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“Blue Traumas” shows students the power of art as activism

Since its genesis, art has been created for more than aesthetic enjoyment. It often acts as a platform for an artist to process historical events and societal beliefs, as well as educate it’s audience. This is the motivation behind “Blue Traumas,” one of the two exhibitions currently featured at the Lord Hall Gallery. In her work, elin o’Hara slavick uses cyanotypes to provoke viewers into contemplating the power of nuclear warfare.

“My work represents my interest in humanity, my socialist and pacifist ideology, my role as an art professor, my political activism and dedication to image making and critical representation,” slavick said.

Now the professor of visual art, theory and practice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, slavick was first exposed to the topic which would inspire her work as a child in Portland, Maine. Every year, on Aug. 6 her self-proclaimed activist family would gather in Portland’s Monument Square to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima. In high school, her viewing of the 1959 film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and a book from her mother would jump start her exploration of Hiroshima through art.

“My mother brought back from Japan an unforgettable book, ‘Hiroshima Collection’ by Hiromi Tsuchida, a collection of black and white photographs of bombed artifacts from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum archive. The same archive I would work with years later,” slavick said.

In 2008, slavick spent three months in Hiroshima making rubbings of bombed surfaces. While she was there, the recurring themes of indigo blues and shadows in the photographs and films at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum helped her find the proper medium for her work.

“It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I must make cyanotypes,” slavick said. “The act of re-exposing (to the sun) already exposed (to radiation) objects, as an American citizen over 50 years after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, feels critical, significant and the correct approach to the difficult subject.”

Laurie Hicks, the gallery’s curator and a professor of art education and museum studies, approved of the approaches used by the featured artists to instigate a conversation. While both artists engage political topics, they have very different ways of discussing them. Slavick’s pieces are two dimensional and comprised of blue hues, but Andy Mauery’s “devolve” is a collection of many three dimensional pieces that are primarily brown and orange. This juxtaposition allows an even greater variance in the audience’s interpretation of the works.  

“I like that students will be able to see that activism in these pieces. Art is a social construct, and activism is an important part of that. It is in your face. These artists don’t hide it, in fact it is at the front of their work,” said Hicks.

“History informs all my work and as poet and visual artist, I am always struggling to make complicated things—events, war, loss, suffering and pleasure, survival and beauty—visual in new and poetic ways,” slavick said. “Beauty is subversive—seducing the viewer into the work and then surprising them with the profound content (A-bombed artifacts from Hiroshima). I am not convinced that one must balance these things—history, violence, pain with poetry, beauty and pleasure. Sometimes the imbalance is more powerful.”

This imbalance can be found in the pieces currently lining the walls of Lord Hall Gallery. In a piece titled “Children of Hiroshima” a feminine figure is displayed, arms outstretched, reaching for child-like figures on either side. Upon closer inspection, other impressions, such as Japanese text become visible. This piece leaves the viewer to question the layers of loss reflected in the piece.

“I hope my work helps people think about nuclear war and nuclear power in a new way, perhaps critically, sparking empathy and a desire to work towards justice and peace,” slavick said.

Both “Blue Traumas” and “desolve” will be on display at the Lord Hall Gallery through Friday, Sept. 21, culminating in an artist reception and gallery talk from 57 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Lord Hall Gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the building is wheelchair accessible.


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