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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Painter Elli Crocker has a special interest in depicting the human figure, often portraying it in a way that expresses interpersonal relationships. She mentors students such as geography and studio art double-major Christopher Graff, who explored the use of fruit as a sculpture medium.

Meet the artists: Visualizing time and place

Interview with Professor Elli Crocker
Painter Elli Crocker has recently completed a series of 21 window-sized panels commissioned by the Allston Village Main Streets Association (AVMS). The panels replaced the bricked-in windows of a large warehouse in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. One of Ms. Crocker's advisees, Christopher Graff, a double major in Geography and Studio Art, is completing his senior thesis in art under her supervision. In a recent interview they discussed their projects, how they prepared for, or utilized, the changes that time brings, the intersection of geography and art, and the resources that Worcester offers the artist.

Chris, what's your focus in studio art?

Now I would have to say sculpture. For a while I was torn between it and photography.

What's your senior art thesis about?

I take fruit-apples, pears, whatever--and I carve human forms into the flesh of the fruit. Then I photograph and document how the forms change over time, how the flesh of the fruit degrades, just as humans grow older. I also make plaster casts. I take the fruit, cast a negative using plaster, and make a positive from that. I end up with plaster tiles with fruit forms protruding from the center. Then I paint them to resemble the fruit.

When you first said you were using fruit as your subject, my first thought was 'how do you keep it from decaying?'

Yes. Instead of trying to stop that process, I try to use it to my advantage.

Elli: The sculptures are very interesting. I've been working with Chris this academic year in Studio Topics and Senior Thesis. I taught him during the first semester of his freshman year, and now during the last semester of his senior year. It's been fun to watch him develop as a student. Chris and the other senior thesis students will be showing their work at the University Gallery at the end of April.

Chris, how did you come to major in both geography and studio art?

I've always been interested in geography--my father received a B.A. in geography. So early on I started taking geography classes on subjects like natural disasters, how humans interact with the land, etc. But I also had a freshman seminar with Elli and through her I started taking art classes. Geography and art balance each other-sort of "head in the books" versus "hands in the paint."

Had you had any experience with art before you came to Clark?

Nothing formal.

So art was an interest you developed while at Clark.

Yes, I just stumbled into it and absolutely love it.

But you also continued with geography.

Yes, there my focus is GIS (Geographic Information System) and Image Processing. Image Processing uses aerial and satellite photography to study the earth. Much of my early photography was large landscape photographs-I was photographing things from a different perspective than that used in aerial photography. And the technology that I learned for photographic image restoration and noise removal related to what I did in Image Processing. At first people thought I was crazy majoring in both art and geography-they thought you can't mix these two things. But I continue to find connections between the two, and by talking to people I've found a network of others combining art and geography--a great little community. It makes your college career so much more balanced when you're able to exercise all parts of your mind.

Elli, how did you become involved with the Allston Project and what did the application process consist of?

I had recently completed a mural for Newton North High School and was looking for an opportunity to do another public commission. I heard about the Allston Project through an artist's resource newsletter.

In order to apply I had to submit documentation of my work. I submitted both photographs and slides, which is pretty standard for artists. I also wrote a statement of what I intended to do and included some very loose drawings superimposed on digital images of the buildings, by way of illustration. I also provided references and a resume.

The building is basically used for warehousing automotive parts, and over the years the owner had just bricked in the windows. It presented a blank facade to the neighborhood. That's why AVMS persuaded the owner to do something about the windows. The compromise was to hire an artist to create panels to cover where the windows had been, and to some extent intimate a sense of window. The illusion can only go so far. True trompe l'oeil does not involve the figure, just architectural elements or objects. The window that pictures an air conditioner is more truely trompe l'oeil.

The application process was actually rather informal compared to that of most public commissions. The organization that was soliciting proposals was the Allston Village Main Streets Association. AVMS is a neighborhood association affiliated with the Mayor's Office in Boston, one of several established to improve the economics, esthetics and sense of community in various target areas. AVMS was looking for artists who could convey a sense of place and an understanding of the neighborhood. Since I had lived for ten years in Brighton, a neighborhood adjacent to Allston, I felt very connected to Allston. I think it helped my application that I had a personal familiarity with the neighborhood. Also, my focus as an artist has been on the human figure and the Association was looking for somebody to represent residents and business people in the neighborhood.

Was there a big difference between your initial proposal, and the final product?

It didn't change that much. I had an idea of what the Association was looking for based on its proposal request. I worked very closely with Director Jennifer Rose of AVMS, and also with the owner of the building, Irwin Young. He owns a business called Jack Young Automotive Parts, which had been started by his father.

