A search for meaning

Critique process helps sculpture students see art in new ways

January 31, 2017

Students in the Contemporary Sculptural Practices 1 class at UW-Stout examine “Search,” by classmate Alyse Shelby.

As a budding interior designer, Alyse Shelby someday will design spaces and be responsible for choosing the complementary art and other objects to fill those spaces.

A sculpture class Shelby took recently at University of Wisconsin-Stout helped her see art in a whole new way, teaching her an analytical approach that could help her go a long way in her career.

“I began to think about what a piece of art might mean and what the artist was trying to say rather than, ‘Oh, that looks nice,’” said Shelby, a sophomore from Buffalo, Minn.

Shelby was one of 18 students in Contemporary Sculptural Practices 1 taught by Assistant Professor Kelly O’Brien from the School of Art and Design. Students were required to make four sculptures during the semester and then face their peers after each creation during a live critique, one at which they couldn’t even defend their efforts until everyone else had a chance to speak.

Alyse ShelbyShelby found the critique format enlightening. “That’s 18 different minds bouncing off each other. It’s nice to see what might have ended up working or being problematic. I felt like after every critique I had something beneficial to take away,” Shelby said.

During a recent final round of critiques, tension was ever-present as students moved from sculpture to sculpture, offering their opinions on each other’s work in the Applied Arts Building.

Respectfully, but certainly not patronizingly, students and professor gave their honest impressions. With the sculptures being abstract as opposed to traditional three-dimensional figures, room for interpretation was broad.

Shelby’s final piece, “Search,” was a sloping design of parallel strands of blue yarn extending from a wall. She based the design on research she did on philosopher Albert Camus and his story “The Myth of Sisyphus,” about humans’ eternal struggles to reach their goals.

Shelby’s classmates came close to connecting her piece with her research, describing it as a “loop of energy” and a “search for answers.” O’Brien was impressed with the research and “conceptuality” but not as much with the execution of the design.

The final critique was a little bittersweet for me,” Shelby said. “I had this really philosophical concept that people couldn’t quite reach because of the title, some knots in the yarn I had used and lighting. A nice take-away I had from it though is the importance of research and knowledge and how it can really take your sculptures, or any piece of artwork for that matter, to a whole new level.”

Students and Assistant Professor Kelly O’Brien, right, talk about the sculpture “Loose Ends” by Morgan Brantner.

Other student sculptures included four small cubes on two pillars; a bust of armor made with strips of metal; a tiered box with colored strips of wood; and a large “leech.”

The leech was a black blob cradled and petted throughout the critique session by artist Caleb Cravens. Classmates described it as “super gross,” “a parasite,” and a “coddling or addiction.” Cravens, of Prior Lake, Minn., explained that it represented a leech and that it was symbolic of a person in his life.

Student Caleb Cravens holds his sculpture, “Leech,” during the class critique.O’Brien told students that the purpose of the class was to teach them how to conceptualize art and how to critique it. “I hope that you take these ideas with you,” she said.

O’Brien, who has degrees in sculpture and philosophy, has exhibited her work around the U.S. and in 2015 received a McKnight Fellowship.

One of O’Brien’s colleagues, Assistant Professor Ursula Murray-Husted, who teaches comics and sequential art and directs the entertainment design program, observed a critique session in the class. “Professor O'Brien is to be commended for her dedication to the artistic process and building a community where challenging work can be appreciated and critiqued respectfully,” Murray-Husted said.

Shelby liked the way O’Brien encouraged students to think creatively. “She never let me take the easy way out. My second sculpture involved a door, and I had gone out looking to buy one and install it. I went to ask Kelly where I might be able to find a cheap one to buy, and her response was ‘build one.’ So I built a door and a frame and installed it. I never thought that’s something I would do. It ended up being one of my favorite projects.”

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Photos

Top: Students in the Contemporary Sculptural Practices 1 class at UW-Stout examine “Search,” by classmate Alyse Shelby.

Second: Alyse Shelby

Third: Students and Assistant Professor Kelly O’Brien, right, talk about the sculpture “Loose Ends” by Morgan Brantner.

Bottom: Student Caleb Cravens holds his sculpture, “Leech,” during the class critique.