artist Jen Pepper to teach and direct the project, “Wunderkammers — Community Builds: Community Collects,” for Sumter Accessibility 2008, working with art students at Sumter High School. The project will culminate with an installation exhibition at Patriot Hall, opening with a public reception Friday from 5-6:30 p.m. The installation can be seen through Jan. 22.

Wunderkammers, Pepper explained, also known as chambres des merveilles and cabinets of curiosities, were the first museums. They are collections of various arrays of items contained in a box, or room or, in the case of the Accessibility project, boxes actually made by the students themselves.

She pointed out that wunderkammers have contained everything from flora and fauna to anatomical oddities and maps of far-off lands and have “in many respects ... served as precursors of our natural history and cultural museums.” She cited P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1865, as one of the most famous examples.

Funded by the Sumter County Cultural Commission, the project’s intent, according to Executive Director Booth Chilcutt, was to connect the students with a professional artist in a more intimate way than is normally available to them. He said Pepper’s proposal excited him from the start, not only for its subject, but for the manner in which the artist worked with the students.

Jen Pepper
Sumter High School art students work on their projects with New York artist Jen Pepper during Sumter Accessibility 2008. Their work will be on exibit at Patriot Hall through Jan. 22.
“The whole thing is to enhance the art education of local students,” he said. “This project gives them a richer perspective on the purpose and power of art. Accessibility has always had a strong educational component. Through that element, we have been able to get accomplished professional artists like Jen to share their visions.”

Pepper, a New York-based artist and associate professor of art at Cazenovia College, who has exhibited worldwide in solo and group shows, spent five weeks with the visual arts students, introducing them to the “history of collecting, using our earliest museums as a springboard,” she said.

The students and Pepper began with discussing “what people can do with found objects,” she said. That led to “inspiring them to imagine an idea and then to put it in material form. A lot of the projects were based around the concept of an object or process as metaphor with the idea of gathering, collecting and caring for (objects) as an outlet to present their unique voices. Another challenge was to have them work together — some of the projects were collaborative, others were independent. (The goal) over the five-week period was to allow them to see how a concept can evolve and have a life and go further than what they might have imagined or experienced — the evolution of an idea.”

The project started with two-dimensional images in the form of collages.

Photos courtesy Jen Pepper From left, Kelsey Healey, Asantewaa Boateng and Neha Sharma pose with their wunderkammer, which illustrates locations of high school international baccalaureate programs around the world. The three are IB students at Sumter High.
Pepper started the students with the collages, “because it was immediate, the parameters of the (2-D collages) were very straightforward and simple — just to find images of similar forms. That got them out of the idea of what people think of when they think of a collage. Sometimes they’ll gather images of things they just really like, and this took them out of that subjectivity and put them into more of a formal analysis. They just had to deal with the composition, and that allows for greater creativity.”

Having to work with forms that “had to match up” with something and looking at the formal elements was a new experience, she said. “Once they started moving things around and allowing for the organization of the picture plane, they got excited.”

The excitement continued throughout the project, Pepper said.

From the collages, the students moved on to make vitrines (a glass showcase or cabinet especially for displaying fine wares or specimens) in large Mason jars and their individual and cooperative wunderkammers — or cabinets of curiosities.

The Mason jars, when filled with objects selected by the students, “... could be considered like a museum cabinet — or even like a snowdome.”

The autobiographical boxes — the actual wunderkammers — are the centerpieces of the project, Pepper said.

Jen Pepper
Christopher Davis’ wunderkammer, created during Sumter Accessibility 2008, can be seen in the installation opening at Patriot Hall on Friday.
“They had to construct the box, and I wanted them to think about these as small rooms or ‘worlds of wonder’, like the collages,” she said. “They were then going to be not only the architects of (the cabinets), but also the designers. And this was a way in which they were going to announce themselves without putting themselves in the box. A lot of them created these worlds of memory or some of them ‘fantastic’ boxes — fantasies. They put the background on the walls of the box and then built on that, constructing a world by layering objects within it.”

Junior Jovan Wells’ wunderkammer represents his interest in “the glitz and glamour of life,” he said.

Shelby Kruger said she found it “really exciting working with Ms. Pepper. I’ve never worked with an actual artist before.”

The wunderkammer concept really appealed to her she said, “because it’s abstract, but it still has a purpose and a theme.”

Her theme was based on the concept that “They’re all supposed to be about ourselves,” Kruger said, “but it tells it without being point-blank right up on it.”

She planned to incorporate photographs of friends and family and other objects that are meaningful to her.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on this, and I do plan to save it,” she said. “Art will always be a part of my life.”

Pepper selected Kruger’s collage, “The Effects of the Media,” for the cover of the exhibition catalog.

Pepper said the students became so involved in their projects, “it kind of became difficult to get them to stop. It was like giving someone an open suitcase and saying ‘What do you need?’ and not putting a time limit on it. They were excited about those.”

The artist said she was very happy with the students’ involvement and their creations.

“We did quite a bit of work, and just getting to know the students was a great experience. I think they really benefited from it. A lot of them really took flight, especially being able to put things together like that with found materials and the collages and boxes.”

In addition, “the photojournalism students worked on the idea of their own landscape,” Pepper said. “When I introduced that project to them, they thought about the usual landscape outside, but I said, ‘Think about miniature landscapes, like the top of your bureau — whatever we have on our bureau says a lot about us, how we arrange those objects and care for them.”

Pepper was surprised and very pleased at how much the students got done, and she’s excited that the public will be able to view their work in the exhibition that opens Friday evening.

She is also gratified, she said, that the Sumter County Cultural Commission continues to recognize “the importance of bringing professional artists into the community and for us to work side by side with students.”

Chilcutt said he has seen the work produced by the students Pepper worked with, “and it’s fantastic, just amazing. I’m anxious for the public to see it.”

An underlying purpose of the project was to lead students into realizing their potential, not just as artists, but as people, by looking within and calling attention to small things, Pepper explained, “to allow the smallest of things to have importance, the importance of the everyday.

“I hope down the road — these ideas of caring for one’s artwork, the importance of the everyday — that they realize they’re part of the greater context of the world, that one small thing has loads of meaning.”

Wunderkammers — Community Builds: Community Collects will open with a reception from 5-6:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, in the Mezzanine Gallery at Patriot Hall. Admission is free, and the public is invited. For more information, call (803) 436-2260. To see a copy of the project catalog created by Jen Pepper, visit the Web site www.blurb.org and search for “Sumter.”


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