Inspired by Rome

Inspired by Rome

Katherine Cavanaugh 15 PT at the opening of RISD IN ROME, a multidisciplinary show featuring work by European Honors Program alumni.

A near blunder in a Roman slaughterhouse radically redirected the artistic path of Hunter Blackwell 14 GL, one of the artists exhibiting in RISD in Rome, a rich and diverse show at Woods-Gerry Gallery through this weekend. While participating in RISD’s popular European Honors Program (EHP) his junior year, he had been visiting a contemporary exhibition in the former abattoir when he got distracted by a set of dangling meat hooks and nearly knocked over the most delicate piece in the show: a glass vitrine made by an influential American expat.

Luckily, the artist wasn’t upset and instead struck up an animated conversation with Blackwell that touched upon their shared approach to studio work and mutual love of French philosophy. The new friendship ushered Blackwell into a diverse circle of bohemians thriving in one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world. Inspired by his storied surroundings and new creative friends, the Glass major started experimenting with video and inflatable sculptures. By the time he left Italy in 2013, his work had been selected for inclusion in Spatzi Aperti, a prestigious exhibition at the Romanian Academy in Rome.

“I had stumbled into a vast network of active artists, published historians and reputable architects who were all offering themselves up to me as resources,” Blackwell says. “There was no sense of hierarchy in those relationships—even though I was a relatively inexperienced 20-year-old undergraduate. As I learned in Rome, the electric camaraderie developed between artists oversteps age, job titles and language barriers.”

Blackwell’s experience highlights the sense of discovery—and epiphany—many alumni showing in RISD in Rome say they felt during their EHP studies at the Palazzo Cenci, the 16th-century palace that serves as the longtime home of the program in Rome. Among the many noteworthy alumni with work in the exhibition are Anna Schuleit 98 PT, Bunny Harvey 72 PT, Sheila Sofian 83 FAV, Louie Rigano 10 ID and Kellie Riggs 11 JM. Many faculty members are also represented, including Jan Baker, Robert Brinkerhoff, Dennis Congdon 75 PT, Susan Doyle 81 IL/MFA 98 PT/PR, Henry Horenstein 71 PH/MFA 73, Kyna Leski, Clara Lieu 98 IL, Joe McKendry 94 IL and Tom Mills, among others.

In one room of the gallery, visitors find pen and ink drawings depicting street scenes from Rome by Caldecott Medal and MacArthur Award-winner David Macaulay BArch 69, an author/illustrator best known for such classics as The Way Things Work, Cathedral, Castle and dozens of other significant books. Jeremiah Watson BArch 10, an architect who is helping Chinese government officials develop a 20-year plan to beautify the living spaces in Li-Huang, is exhibiting a hand-drawn map of the remote farming village.

As Blackwell explains, almost everyone who has attended EHP says it’s an unforgettable experience. After returning home, students rave about becoming fluent in a foreign language while exploring architectural marvels such as the Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City and the Pantheon. But they also cherish their time working independently with the mentorship of experienced guest critics.

“Students accepted to the program demonstrate a high level of maturity and desire to understand their practices within a broader cultural context," notes Gwen Farrelly, director of Global Partners + Programs. “In doing so, they gain essential skills that allow them to thrive within cultural ambiguity and work within interdisciplinary teams and environments.”

EHP alum Midge Wattles 12 PH literally found space to think while living in the Cenci. Prior to her departure for Rome in the spring of 2011, she felt as though her most personal work wasn't resonating with viewers. However, after receiving thoughtful feedback on her portraiture from seasoned Italian artists, Wattles found more meaningful ways to present her photography. “I used my time in Rome to figure out who I was as an artist,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been possible for me to summon the same level of introspection in a classroom setting.”

—Abigail Crocker

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