Margarita Abramova

Margarita Abramova has written 7 posts for The Digital Bullpen

USF graduate paints her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the past two years has not only tested University of South Florida MFA graduate student Megan Hildebrandt’s inner strength, determination and endurance, but it also dramatically changed the course of her artwork.

After spending the summer of 2009 going through intense night sweats, a constant sore throat and massive swelling on her neck, Hildebrandt found out she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her first month of graduate school at USF.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a form of cancer usually found in organs that clean the blood and fight against infection, such as the lymph nodes, liver and spleen.

From September 2009, Hildebrandt underwent six months of chemotherapy at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, but she stayed firm on pursuing her higher education and artwork like nothing had changed.

“For me to move back home to Michigan [to] lay on my parents couch would have been the worst thing possible,” Hildebrandt said. “I had to keep busy. I had gotten into grad school with a good fellowship, and I wasn’t going to give it up.”

Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Hildebrandt focused mostly on the various communities that she lived in and explored them through performance art.

“My work was really different,” Hildebrandt said. “It was still involving labor and repetition and my body, but it was in a really different way.”

Every Saturday morning for one, eight-month performance project, Hildebrandt scrubbed and washed the front entrance steps of many Baltimore homes dressed in a traditional blue maid outfit and light-brown boots. Cleaning the front marble steps was something mothers and their children did every Saturday on a regular basis during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s in Baltimore, so Hildebrandt attempted to resurrect this tradition and reconnect people on a personal and cultural level.

This performance project, like many others, was documented with a comprehensive photograph collection and even video. But at the outset of chemotherapy, Hildebrandt’s artwork took a different turn.

“I think getting cancer at 25 is not the norm,” said Sarah Kelly, a fellow MFA graduate student and close friend to Hildebrandt. “I think [her art] was a way to speak to a community whether you had cancer or not, like struggles that we all face as human beings. She does it with great dignity, poignancy and humor.”

She began to draw and paint pictures and portraits of her neighbors, new plants and animals around her, and sinkhole victims afflicted by the destruction of their homes and properties. Hildebrandt said there was a parallel between a sinkhole victim’s plight and her cancer diagnosis.

Camel swallowed by a sinkhole - by Megan Hildebrandt

A portrait of a woman crying because of a sinkhole-related loss — by Megan Hildebrandt

“The idea of the ground disappearing from under you and your house being gone is just as brutal as a cancer diagnosis,” she said.

When Hildebrandt finished her cancer treatments, she started to make a lot of pencil sketches that resembled comic book art. At this point, Hildebrandt’s artwork chronicled everything that she physically felt or was going through moment by moment fighting the disease, such as the major swelling on her neck.

Pencil sketch of neck swelling — by Megan Hildebrandt

From her depictions of her fight, Hildebrandt transitioned to painting figurative images of her emotions including how things actually felt during treatment.

For instance, when Hildebrandt underwent surgery to remove her chemotherapy port, the medical staff did not use anesthesia. This made the entire procedure extremely painful and upsetting for Hildebrandt who then turned those feelings into art.

Port removal surgery — by Megan Hildebrandt

Hildebrandt also experienced the complete loss of her hair as well as terrible nausea from Doxorubicin, one of the chemotherapy drugs she ingested intravenously.

In the image below, she draws a group of cancer patients swimming in a sea of this red-colored drug and wearing headphones while watching television. Hildebrandt watched a lot of television during her chemotherapy sessions.

Red devil — by Megan Hildebrandt

In chemotherapy, Hildebrandt suffered from short-term memory loss as well and created a figurative painting of this side effect.

Gold glitter and short-term memory loss — by Megan Hildebrandt

“I wasn’t that creature with gold glitter pouring out of my head,” she said. “I wanted to paint the feelings.”

Hildebrandt is working now on a 30-page graphic novel called Tunnel Visions –  a collection of her artwork and writings on her experience with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and general ideas of mortality at a young age. With the help of a grant from Hampton Arts Management, Hildebrandt will author, format and self-publish her book in the near future.

Originally from an affluent suburb of Detroit, Hildebrandt got her BFA from the University of Michigan before coming to USF. She is in her last year of graduate school and also teaches art classes on campus. She aspires to become a professor of art and continue painting and drawing.   

History professor Dr. Nickels leaves behind legacy

The University of South Florida’s Department of Art and Art History held a memorial service last Friday in honor of Dr. Bradley Nickels, who was an art historian and USF associate professor of art history for 41 years. Nickels was 75 when he died on Sept. 24 of cancer in Tampa.

