Summer residencies translate to improved artistry

NACOGDOCHES, Texas – This past summer took Stephen F. Austin State University art professors Lauren Selden and Shaun Roberts to separate residencies where their adventures were as different as their art. Yet their time spent studying, creating and exploring different countries and regions resulted in transformative experiences that will make them better artists and teachers.

In addition to providing artists with a specific time and location for creating new work, artist residencies are also about making connections with other artists and communities, leading to exhibition opportunities, sales of artwork and improving and diversifying one’s craft.

Selden completed a residency in Finland and an artist retreat stateside. While traveling internationally, she visited design and art museums in the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and multiple cities and villages throughout Finland. She created drawings, silver jewelry and sculptural works while at the residency in Fiskars, a historic blacksmithing village. She was in Fiskars during the Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale featuring fine art, design, craft and architecture.

She also was invited to a mid-career retreat at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to collaborate with 13 other artists from across North America. The group shared new techniques, explored national collaborative projects, and learned about new pedagogical developments in studio art. While at Arrowmont, Selden’s sculptural work was on exhibition in the Sandra J. Blain Gallery, and she installed an 8-foot steel sculpture for the permanent outdoor sculpture collection in the library courtyard.

In addition to her role as a professor of art at SFA, Selden believes her duty is to bolster the national and international professional networks of the School of Art and to expand the research capacity of the university through creative activities. Following an artist residency and assisting in facilitating a study abroad in Iceland  in 2018, she was accepted to the internationally competitive studio art residency program at Fiskars AiR in Fiskars, Finland.

“This international residency provides access to important and rare research resources, as well as studio space for the creative generation of conceptual and studio works, which will aid in advancing my study of Scandinavian and Nordic design,” she said.

Fiskars is famous, in part, for creating the scissors with the orange handle. Fiskars serves consumers and customers around the world with globally recognized brands, including Fiskars, Gerber, Iittala, Royal Copenhagen, Waterford and Wedgwood. Building on a mission to create a family of iconic lifestyle brands, Fiskars’ vision is to create “a positive, lasting impact on quality of life.” An eclectic mix of blacksmiths, industrial designers, ceramicists, glass designers and other artists call Fiskars Village their home.

Her efforts at each of these residencies were concentrated on sculptural works associated with social issues, communication, potential energy, displacement, education and climate change, Selden said. “Time at these residencies will provide inspiration for the production of multiple series, exhibitions and publications in the coming years,” she added. The project was conducted using SFA Research and Creative Activity Grant funds.

Roberts completed a residency studying with the accomplished painter Odd Nerdrum in Norway.

Since the 1980s, Nerdrum has been receiving students to his homes in France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden where they work side by side with the master artist. In the studio, they discuss everything from painting techniques to philosophy. The studio emphasizes narrative painting, and the students have two main goals: create a self-portrait and make a narrative painting.

Roberts described Nerdrum’s studio as a “modern-day Renaissance workshop where students come from around the globe to learn from the world-famous and accomplished painter.” The residency is cost-free. “However, like a Renaissance workshop, we would have studio chores that cultivate learning, such as stretching and preparing canvases, modeling for Odd, and starting sketches on the canvases for some of his larger compositions,” Roberts said. “They expect you to be very accomplished ‘skill-wise’ in your paintings when you arrive.”

To be accepted in the Nerdrum Studio, one must first send a self-portrait made from life (no photos). If the work is good enough, the studio will contact artists for acceptance, Roberts said.

“The Nerdrum studio is a place where you look, and you learn,” he said. “You can have conversations with Odd in the studio while he paints. Extremely talented painters surround you. There is a camaraderie formed through ‘friendly competition.’ We are competing with one another constantly but in a way where we lift each other up, and everyone improves. You want your colleagues to improve so that you, in turn, must improve. We all share knowledge and grow as a group. Half of the learning experience is in the studio with your cohorts.”

Expecting to deal with “a huge ego from someone with such a star status in the art world,” Roberts said he was pleasantly surprised with Nerdrum’s disposition.

“He is an extremely kind human being,” he said. “The first time I met him, he shook my hand and told me what a pleasure it was to meet me and that he is a fan and likes my self-portrait, at which point I almost fainted.”

Roberts said the residency was a constant learning experience, and perhaps one of the most valuable lessons from it was gaining an understanding of the importance of “always digging deeper and striving in all things.”

“I watched Odd do this in his paintings,” he said. “He would scrape out finished figures and repaint them a few inches over if there was a chance to improve the image. It is not good enough to be good; a painting needs to be better than good. If you are telling a story, your characters must have a breath and think. You can eventually achieve something great by scraping out, repainting, moving things around and striving harder. Painting better than you are capable of seems impossible, but if you are brave enough to try it, you can get shocking results.

“The experience transformed me in ways I can’t put into words,” he added. “I feel I returned as a different person, reborn with curiosity and excitement for life and learning. I have learned painting skills and techniques that my students will benefit from, but I also learned philosophical approaches and thoughts on painting in general.”

The combined artistic results of both residencies will be showcased in the exhibition “Nordic Proximity,” a feature of the School of Art Faculty Exhibition showing Aug. 30 through Sept. 30 in The Cole Art Center @ The Old Opera House, SFA’s historic downtown art gallery. An opening reception is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30. Admission to the exhibition and reception, which is sponsored in part by William Arscott and the Friends of the Visual Arts, is free. For more information, call (936) 468-5500. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.