Investigating Identity

The opening for Lesley Shipley's exhibition at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College drew faculty, staff, students, and community members.

The opening for Lesley Shipley’s exhibition at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College drew faculty, staff, students, and community members.

French artist Edgar Degas once wrote, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

For art history professor Lesley Shipley, that same sense of open interpretation was the beauty of the exhibit she curated at Randolph this spring, Investigating Identity: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Art and Prints from the Permanent Collection.

Lesley Shipley, assistant professor of art history, Randolph College

Lesley Shipley, assistant professor of art history

“I think oftentimes with art, we might assume that there’s one message that the artist wants to get across when in fact there are many,” Shipley said. “I didn’t want people to come out and say, ‘I get it.’ I wanted it to be thought-provoking and to provoke conversation.”

Inspired by the current political climate and activism related to racial and gender equality, Investigating Identity featured a variety of works from the College’s permanent collection as well as two paintings by Baltimore artist Zoe Charlton. The exhibit coincided with Shipley’s special topics course, Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Art.

Curating the exhibition was a great way for Shipley, who is in her first year as a Randolph professor, to not only introduce herself to the Randolph community but to encourage thoughtful discussion.

“I wanted people to come away with questions about how we think about identity, how we represent identity and how we represent ourselves, and the kinds of expectations we have about people when we encounter someone visually,” she said. “Art is very visual, so we have our own sort of catalog in our heads about what we think we know about people who look a certain way, and I think these artists kind of pushed that boundary.”

A student helps with the Investigating Identity exhibition.

A student helps with the Investigating Identity exhibition.

Shipley’s students were exposed to open discussions both in class and at the opening reception for Investigating Identity.

“I’m really glad to see this exhibit cover identity holistically, especially with the political climate we’re in where gender identity is being attacked,” said Morgan Osburn ’18.

“I like that Professor Shipley found a way to comment on the political climate without actually making a statement about it. It was just brilliant.”

Another student, Angie Chen ’17, rediscovered a personal connection with one of the paintings in the exhibit. Chen first saw Kukuli Velarde’s Letter to My Father when she was 13 years old, following the death of her mother. The painting, which depicts a grieving mother and child, provided comfort and helped her through another emotional time, following the death of her father in January.

Chen spoke about her bond with the painting during the annual Love at the Maier event in February.

The opening for Lesley Shipley's exhibition at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College drew faculty, staff, students, and community members.

Students, faculty, staff, and community members explore the Investigating Identity exhibition.

“It was an inspiration to be able to see this piece at both the beginning and end of a grieving period, which was weirdly a blessing,” Chen said. “If you had told me to talk about this piece without the loss of my father, the tone of my talk would have not been as deep and personal. Well, it would have still been deep and personal, however, it would have the tone of someone who has healed.”

Shipley will continue to organize programs about identity in art moving forward. During the 2017-18 academic year she will teach two new courses: History of African American Art and Art and Activism.

“I think my interest in identity and art has kind of fueled my teaching, in particular,” Shipley said. “I’m finding my students to be very engaged, interested, and ready to talk about these difficult issues.”