Exhibition turns history into art for Wilson College’s sesquicentennial

CHAMBERSBURG – Jim Condron’s exhibit “You Never Wash It Off Completely” – currently on display in Wilson College’s Sue Davison Cooley Gallery through December 15 – is both a celebration of Wilson College’s 150-year history and an exploration of the use and meaning of the past.

Through the 11 sculptures comprising the exhibit, he explores the relationship between art, history and educational institutions using artifacts, relics and ephemera from the college’s own past.

In this sense, “You Never Wash It Off Completely” (both the exhibit and the piece by the same name) are “found object” experiences where all of the objects happen to have been found in a museum.

Condron is also exploring what gets kept (and goes on to become part of our accepted history) and why it gets kept when so much of our past simply disappears.

What could a student in 2019 possibly learn by looking at Sarah Wilson’s bed besides her approximate height? On its own, not much.

However, by collaborating with archivists, professors and students, Condron manages to incorporate the bed (and the other objects) into a formation that simultaneously depicts a historical narrative of the college and its values.

“They’re historical things that have been preserved, and I’m putting them together in different ways to make three different statements – but, really, the statement is the same, and that’s this idea of the importance of historical objects.”

Jim Condron

Amy Ensley, director of Wilson’s Hankey Center for the History of Women’s Education, explained the challenge of creating such a hybrid museum-art exhibit in a press release:

“A typical archives exhibit has a literal feeling with traditional objects arranged with descriptive labels, but in this art installation, Condron magnificently captures both the feeling of belongingness, as well as the fleeting nature of each individual’s experience. This is about shared memories across time and the celebration of a community that endures.”

Artist and MFA instructor Jim Condron (right) and MFA Program Director Joshua Legg (left) discuss the exhibit during the Wilson College Common Hour lecture series on September 16.

Without context a bed is just a bed. It is Condron’s vision and execution that instills in it an artistic meaning, and it is this interplay between the past and the present that is at the heart of this exhibit.

If Sarah Wilson walked into the Cooley Gallery today, she would probably be quite surprised to discover that her bed – a piece of mundane, functional furniture from her life – was being displayed, not in a history exhibit, but an art exhibit.

And it is extremely unlikely that whoever set aside the bowling pins did so with the hope that they would someday be elevated to the level of fine art, but here they are.

What – if anything – can we make of the seemingly random artifacts that we inherit from previous generations?

“…I was thinking of renewal and I was thinking of the phoenix and I was thinking of this idea of continuation and historical continuity, which, really, all of the pieces are about.”

Jim Condron

Condron speaks to the lifecycle of the past itself: over a 150-year period, Sarah Wilson’s bed has gone from being a functional object to a historical artifact to an art exhibit. When the exhibit concludes on December 15, the sculpture will be dismantled, and the bed will revert back to its inert, historical state.

In a private interview, Condron discussed some of the themes and thought process behind the three major pieces in the exhibit.

“The main part of what people are looking at are three separate installations that use ephemera, objects, from Wilson College’s collection,” said Condron. “They’re historical things that have been preserved, and I’m putting them together in different ways to make three different statements – but, really, the statement is the same, and that’s this idea of the importance of historical objects.”

He added: “In assembling them the way that I’m doing them, I’m hoping that there’ll be a sense of renewal – refreshing, renewing – bringing together the past and the present. Hopefully with a sense of reverence.”

“You Never Wash It Off Completely.”
Vintage canoe, vintage bowling pins, steel, pump
96x204x36 inches
2019

“You Never Wash It Off Completely” features a canoe that Condron imagines would have been taken out on the nearby creek by students in the 60s – one of the archetypal images of higher learning at a small, private institution.

The canoe has been fitted with hollow steel rods through which water is pumped up and out in a constant cycle with bowling pins affixed to the tops of the rods. The pump system was developed and installed by Wilson College MFA student Harry Eichelberger.