I did take very seriously suggestions about certain people to put in the window panels and how to represent them. There were some people in the neighborhood that everyone felt should be portrayed. For example, there's a street person named Mr. Butch who's known by many in the neighborhood. Apparently he lives in shelters most of the time, but he roams around with a kit that he uses for the "Mr. Butch Show," a sort of song and dance, magic routine. I never had the luck to see this, but I did get pictures of him from Jennifer Rose. I was able to meet in person most of the other people I painted.

Can you comment on any special issues involved in undertaking a public commission?

In any public project, there's a lot of input from many people, and you as the artist have to reconcile different points of view. Sometimes you have to educate people, to say what is and is not a good idea, and explain why, in a completely neutral and dispassionate way. You have to make sure you satisfy all the different constituencies. That's an aspect I find very exciting about public projects--the community input, the incredible dialog that happens among people. I thrive off of that process. It's a very different experience for an artist to be working in that context than alone in a studio.

Were there any particular challenges that you ran into in the course of the project?

The panels were very large (some as big as 6x9 feet) and there were so many of them, that it was more than my studio could handle. I needed to find another inexpensive space and discovered I could work on the sun porch of my house for the larger pieces.

But for reasons other than size, this project was interesting because it was the first I had done that was mounted outside. These panels are exposed to the elements and that presented a new challenge for me. I learned a lot researching materials. I ended up using something called DiBond®, an plastic-aluminum panel, something used for highway signs. It's flexible, lightweight, and impervious to the elements. It also doesn't expand or contract much with changes in temperature and humidity, an important consideration because these panels were being fitted into openings where windows had once been.

Then I had to figure out what kind of paint to use. I did a lot of phone calling, talking with paint manufacturers across the country, and looking at websites. Finally I decided that probably the best thing to use was artist-grade acrylic paint. There are paints used for highway signs, but such paints are extremely toxic, dry too fast, and are usually sprayed on. I needed more control in application and color mixing than these would allow.

I also had to choose a varnish. I did find special material that would create an impervious surface. That discovery again came after talking to a lot of people, including other artists who had done outdoor projects.

Color fading was also a potential problem that I thought a lot about. These panels face east, so they get very strong morning sun. I made a test strip by taking a small piece of DiBond, painting on it a range of colors and the varnish, and exposing it to direct sunlight. I did an identical strip that I kept indoors as a control. I didn't have much time for the test, because of the time frame of the project. But the strip is still outside, and now, many months later, the color seems to be holding up extremely well. So far so good!

I think the panels will hold up for at least the length of time anything outdoors holds up. There definitely is a finite time for these things, in contrast to something mounted indoors. Also, at some point the property might be sold and the new owner might have a different use for the building and replace the windows. You do the project knowing these things. It does have to last a certain amount of time and have a certain material integrity. But, at the same time, you also realize it's not the Sistine Chapel ceiling!

You seem to have enjoyed working in an urban setting. Worcester seems to offer the artist a lot in that regard. The Worcester Craft Center provides professional-level courses in textiles, metals, ceramics, woodworking, and glass, and the Worcester Art Museum (free admission with your Clark ID!) is known for being one of the best small art museums in the country. There's a good art supply store not far from Clark, and I know the City is in the process of establishing an arts district downtown. Besides this, can you comment on what Worcester offers the artist?

Elli: I teach a drawing class called "Sense of Place." I take students out into various areas in Worcester, and we draw on site. As far as the students are concerned, the grittier the better! It doesn't have to be a gorgeous place, although we have gone to some beautiful sites, including a fascinating Quaker cemetery that Chris discovered on a bicycle trip. We also spent a lot of time in some of the old factory districts. Worcester has a lot of interesting places, and a lot of the photography students roam with their cameras, taking advantage of the different aspects of the urban landscape. Worcester is not really gentrified much at this point, so there's an obvious sense of the city's history. You see abandoned factories and you become aware of what's happened there. It's a time of transition for a lot of the old industrial neighborhoods. So it's not just the beautiful museum or the gorgeous cemetery or Elm Park, it's also sometimes the underbelly of the city that artists find compelling and very fertile to the imagination.


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Eli Crocker and Christopher Graff
Top: Eli Crocker and Christopher Graff; Bottom left: Professor Crocker in her studio. Painting copyright © 2003 Elli Crocker; Bottom right: One of Chris's sculptures. Image copyright © 2003 Chris Graff.

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