Art students provide service through their work, both at home and abroad

Students in Distinguished Professor Tom Ashcraft’s “Public Practice” class gather around a model of the sculpture they designed for the courtyard of the new U.S. Embassy in Niamey, Niger. The piece will gather water that will be used to irrigate plants in the courtyard.

Prior to coming to Western Carolina University in 2015, Tom Ashcraft was a founding member of Workingman Collective, a group of artists and other professionals that take on projects who  explore the nature of collaboration and cooperation.

The Collective, which was created in 2005, was commissioned by the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. Department of State to create a piece of art for the new embassy in Monrovia, Liberia. The success of that project led to Art in Embassy being curious about working with the group again for a new embassy being built in Niamey, Niger. But the program has a rule of not commissioning the same group within a specified time frame.

Now WCU’s Distinguished Professor of Visual Arts at WCU and director of the MFA program, Ashcraft, who also still creates work with Workingman Collective, proposed the idea of creating a class called “Public Practice” where students would generate the idea of a project and would do post-research that involved thinking about what it means to make artwork in a public realm. That led to Ashcraft’s “Public Practice” class being commissioned to produce a work of art for the new embassy in Niger.

This is the third semester the class has been offered. It currently consists of six graduate and two undergraduate students. The final project, a 14- to 16-foot sculpture, will be installed in late 2019 or early 2020, Ashcraft said. The commission is $185,000, which Ashcraft said will be used to provide additional financial support for the School of Art and Design and cover project expenses and supplies, including his honorarium for overall project management responsibilities.

After conducting significant research of Niger, including its history and its culture, the students came up with a sculpture that would be representative of Niger and its ethnographic needs and wants. The end result was a sculpture shaped in the form of the baobab tree, Niger’s national tree, that will have various openings to collect water.

The water will funnel underground to a holding tank where it would be used to irrigate plants in the courtyard of the embassy.

“When we were dealing with the landscape architects and the architects of the actual building, they all had this cross-pollination of thought and research,” said Brendan Best, an MFA sculpture student from Eagle, Colorado, who has worked on the project since its inception. “It was really reassuring to hear them voice the same things we were investigating.”

Constructing a piece that is both artwork and has a function was important to the students. They have made several model examples of what they want the final piece to look like.

“Adding that functionality is like trying to give back to what is needed,” said Zach Rogers, an MFA sculpture student from Laurinburg. “You’re not just sending something over like a container that can collect water and then add to the malaria problem, or doesn’t do anything at all. The functionality of it pushes it to where it becomes more than just art, or a nice piece of sculpture to look at.”

“It’s like giving an amenity that otherwise they may not have,” Ashcraft added. “It has an applied function to it. It’s a chalice that catches water. It’s a sculpture and it’s designed by these guys.”

While working on the project, the students came across another opportunity. The curator at the embassy was having a difficult time finding artists who live and work in Niger to feature work inside the official building. Ashcraft pitched an idea to have a featured wall in which the students from the School of Art and Design and the Studies in Arts and Culture program at the University of Moumouni in Niamey, Niger would scan everyday objects and blow them up and print them large scale to be hung on the wall.

“What we’re developing is this idea of the intimate object and it’ll be hung along this wall,”
Ashcraft said. “We have a framework of 15 to 20 objects and images that will be scanned and blown up. We’re still developing ideas for that.”

That project comes with an additional $100,000 commission, Ashcraft said.

During the down times, students also have other public projects they are working on. One is called Roadworks. Roadworks initially began in the College of Fine and Performing Arts and featured caravans of students from the performing arts going around Western North Carolina and entertaining audiences.

This summer, the program has fallen to the art department where Raymond Baccari, an interdisciplinary MFA student from Washington, D.C., and Kylie Price, an MFA sculpture student from Houston, have proposed going to the eight westernmost counties of North Carolina and showing what the School of Art and Design does.

“The projects we’re going to focus on are a little bit outside the box as far as what people traditionally view in the arts,” Baccari said. “We’re going to have a drummaking tent. We’re going to do a live aluminum pour. We will have a pop-up art gallery. A structural idea is we’re going to incorporate a trailer that we’re going to custom tailor to facilitate social outreach art.”

The drummaking tent will allow people to “action paint” with drumsticks onto the canvas of the drum. Music will accompany the event, Baccari said. Price will head the live aluminum pour demonstration in which blocks will be made and donated to the venue that hosts the event. The gallery will feature examples of the students’ work.

Price said the class is working on how to make the trailer multifunctional so that it can be used by other classes, as well.

“Eventually, it can morph so that if the ceramics people want to go to the ceramics fair in Dillsboro or do other socially engaged projects, that will be something they can use,” Price said.

Another project the class is involved in is Draw Sylva. It was started two years ago by Paul Farmer MFA ’16 who placed sketchbooks around downtown Sylva for anyone to draw in. That project has since been handed over to interdisciplinary MFA student Chelsea Dobert-Kehn from Washington D.C.

This year, Dobert-Kehn plans to place the sketchbooks into weatherproof bags designed and made by junior fine arts-scupture major Annabela Cockrell of Charlotte. They will be tied to park benches throughout downtown. Dobert-Kehn said the books also are placed in businesses like Innovations Brewing, Lucky’s Barbershop and The Cut Cocktail Lounge.

The group also plans to have a booth at the Greening Up The Mountains Festival in Sylva April 28 to share information on Draw Sylva and Roadworks.

Other students in the class who have worked on the projects are Todd Martin, a senior fine arts-sculpture major from Sylva, and Javier Fox, an MFA sculpture student from Lincoln, Nebraska.