What is the shape of things to come? That’s a question visual artists wrestle with every day. Even an art historian, like Potomac’s Vidya Vijayasekharan, must look ahead when making art.
“I switched to art history in my undergraduate years, but I always loved studio art,” Vijayasekharan explained. “I just never had time to pursue it.” Until about 12 years ago, that is, when she decided to take a ceramics class at Montgomery College, where she has taught for 25 years.
“I was hooked,” she said. “It was the material and the technique that drew me in — and now I think I’m finding a voice, discovering what I want to say with that material.”
Her voice, and those of four other Montgomery County artists, can be heard by viewing the collaborative exhibit “The Shape of Things to Come,” on display at Silver Spring’s Betty Mae Kramer Gallery. It’s a show that features sculptures in a variety of media, reflecting the experiences of artists who grew up in very different places, but all ended up creating art right here.
“I came to the U.S. to go to graduate school, now it’s 32 years ago,” said Vijayasekharan, who has lived here longer than she did in her native India. She went to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art for a master’s degree in art history, then relocated with her husband to the D.C. area, working at the Freer and Sackler galleries and then teaching at Montgomery College. Her students inspire her artwork, Vijayasekharan said, and her unique upbringing lends it an exotic feel.
“What I recognize is that, being in India — it’s not some kind of a homogenous place. Every region in India is so unique. There are places in India where I felt like an outsider, but I see that as a positive thing, because I always see people in a new way.”
Growing up in post-colonial India, Vijayasekharan was educated in European missionary schools and spoke English as her first language. Her family moved every three or four years, and she enjoyed meeting new people even then. “That was my way of fitting in,” she said. “I always fit in, wherever I was put.”
Vijayasekharan’s view of the world, and herself in it, was shaped by travel and observation. “Identity is such a complex thing,” she said. “I’m pretty much a product of my own experiences; all those little cross-cultural interactions. I think we all absorb a little of that.”
Her vocation as an art history teacher informs her studio art, she said. “As an artist I think it’s wonderful when you can share your work. Especially the ones in this show; they’re really close to me because they were inspired by my students, who are from all over the world. We’re living in a time when there’s so much interaction between different communities and cultures. We’re living in interesting times.”
And her work, much of it inspired by Japanese ceramics, reflects a unique aesthetic. “There’s a certain roughness to it,” she explained. “And roughness is not a bad thing, it’s the uniqueness of the material. (The Japanese) don’t want to cover it up with glazes or too much decoration, the imprint of your hand is seen on the surface — which I love.”
When the work doesn’t come out as she imagined, Vijayasekharan said, “I embrace that.”
She also embraces the experience of sharing an exhibit with other artists, especially when the four artists of “The Shape of Things to Come” bring diverse materials and points of view to the exhibit.
Photo Credit: Chris Slattery
Untitled works in metal, epoxy resin by artist-designer-professor Amare Selfu
Like Amare Selfu, the award-winning Ethiopian sculptor who came to the United States for his master’s degree in studio art at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and now teaches at Montgomery College as well as MICA. And Shelley Picot, who grew up in Alexandria and now lives in North Bethesda, working for Strathmore and making drawings and sculptures that bring together narrative elements and autobiographical details as well as magical realism and comics.
“I’ve always been interested in art,” said Picot, an animal lover who started off as a biology major before switching to studio art at Mount Holyoke College. “When it comes to that sort of ‘moony’ side of biology — early natural history, observation and really pondering the world around us — that’s where my interests connect.”
“I work in a lot of mixed media sculptures,” she added. “The work in the show is actually very eclectic with materials.” Images of children and animals populate her work, which is inspired by childhood memories that she translates into symbols and visual elements.
“I sort of developed this language for myself around those things,” said Picot, who turns memories into a kind of art-language. She said that being an artist can be a solitary experience, and she was delighted when Amina Cooper, the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County’s manager of external affairs and public art, reached out to her about this collaborative show.
“She was specifically looking for Montgomery County-based sculptors,” Picot recalled. “It was really cool because I hadn’t exhibited in Montgomery County before, and I was going to be meeting with and learning from these other artists. I was very excited.”
Like Picot, Gretchen Schermerhorn uses unexpected materials in her sculptures.
“I’m a Texas girl, though and through,” said Schermerhorn, who lives in Silver Spring and works as the artistic director at Pyramid Atlantic in Hyattsville. “As a kid, I always had my hands in something, tinkering and mixing, and my mom was very encouraging of that.”
She knew she wanted to be “a maker and an artist,” from an early age, and never strayed far from the ideas of using unusual materials to create art. An art education major in college, she took a printmaking class.
“From the beginning I was just hooked,” Schermerhorn said. “I loved everything that comes with art: thinking of ideas, and also, with printmaking, you have this real technical aspect, the tools associated with it. It really resonated with me.”
She changed her major, graduating with a master’s degree in printmaking from the University of North Dallas and heading to Arizona State University for a second master’s in printmaking.
After a few years of teaching, Schermerhorn came east for the job at Pyramid Atlantic. “I handle residence programs, exhibitions and a little bit of fundraising and budgeting,” she said, noting that working at an art center dedicated to hand printmaking and papermaking comes in handy. “What’s really great is, I can close my laptop, switch gears and start making paper, start making prints. When I have on this apron. I’m not ‘Gretchen the arts administrator,’ I’m ‘Gretchen the artist!’”
“Gretchen the artist” brings her unique sculptures to “The Shape of Things to Come,” which she described as “contemporary work with non-traditional materials — not run-of-the-mill.
“I’m so proud, so excited to be in a show with these other artists,” she said. “When I think about artists and art making, I think about community-building and I think about how art is really transformative, how it brings people together. It’s often a way for people to communicate; for people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to know each other to get to know each other.”
Diversity, creativity and cultural awareness are the shape of things to come.
“The Shape of Things to Come” is on view through April 5 at the Betty Mae Kramer Gallery, 1 Veterans Plaza, Silver Spring. Hours are weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, visit www.bettymaekramergallery.com.