CHAMBERSBURG – Wilson College’s Cooley Gallery opened its latest exhibition “Improvised: The Art of Practiced Freedom” with a reception on Wednesday from 5 – 6:30 p.m. “Improvised” consists of works produced by faculty members from Wilson College and Hagerstown Community College, and it is the most recent show to emerge from the schools’ ongoing relationship.
“We’ve been slowly developing a relationship with the arts programming there for several years, pre-dating the pandemic,” said Joshua Legg, Director of Wilson College’s Master of Fine Arts program, of the connection between the two academic institutions. “That not only includes visual art, but also dance as well. We’ve had some of their students perform here, some of our students perform there.”
Legg said that the exchange provides “lots of fun collaborative experiences for the students, and we’re looking forward to doing more of that in the future.”
For “Improvised,” Legg, who is also the curator of the Cooley Gallery, challenged the participating artists to consider the role of improvisation in their own creative processes. The resulting sculptures, paintings and photographs are all influenced by spontaneity and randomness, but where, how and to what extent is determined by each artist.
Legg contributed two paintings and a mosaic to the show. All three pieces explored improvisation as a form of dialogue with the materials themselves.
“The way that I work with acrylic is to water it down so there is a lot of speed, and the pace at which I have to respond to what is happening as things drip is a really nice kinetic challenge as well as a visual one,” said Legg referring to the technique employed in his paintings (titled “with this fire that my feet do walk” and “between the shroud and speaking in tongues,” respectively; together, they form a two-part series titled “Two Meditations after Golgatha”).
The result is a series of quick decisions and reactions based on the seemingly random flow of the dripping paint. With little time for deliberation, the finished pieces are the result of his interactions with the paint as it traveled on its own journey across the canvas. This contrasts with figurative works where artists impose their pre-formed designs onto blank canvases using a pre-determined palettes of paints.
Chambersburgers will be particularly interested in seeing Joshua Legg’s “community mural / preservation piece project.” The piece is a mosaic constructed from salvaged clay and mirror tiles that were once part of a mural that covered the side of 33 North Main Street.
The mural was constructed as a community art project in 2016, and it came down at the end of October.
“When that was taken down, I randomly came on some pieces that had not been picked up, cleaned up, claimed by folks who had contributed,” said Legg. “I decided to make a little preservation project, and that was totally improvised and used chance.”
He added: “Even working on a mosaic, the grout cracked. There is always sort of an element of chance. While I could have repaired it, I chose not to because it felt right for the piece.”
Jim Condron, another artist in the exhibit, took a very different approach to improvisation. His pieces are painstakingly prepared, sometimes over a period of years with Condron in control of every detail. And, yet, it is almost entirely by chance that his piece titled “I have no time to read” is in this show at all.
“When it comes time to show, work is often selected quickly and without deliberate thought,” reads the gallery description. This is the fine art equivalent of a producer handcrafting every aspect of every note of a song, and then putting the track in a playlist and hitting shuffle.
Philip Lindsey, a Professor of Fine Arts at Wilson College, specializes in “non-objective abstraction.” His work is often in the form of “lyrical experiments with color” or “experiments in language emerging from limited vocabularies,” so the element of improvisation has “always been part of the practice.” The improvisation occurs on a foundation of experience.
“For these pieces, I will start with a set of parameters that I am sort of working within, connected to the work that I’ve been exploring for decades now, and then as I’m nearing completion, that’s where more of the improv happens,” said Lindsey.
In Lindsey’s studio practice, the improvisation emerges in the form of “surprises.” At these junctures, he has to make quick editorial decisions. Should he lean into the unexpected or take a step back?
“It’s hard to go backwards once you put something on,” he said.
But even deleting or covering a line is a form of progress. “What we’re doing is building this piece,” he said. “It may be taking things off, but it’s still building.”
In addition to the partnership with Hagerstown Community College, Wilson College has also fostered a relationship Foundry Art Market (100 S. Main St.). This relationship allows Wilson’s students to display work in a professional Main Street shop, and it allows Foundry members to display work in Wilson’s Bogigian Gallery.
The Bogigian Gallery is currently hosting a show consisting of works created by regional high school students – another effort on Wilson College’s part to branch out into the community.
“Improvised: The Art of Practiced Freedom” will be on display in the Cooley Gallery until March 31, 2023. The gallery is located on the second floor of the John Stuart Memorial Library. The hours are: Sunday, 3 p.m. – 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 7:45 a.m. – 11 p.m., and Friday 7:45 a.m. – 5 p.m.