Originally from Orlando, Nickels was a dedicated, charismatic and somewhat controversial figure who often thought outside the box and used innovative approaches with his students.

“He had a very eclectic range of interests and brought those into what he would teach,” said Wallace Wilson, director of USF Department of Art and Art History.

Nickels taught many art history topics that were different from those of other contemporary art history professors. For example, some of his classes were “Nuclear Mythology” and “Anarchy 101,” which was an examination of a series of films about students, inmates and the mentally insane staging anarchic revolts.

An expert and proponent of anarchism, Nickels always went against the grain of commonly-accepted belief systems and political ideologies, said USF professor of art Bradlee Shanks, a long-time colleague, friend and mentee to Nickels.

“He was an archetype, an embodiment of someone who questioned and understood the flaws and futility of human constructs,” he said.  “He understood that constructs, things like religion and all the “isms,” were kind of silly when really examined in the way that they became falsely idealized and the obsession with the ideas of worth based upon some arbitrary set of principles.”

Nickels always tried to get his students to assess their acquired knowledge and views critically instead of just accepting what was given or imparted on them by mass media, peers and other influences. He wanted students to discover their own identities through a thoughtful investigation, Shanks said.

Nickels was also instrumental in changing the way art history was taught in universities.

Originally, college students learned art history primarily by memorizing an artwork and its facts, such as its name, artist, date and location of its creation.

Nickels rejected this instructional method by lecturing anecdotally and making strong, articulate connections between art, its history, its effect on people’s lives and culture.  He began teaching in this manner before the educational movement went that way in art history.

One of the first professors at USF to employ computers for educational purposes, Nickels required his students to use email for communication and submission of written assignments. He developed websites and pre-blog discussion forums for his classes before the internet became a popular academic tool.

Nickels loved being an art history professor and came to work every day, including weekends and during summers when he did not teach classes.

“He loved teaching, loved the engagement with the students,” Wilson said. “I think he gained a lot personally from watching students learn.”

Although he cared for his students, Nickels could get severe with those students he felt were being lazy or not honestly applying themselves. Nickels had way of jolting the daydreamers so that all students gave their full attention during class but it often was done with good humor.

“Art history classes are always taught in a darkroom because you are showing images, so the lights are dimmed,” said Dr. Riccardo Marchi, USF professor of art history and Nickels’ faculty replacement. “There is a tendency sometimes for the students to lose their attention, so he would have this booming voice going and call on the students to wake up.”

For his valuable professorial contributions to USF, Nickels won every major teaching award and honor that USF has to offer, like a TIP Award and two Outstanding Teacher Awards. Art History students that went through his classes remember and respect him after they graduated and move on, Marchi said.

Nickels earned a doctorate degree from Indiana University in European and American Art (19th to 20th century) in 1966 after getting a bachelor’s at the University of Florida in 1959.

In addition to teaching, Nickels presented research papers at least five times at national conferences, published catalogs at various Florida museums and participated in several distinguished events within the arts community.

Nickels is survived by one son, David Nickels.

Master of Fine Arts graduate students exhibit their masterpieces

Eight USF Master of Fine Arts graduate students contributed to a painting exhibition with vastly diverse themes in the William and Nancy Oliver Gallery this week.

Although all of the gallery paintings are different in technique and meaning, they are all based in conceptual art, a popular trend where ideas are the driving forces behind an artwork rather than the brush strokes or visual figures.

Here are three examples of MFA graduate student artists and their paintings:

Two in the Brush by Michael Covello

In his painting Two in the Brush, Michael Covello conveys non-representational abstraction, which none of his content resembles any real-life people, objects and other entities.

“I am not looking at the world—looking at specific elements of the world and trying to render them perfectly,” he said. “My imagery comes out of my process, so it’s about the process. It’s about the brushwork, it’s about pouring paint on a surface and letting completely abstract detached forms emerge from that.”

Covello’s painting style invites viewers to use their imaginations to interpret his art in various ways. Since Covello does not directly reference anything that really exists, his paintings can mean different things to different people.

“I am interested in how material abstract, material communication can transcend just being a blob of paint and become something else,” Covello said. “But not be something specific.”

Unnamed by Chalice Mitchell

Chalice Mitchell uses the human figure as the subject of her unnamed painting. Painted with blurred, hazy contour lines, the body looks incomplete and unclear as to gender.