“When I made that piece, I was thinking of renewal and I was thinking of the phoenix and I was thinking of this idea of continuation and historical continuity,” said Condron, “which, really, all of the pieces are about.”

“No Gasp at a Miracle That is Truly Miraculous Because the Magic Lies in the Fact that You Knew It Was There for You All Along.”
Vintage Wilson College uniforms, blazers, t-shirts and banners
84x108x6 inches
2019

This quilted work is literally constructed out of pieces of Wilson College’s history that have been stitched together to make something entirely new. It is instantly captivating, and it dominates the right-hand wall of the gallery, but the more you know about the history of Wilson College and the longer you look at it, the more interesting it becomes, which is true of both good art and history (and this piece is both).

“I think the oldest thing is from 1910, and I’m guessing they go up to 2012,” said Condron of the uniforms, blazers, t-shirts and banners used in the piece. “They’re all referencing school-specific traditions. You kind of have to be an insider to know what those were.”

“We Can’t Answer These Questions Because We’ve Read the Signs, Seen the People Snapping the Pictures. We Can’t Get Outside the Aura. We’re Part of the Aura. We’re Here, We’re Now.”
Vintage and contemporary bed frames, vintage graduation sash, vintage graduation hood
96x84x64 inches
2019

In the center of the room stands a sculpture made of bedframes that give us a cross-sectional view of the geological strata that have accumulated over 150 years of history. The entire history of Wilson College is laid bare at a glance. The beds were collected from different buildings in the school and also from the Fulton Farm, which Condron felt it was important to include in the exhibit.

“[The farm] should be absolutely celebrated and brought out,” said Condron of the Fulton Farm and the Fulton Center for Sustainability Studies. “Some of the beds came from the farm, and they used those, I think to dry onions – so they’ve got some of the remnants. I didn’t clean that.”

The core of the sculpture consists of a series of beds stacked from older to newer. The central pillar of beds is flanked by Sarah Wilson’s bed on one side and on the other by a bed that had belonged to Col. Alexander McClure, on whose land Wilson College was built.

“So you’ve got those two [beds] flanking and on top there’s a bed that’s the oldest of the three, and I don’t think it’s been identified yet,” said Condron. “We know that it’s colonial, but we don’t know whose bed that is, which I think is fascinating.”

“The foundational people involved with the school are buttressing the tower, and the faculty is what’s at the top. I like that idea. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s a nice idea,” he said laughing (as a faculty member).

“In assembling them the way that I’m doing them, I’m hoping that there’ll be a sense of renewal – refreshing, renewing – bringing together the past and the present. Hopefully with a sense of reverence.”

Jim Condron

But it could be argued that by placing a mystery at the top of the pyramid, Condron has created the most powerful symbol in the exhibit.

We don’t know who originally slept in that bed, and we don’t know who will sleep in it next (metaphorically). Positioned as it is at the top of a continuum of student beds, it is the point where the primordial past and the unknown future converge in the present moment.

Whose bed was this? Whose bed will it be?

By remaining anonymous, the top bed can be said to represent the entirety of Wilson College’s student body; people coming and going with the changing of the seasons, year after year. New layers are being added to the stack with each admissions application and each graduation ceremony.

But a student body is, itself, a symbol for humanity itself; people coming and going one after another with the changing of the seasons, year after year. We find empty beds, we fill them for a time, and we leave them empty once more for the next person who comes along.

For the moment, the bed is ours (again, metaphorically).

While this exhibit is particularly poignant for Wilson College students, the themes are universal in scope (this writer is not affiliated in any way with Wilson College).

By adding a vintage graduation sash, Condron turns a stack of beds into a valedictorian speech that is packed with hopeful inspiration girded with solemn responsibility:

We build our futures on grand traditions, but what manner of past we become is ultimately up to us.

[Main image caption: Visitors packed the Cooley Gallery to see the exhibit “You Never Completely Wash it Off” during the Wilson College Common Hour lecture series on September 16.]

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