A few precious weeks to make art

January 25, 2010

A few days ago, Associate Professor of Art and Art History Steven Pearson posted an optimistic, if a tad panicked, update on Facebook. Completing his mammoth new 32-panel, 8- by 16-foot painting within the week “may be possible,” he reported. “With little to no sleep. LOL.”

Throughout the Jan Term, Pearson has been doing little else but happily working on his new creation, logging as many as 15 hours a day while a fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, an international artists’ and writers’ residency program housed in 30 historic buildings scattered throughout the quaint town of Johnson in the heart of the Green Mountains.

“I’ve been able to accomplish here what it would probably take me a whole semester to do,” he said one recent afternoon while showing a visitor around his assigned studio space, which was dominated by the painting – a kind of controlled storm of colors and shapes – that claimed two adjacent walls.

Each set of 16 panels, when complete, will be complementary to the other, “equal, but opposite,” Pearson explained. As in his other works, the painting will “attempt to bring some type of order to the chaos of daily information overload” and take cues from the way color is used in comic books to depict notions of good and evil, hero and villain.

A dab of bright-blue paint had dried on the tip of Pearson’s nose, the sun shone through tall windows and the soothing murmurs of NPR softened the silence. He was clearly relishing having time to himself to focus on making his own art.

“It’s important to me, and to my students, that I continue to paint, to do shows, to stay relevant on the art scene,” he said.

Throughout the semester, the hyper-involved Pearson must make do with stolen moments for his own work. Among the many courses he teaches are Advanced Studio and Senior Capstone, and he spends many hours outside class mentoring seniors who aspire to graduate programs. He photographs their work, helps them assemble portfolios, edits their artist statements and writes recommendation letters. Currently, 11 of his former students are pursuing M.F.A. degrees in highly competitive programs.

He also is advisor to the Art Club and Director of the Esther Prangley Rice Gallery. And he is married and the father of a young son.

As life becomes more complicated, these types of retreats become more necessary to an artist with a full-time job. But it’s not always easy, especially in tough economic times, said Pearson, who has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center twice before, as well as at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Ill.

For this four-week residency, the Center awarded him a partial artist grant, which covers half of the $3,700 price tag. McDaniel helped with an $800 faculty-development grant and some conference travel money. And he also chose to participate in the Center’s work exchange, which allowed him to take dishwashing duty to knock $600 from the bill.

These residencies have helped Pearson make connections with artists all over the world. While most of the 50 artists who stay at the Center during any given week spend the majority of their time in their private studio spaces, there are communal meals three times a day and evening presentations to bring people together. Ironically, he’s met four other artists from Baltimore this time and has already convinced two of them, Kim Manfredi and Christian Benefiel, to give talks to the Art Club and to be judges for the student art show. Many of his previous acquaintances have subsequently exhibited on campus.

Every day, Pearson experiments on smaller panels, a kind of visual brainstorming. Much of this work finds its way to the finished piece.

As for Pearson, he plans to debut his new painting at two upcoming exhibitions. The first is a curated exhibition, “SPECTRUM: Contemporary Color Abstraction,” at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts March 26-Aug. 1. The second is a solo exhibition at the Arlington Art Center from April 16 to June 5.

Pearson will be having a Solo Exhibition of New Work at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA in the Spring of 2011.