Mitchell said she likes to leave her artwork unfinished in order to convey a feeling of ambiguity or something unresolved. She also noted that paint and the human body are both visceral, so combining them could evoke strong emotions.

The human body is a common theme in Mitchell’s many other artistic ventures, which include performance art and digital animation.

“Embodiment is an important issue, so I have always been drawn to the figure,” she said. “The figure is prominent in everything I do, whether it’s my own body in performance or trying to understand that kind of physicality through paint.”

With the human body as a central theme, Mitchell likes to explore dualities or dichotomies, such as between mind and body, one person and another or a male and female. She tends to eliminate the sharp boundaries or distinctions that separate the two sides and establish a fluidity that crosses over from one end to another, as can be seen with gender in her painting.

All three of Briana Phelps’ paintings at the Oliver Gallery have strong social and political messages on American war practices and consumerist culture.

“My work is more narrative-based,” she said. “There is typically a figure but it’s usually – I try to convey a story.”

War and Lace by Briana Phelps

Phelps comes from a family of veterans where her father was a Navy officer and her grandfather fought in the Korean War. She said that her grandfather was always very upset that Americans forget the Korean War, take their veterans for granted and don’t provide adequate social services for them.

For Love of Country by Briana Phelps

Phelps based two of her paintings, War and Lace and For Love of Country, on old family photographs that captured her family’s involvement in military efforts. She added certain artistic details from her own imagination to create a complete artwork that raised the issues pertaining to mistreatment of service men and women in the U.S.

Professor to create unusual Tango Panopticon project

Photo of USF art professor Robert Lawrence. Captured by Margarita Abramova

USF professor of art and conceptual artist Robert Lawrence uses his mastery of electronic arts and physical interventions to create innovative, unusual projects like the Tango Panopticon, which will take place during the Exchange Radical Moments! Live Art Festival on Nov. 11.

Lawrence created a rather complex, synchronized dance pattern for three Argentine Tango couples that will cover the public spaces under heavy video surveillance in Berlin’s main train station. Each of the three dances will be videotaped with a cell phone and shown through a live webcast via Vupango, a web application designed by Lawrence.

As an artistic intervention, the Tango Panopticon involves provocative or unexpected action that seeks attention or disrupts the flow of everyday life in a public space. There is an unlimited number of possible interventions, but Lawrence chose Argentine Tango because it allowed him and other dancers to achieve a deep, personal connection with their partners. Plus, he found the dance to be thrilling.

USF media resource specialist Thomas O’Neill said it’s fascinating how Lawrence is able to tie his artistic interventions in with his artistic expertise of video.

Originally from New York City, Lawrence first became interested in the arts because of its infinite creative possibilities.

“The visual arts world is the only place I know where there is a tradition of interest and support for people really doing new and challenging thinking in creative research,” Lawrence said.

He began as a professional photographer in his career before transitioning into more conceptual approaches.

All of Lawrence’s conceptual art projects have a marriage of two components that always complement each other: a set of circumstances that gives audiences a physical experience and a comprehensive website that often contains streaming video. The website contextualizes the physical side and gives an in-depth understanding of the social and political nature of the project.

“One of the reasons why I work in this dual stream, like physical actions and the internet, is that I want to make work that is not political and I want to make work that is political,” he said. “And I love, by having an internet component that is political and a physical component that is sensual really – I love that they are separate.”

Director of USF Art and Art History Wallace Wilson described Lawrence’s body of work as innovative, fresh and unorthodox. He said it fits into relational aesthetics, a trend that focuses on human social relationships, contexts, ideas and interactivity rather than on traditional forms of art such as painting, drawing and sculpture, where the viewer is strictly the observer.

“It makes me question what art is all about,” Wilson said.

In addition to his art, Lawrence has held college faculty positions for the last 22 years. Before coming to USF ten years ago as an art professor specializing in video installation and performance, Lawrence was in charge of the film program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for 12 years.

He received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts from Universities of California at Berkeley and San Diego respectively.

Lawrence also has traveled extensively as a guest speaker and showcased his artworks in many arts festivals, exhibitions and events around the world.

USF’s “The Talent Show” uses relational aesthetics to turn audiences into artwork

In “The Talent Show,” a current exhibition at the USF Contemporary Art Museum, several artists follow a relatively new trend by making their artwork and audience one and the same.

