The Art of Fulbright Exchanges
In work like Beatrice After Reni, new Fulbright winner Midge Wattles 12 PH explores how photographic replicas impact viewers’ interpretations of art and art history.
Inspired to make work rich with cross-cultural significance, a new RISD graduate and a recent alumna will travel in opposite directions this fall to study artistic traditions and engage creative communities abroad. As 2016-17 Fulbright winners, Miri Kim 16 PT and Midge Wattles 12 PH will explore fine art practices in South Korea and Sicily, respectively.
Kim and Wattles join an impressive group of RISD graduates who have conducted research in art and design outside the US thanks to the federally funded Fulbright US Student Program. In recent years RISD Fulbright recipients have pursued research in Brazil, Colombia, Finland, India, New Zealand, Turkey and the Canadian Arctic, among many other locales. Since 2010 RISD has stood out each year as a “top producer” in an annual list of US colleges and universities with the most Fulbright scholars studying abroad, often topping the list of “specialty institutions” whose students and alumni are most successful at earning Fulbrights.
Designed to promote mutual understanding between people around the world, the Fulbright Program is the country’s leading international educational exchange program, with a highly competitive application process. Those who show the high levels of academic, professional and leadership achievement needed to win fellowships earn funding to conduct expansive research in one of the 160-plus countries where the program operates.
During her Fulbright year, Kim plans “to accurately capture the spirit of South Korean society from a Korean-American perspective” as she studies at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul for the first half of the exchange and with artist Wal Chong Lee for the second. She will explore traditional aesthetics as conveyed through 18th-century genre paintings, which shed light on the daily lives and activities of the country’s common people.
“I have always been fascinated by how lively moments of everyday life [appeared] in those Korean genre paintings,” says Kim, for whom the work of painters Shin Yun-bok and Kim Hong-do is especially important in defining this celebrated period in Korean art history. Having spent a few summers in the past with her grandparents in South Korea, she also hopes to “spread awareness and understanding of” a society and people that are often misunderstood, especially when seen solely through their thriving pop culture.
Wattles, who will travel to Palermo to study the history of Sicilian photography, explains that her interest in Italy and the Fulbright Program began when, as a junior, she participated in RISD’s European Honors Program in Rome. Seeing the originals of revered works of art helped her begin to understand the effect of photography “on our preconception of not only art history, but also of place.” With support and mentorship from Il Museo Civico di Castelbuono and the photographer Letizia Battaglia, she will conduct the first comprehensive study of the history of Sicilian photography.
“Photography is a contemplative process [that] explores concepts of image and memory,” Wattles notes, adding that “our perception of images colors our understanding of places, people and works of art.” In Sicily the NYC-based photographer will refine a personal “artistic vision of this unusual island” by revisiting the locations where specific historic photographs were taken and working with similar subject matter. She also plans to collect and curate a heretofore “unrecognized lineage of photographs” for a book she will make with the Palermo-based design studio Azoto.
Acknowledging the “rare opportunity” the Fulbright offers, Wattles plans to develop relationships with and learn from the people she encounters over the course of her research. “I would love to see the cultural exchange go beyond my [Fulbright] experience,” she says. After all, as so many RISD Fulbright recipients have shown, the arts are an ideal way of opening doors to friendship and understanding.