Change is afoot at UNR’s art department
As at any large bureaucracy, change tends to happen slowly at the University of Nevada, Reno. So it’s understandable why former Black Rock Press director Bob Blesse was compelled to stop himself in mid-comment at a recent faculty retreat to ask his fellow art instructors if they were tired of hearing him say, “I’m excited.”
His enthusiasm stems from a slew of new developments in the art department. Fall semester kicked off with a new faculty position for Blesse and a new curator at the Sheppard Gallery. There’s also a new printmaking instructor, hired to bring UNR’s long-dormant printmaking program back to life. And the long-discussed, long-awaited Master of Fine Arts program has finally become a reality.
A few months ago, Marjorie Vecchio was in Brooklyn, writing her dissertation for a doctorate in Philosophy of Communications Media from the European Graduate School in Switzerland. Now she’s the director of UNR’s Sheppard Gallery.
She started her career as an artist, specializing in experimental photography techniques, and she taught photo classes in Chicago. She moved to New York and interned with an arts organization, where she gravitated toward curating.
“I definitely have organizational desires,” says Vecchio. “I like to bring people together, make things happen.” When organizing exhibits, she’ll often mix genres and cross demographic lines, inviting artists from different generations or different countries. In a 2002 exhibit she curated for the Chicago Arts Council, Arranged Marriage: outer space(s), she recruited 22 artists, assigning them to work in pairs on a new piece. Some of the pairs were lovers, married couples or twins; some were strangers.
Vecchio, who calls herself a “completely dedicated, obsessed interdisciplinarian,” sometimes takes her cues from writing or science when conceptualizing an exhibit. For Arranged Marriage, she asked a photographer to work with a poet and a fashion designer to team up with a robot maker.
Her plans for the Sheppard Gallery include showcasing documentary films. Next spring, she’s slated to teach a gallery-management class, in which students will learn how to curate, install and finance an exhibit.
After spending the summer in Reno, Vecchio says she misses New York’s culinary options, but she finds Nevada’s hiking trails and open space welcoming.
“The landscape is matching my headspace,” she says.
Fit to print
A local printmaking resurgence that, so far, is centered mostly around Truckee Meadows Community College is evidence that the medium has a local fan base. Now, TMCC printmakers have an academic ally. This summer, Eunkang Koh arrived from Long Beach, Calif., to start her new job as UNR’s only printmaking professor.
Koh, originally from Korea, recently received her master’s degree from California State University, Long Beach.
This fall, she’ll teach drawing classes while working with the department to renovate the printmaking facilities and purchase new equipment.
“The shop hasn’t been used for a long time,” she says. “I pretty much have to restore the whole program.”
By spring 2007, she plans to offer classes in silkscreen and other printing methods, with an emphasis on newer, non-toxic techniques.
For her own work, Koh uses silkscreening, photo etching and lithography.
“I create little creatures, usually half-animals, half-humans,” she says.
While she enjoyed the benefits of exhibiting her work at some of the Los Angeles area’s more experimental galleries, such as The Office and Raid Projects, Koh says she doesn’t miss Southern California’s teeming freeways.
“Reno is a good size—not too big, nice mountains, not much traffic,” she says.
Even though she’s bringing Southern Californian influences to UNR, she says the printmaking scene here isn’t much different from anywhere else. And Reno’s Printmaking Conspiracy? She’s already acquainted with that loose-knit artists’ group.
“Printmaking is a pretty small world,” she says. “If you’re a printmaker, you pretty much know everybody in the United States.”
In its 20-year life span, the Black Rock Press has been reclassified a few times as university departments have split in two or combined into one. Now, it’s going back to where it started, the School of the Arts.
The enormous, heavy press and all the drawers full of lead type—little pieces of metal to be arranged into rows for old-fashioned book printing—won’t physically move. They’re going to remain in the library, at least until that building’s fate is decided. But Bob Blesse, who’s been moonlighting as the press’ director while also overseeing the library’s special collections department, now has only one job. The Black Rock Press directorship is now a full-time, art-department faculty position.
That means Blesse will be able to teach more letterpress and book design classes than he does now. It also means more students will be able to intern with the Black Rock Press, which Blesse anticipates will be able to output more poetry broadsides, handmade editions and commercially printed books.
He also looks forward to collaborating with student interns from the English department, and he’s already struck up a collaborative relationship with faculty from the art and philosophy departments of California State University, Chico.
After years of planning and semesters of filing paperwork, the art department now offers a master of fine arts degree. This fall, four students were accepted, and two enrolled.
Graduate studies director and associate professor Tamara Scronce says she anticipates the three-year program will admit three to four additional students each year.
While the program may be starting small, its organizers are dreaming big, starting with the acquisition of an off-campus building that will eventually be a multi-purpose studio facility.
“We have just been given the keys to an enormous amount of square footage out in Stead,” says Scronce. “The hope is it will become a visual arts compound with faculty studios, graduate studios and exhibition space.
“We want to attract strong, vital working artists to Reno, and the grad program certainly has the potential to do that,” she adds.
A few MFA programs (Yale’s, for example) tend to accept artists who are already well-known. But at large public schools, it’s unusual to accept students as accomplished as UNR’s two pioneering grad students, Ahren Hertel and Jeff Erickson. Hertel was part-owner of Reno’s Chapter House Gallery, and his storybook-macabre paintings have been selling well in Los Angeles this year. Erickson, formerly a Nevada Museum of Art preparator, has established his career with gallery exhibits in Portland and a City of Reno public sculpture commission.
Hertel says he has a few reasons for staying close to home for grad school. UNR has some nationally known faculty members whose work he relates to and whose instruction, he says, rivals that of more expensive art schools.
“On a mentorship level, you’re getting the same thing, really,” says Hertel.
Program director Scronce says she anticipates UNR’s grad students will be part of the cumulative growth of the region’s arts scene.
“The more we get engaged artists working in this community, the more this community grows,” she says.