The style is called relational aesthetics. One relational art installation is a small, dark room where light reflects a person’s silhouette on a blank white screen. A video camera records and projects the person’s back on the same screen. Thus, the blank screen simultaneously shows both the viewer’s dark outline and a multi-colored recording of the back of his or her body.

“It relates to theories of psychoanalysis where you are a split self,” said Jane Simon, curator for the exhibition. “There is the sense of yourself, and then there is the perception of yourself. Both things are always represented in that piece.”

At the exhibition, which runs until Dec. 10, every relational aesthetics piece is innovative and completely different from the rest. Artist Piero Manzoni’s approximately 3-foot-tall black pedestal features two cream-colored footprints for people to stand on. The purpose is both for someone to climb the pedestal to view the world from a different perspective and strike fun and interesting poses, thereby becoming living sculptures or animated statues.

“I think it’s pretty cool because usually you’re just sitting back, observing the art and not really being a part of it,” said Rachelle Sincere, a third-year information technology student. “Here it is allowing you to influence it.”

Artists traditionally have a cause-and-effect relationship with their audiences, where artists are creators and audiences are observers. But, relational aesthetics changes these roles by directly involving the audience in the artwork.

The artist originates the environment for his or her relational aesthetics approach by setting up the appropriate spaces, personnel, hours of operation and tools conducive to audience interaction and participation.  Instead of showcasing artwork that requires spectatorship, such as paintings and sculptures, the artist may simply call attention to an event, raise a point for discussion or pose a question in order to get the audience to react, respond and relate in different ways.

“The goals in general,” said Wallace Wilson, director of the USF School of Art and Art History, “would be to expose nuances and characteristics inherent in social relationships that are not otherwise apparent without the conditions established by the artist, producer, director.”

Artists, especially conceptual and relational artists, seek to make their audiences think about things that they may not have thought about before, or did not even know to think about, Wilson said. Thus, the emphasis in relational art is more on human association and ideas rather than ideals of beauty and studio technique.

Artist Adrian Piper presented her viewers with a stack of blank notebooks and pens and asked them to draw and/or write about their feelings and immediate circumstances. The viewers also were able to respond to each others’ sketches and comments. Most of the pages from the first notebook were framed and had some recurring political, social and sexual themes.

“I think it’s very original, in that people can bring their own ideas into it,” said third-year fine arts transfer student Tara Radosevich. “It really brings people together, even though they are all different. Despite these differences, we might share similar ideas or original thoughts or, like, we’re not alone after all.”

New USF Interdisciplinary Science Teaching and Research Facility destined to make students, scientists work together

USF celebrated the opening of the USF Interdisciplinary Science Teaching and Research Facility, with its state-of-the-art equipment, laboratories and classrooms for cutting-edge scientific research and education, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month.

Now that the building is filled with undergraduate and graduate students, it can achieve its purpose —encouraging discovery and interaction among disciplines by its very architectural design.

“Part of our strategic plan is to focus on interdisciplinary research, so this building was built specifically to promote collaboration,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg.  “By putting chemistry, biology and physics together, the faculty, for the first time, can really connect with each other on a deeper level then they ever have, which is what we want in the sciences, because we can’t solve any of the world’s great challenges with a single science anymore.”

The seven-story building has two 300-seat auditoriums and many laboratories and classrooms designed for theoretical study, experimentation and practical work. It can hold about 15,000 students per semester and serves several scientific disciplines, including physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics and engineering.

“This building has a lot of unique features that distinguish it from other buildings,” said Jean Caraballo, a second-year computer engineering student. “For example, for our class we’re allowed to use laptops. So, it’s pretty convenient that right next to your seat you have an electrical socket. You can charge your laptop at the same time you are doing lectures.”

The older buildings for the hard sciences were getting too small and out-of-date to accommodate the faculty, students and their constantly changing needs.

“A lot of the older buildings were not designed to do the kind of high-tech research that our researchers needed to do,” said professor and Chairman of the USF Physics Department Pritish Mukherjee. “We had completely run out of space in the sciences at the University of South Florida, yet the productivity of the faculty and students was increasing exponentially. So, the idea was to build a building that would allow the sciences to expand their research and teaching.”

The building and its infrastructure houses about 100 graduate students and 150 scientists, who are doing research in fields like nanomedicine, sensor technologies and renewable fuels.

One example of the kind of work scientists are doing in nanomedicine is filling magnetic shells, which are a billionth of a meter, with a drug and injecting them into the body of someone who has cancer. They then place a magnet at the site of a cancerous tumor to attract nanoparticles to the site. By applying different magnetic fields, these nanoparticles partially break down and deliver the drug locally, Mukherjee said.

