Hundreds of sewn, yellow beanbags lay lifeless on a bed of dirt and rock inside a dark and small room. Above them are five wooden boards covered with grass descending from the ceiling with two bright, white lights in between. At first glance, one might ask, “What on Earth is this?” and “Why is this here?” in a gallery on campus that usually only receives a quick glance from students power-walking to their next class.
Masters of Fine Arts student Alisha McCurdy is the artist behind this installation, and, though it may seem confusing and strange to students passing by, the meaning of her current show “Seven Hundred Thirty-Five” goes much deeper than a bunch of yellow beanbags.
“The current direction of my work is found within the coal mining industry,” McCurdy said.
A native of Pennsylvania, McCurdy’s father was a coal miner from 1975 until 2000. Miners used yellow canaries inside the mines to search for toxic gases. “When their song waned and eventually stopped, miners took their deaths as a sign to flee the mine,” she explaind.
The beanbags are, in fact, 735 sewn yellow canaries representing the number of lives lost in the coal mines during the years her father was a worker in the mines. The dimensions of the boards represent the burial plots of the miners. “The plane of grass is a physical and conceptual separator between surface and in the earth, the seen and the unseen,” McCurdy said. The opposition of the clean, starkly surface and the canaries laying in the shadows below underscores the clinical nature that mass deaths are normally dealt with, set against the individual tragedies endured by miners and their families,” McCurdy said.
McCurdy’s show, “Seven Hundred Thirty-Five,” is currently displayed in the Lawrence Alloway Memorial Art Gallery, used for M.F.A. student shows. Blending into the wall on the first floor of the Melville Library, it makes it difficult for students to appreciate and notice the shows that are displayed inside.
“I never really took more than a quick look inside. Since the gallery is kind of hard to notice. I wish I knew more about it,” said health science major Berlyn Jean-Claude.
The gallery is named after the late art historian and museum curator Lawrence Alloway. “He’s the person that is credited for coining the term ‘Pop Art’. You know, when people talk about [Andy] Warhol and Pop Art, Alloway was one of the first people to use this term,” says Faculty Oversight of the gallery and M.F.A Program Director, Stephanie Dinkins.
In 1968, Alloway became a professor at Stony Brook University and was here until 1981. “He founded an art journal with art critic Donald Kuspit who also worked at Stony Brook called ‘Art Criticism,’” Dinkins recalls.
The Lawrence Alloway Gallery is a place for M.F.A. students to display their works of art throughout their program. “Part of your requirements as an M.F.A student at Stony Brook is to show in the gallery,” said Dinkins. “You show three times in your career.” Stony Brook only allows 20 people to partake in the program each year.
According to www.art.sunysb.edu, the M.F.A. is a 60-credit program. Students gain a better knowledge of both studio practice and critical inquiry. The program caters to all forms of art, from ceramics to photography.
First year M.F.A. students show in a group exhibition from late April to early May. In both the second and third-year of the M.F.A program, students must complete a solo show to be displayed in the gallery, as well as an individual thesis exhibition. They are also required to contribute work to the University Art Gallery in their final year. McCurdy and other M.F.A. students are on display for about two weeks before the next exhibit begins.
“It’s their laboratory,” said Dinkins. “There’s a wide scope of things that may be shown in that gallery.” Students are able to work with any medium that they are comfortable with. Paint, sculpture, printmaking and media, it can all be shown inside the Lawrence Alloway Gallery.
The gallery is open to the public as much as funding allows. “Unfortunately, we don’t have funding to have gallery sitters on a constant basis, so we try to keep it open as much as possible,” said Dinkins. Often times, The University Art Gallery lends the Lawrence Alloway Gallery interns to sit in the gallery and keep it open. The shows are required to be open for at least a week for public viewing.
M.F.A. students work to graduate the program in hopes of landing a successful job in the art world. “The outlet for most artists is to show in a gallery. We have had some very successful graduate students in the gallery system,” Dinkins said. While some students show in galleries after their program, others go on to be professors and teachers.
Still others may get involved with areas such as furniture design, and other design fields. “Artists often find a variety of ways to support their art-making. Sometimes that means teaching, sometimes that means a variety of other jobs, and sometimes that means working in the gallery, or selling your art through the gallery,” said Dinkins. Like any other job, artists work their way up through a system.
“From what I have seen the gallery looks really cool, and since it’s masters students that show their work, it probably has some interesting displays,” said Jean-Claude.
“It really is open to the public,” said Dinkins. “Part of the fun is to get people to be able to be there.” Dinkins and other M.F.A. department members are working on more stable hours for the gallery, so that students and other passer by can take a closer look at what is really going on inside the small white room.
Though the Lawrence Alloway Memorial Art Gallery is tucked into the walls of Melville Library, becoming almost invisible to rushing students, the room displays deep works of art that should be anything but ignored.