This particular nanomedicine technique specifically targets certain areas of the body and is more effective in terms of drug delivery. It is still only in the research and development stage at the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, but could be the future of medicine.

The building also facilitates major research in renewable energies, including organic and inorganic solar cells and thermoelectric materials, which convert heat to electricity.

“So, imagine in your automobile, there is a lot of energy – the exhaust – that is heat that is just being sent out to the environment and it’s being wasted,” Mukherjee said. “If we can take a large fraction of that and convert it to electricity in order to, for example, power the car or different subsystems of the car, then you end up using the energy more efficiently.”

The building cost approximately $80 million to build, and the entire process of designing, planning and building took close to a decade before the building opened in August.

Censorship threatens USF student’s artistic expression

When University of South Florida engineering senior Wes Holliman had to tone down his art project after it garnered some negative attention from staff and police on Sept. 28, he also raised the broader issue of artistic censorship.

Holliman painted a mural of a white wall severed by a thermonuclear explosion against a dark background, and he connected the painting to an explosives plunger-style detonator using wires with two sticks of bright red dynamite attached. Holliman created this artwork to draw attention to the lack of artistic display on the walls and surrounding areas of the Fine Arts Hall.

“I didn’t want to do it in a non-violent kind of way,” Holliman said. “I wanted it to be kind of scary, as if ‘Why isn’t this artwork here?’ Damn it.”

Once Holliman put up his art project on one of Fine Arts Hall’s walls for everyone to see, some of the USF staff members driving golf carts interpreted the art as a possible bomb threat and called the police. When the police arrived on the scene, Deon Blackwell, Holliman’s adjunct art professor, explained to them that it was just an artistic endeavor.

“It really wasn’t seen as a real threat,” Blackwell said, “as soon as they realized that it was on the side of the art department.”

Blackwell, however, made Holliman remove the image of the dynamite from his art project, which was left on the Fine Arts wall for a couple more days after the police incident.

Holliman’s experience brings up an important issue that affects artists internationally – censorship. It is the practice of banning public display of entire or portions of artworks because they are perceived as security threats or as offensive and morally objectionable. Censorship comes from governments, private institutions or even the artist themselves.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individuals’ right to free speech but it is limited to governmental authority, not private enterprise, according to Even if the U.S. federal government cannot impose restrictions on art unless it is obscene or calls for blatant and obvious violence, other governments around the world certainly can.

For instance, when Gregory Green, USF associate professor of art, planned a sculptural exhibition of terrorist, nuclear and advanced technological bombs, large missiles and other figures in Tel Aviv, the Israeli government put a stop to it.

“At the last minute, the Israeli government cancelled the exhibition and said the museum could not do the exhibition,” Green said. “They felt the content was inappropriate.”

Green added that he had about 16 censorship conflicts with authorities — such as police, FBI and the Dutch secret service — in the U.S. and Europe over the span of his more than 30-year career as an artist. But in every one of the conflicts where Green had come up against some form of government censorship, all charges were deemed unfounded and eventually dropped.

Private institutions like certain museums and commercial art galleries also play an important role in artistic censorship. These enterprises generally have complete control over what kind of art they showcase, and they have a right to censor it if the artwork offends their clients or funders.

“Most of the censorship that has taken place relative to my work, actual true censorship that’s had real impact, other than the museum show in Israel, has been after 9/11 and institutional,” Green said. “Museum, art gallery censorship.”

Green also said that artists tend to censor themselves, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, so as to not provoke or incur the dire consequences of provoking. Over the last decade, there has been a significant amount of self-censorship and the result is fewer artists challenging the status quo and making progressive changes artistically, politically and culturally.

On the other hand, some would argue that art comes in various forms, and not all art is well-meaning and inspirational. A number of artworks abound with extremely violent and/or sexual imagery.

This kind of artwork may have an adverse impact on peoples’ morals, personality and behavior, especially children. Specifically, it can lead to a desensitization of violence and false notions about safe sex, gender roles and conflict resolution.

“I believe there should be censorship,” Rabbi Uriel Rivkin said. “In Jewish law, it is not permitted to see certain immodest pictures.” He added that he also would not want his children looking at gory, bloody images.

Rivkin believes that the Internet and other forms of media make art, especially offensive art, too accessible for everyone and wishes it was not so easy to be exposed to photographs, images and videos that have pornographic or violent content.

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