It was bittersweet last Friday at the Memphis College of Art. There was the sort of exuberance that attends opening receptions for exhibitions, but there was also melancholy as suggested by the show's title: "Take Note: The Final Faculty Biennial Exhibition."
A robust presentation of artwork by current faculty and professors emeriti is on display through March 17th. Faculty exhibitions put on display the pieces by those who teach, or, as professor emeritus Tom Lee puts it, to show the students that they really can do it.
But MCA is closing its doors next year and there won't be any more faculty shows. Laura Hine, the college's president, says wistfully that maybe someone will organize the school's long-running Horn Island show, Holiday Bazaar, and faculty exhibitions in the post-MCA future. "You can't stop artists," she says.
- Heather F. Wetzel with her 2012 work "Mapping|Mending|Missing Memory"
"When I started working here I'd walk through the doors and think 'My God, this is so joyful.' Everything is tinged by the closure now, but for me tonight, I've talked with three artists who went to school here and are now teachers. I take heart that these people are going out and teaching another generation of kids. That's the happy part for me."
Dolph Smith started attending what was then the Memphis Academy of Art on Adams Street in 1957. He went on to teach there and retired in the 1990s, but still manages to be there in one capacity or another, as artist and inspiration. But on this night, he steps away, saying, "I'm going to burst out sobbing."
His work at this final faculty show is Tennarkippi Penthouse, a 2005 sculpture. It shares space on the landing between floors in MCA's main exhibition area with Lee's 2019 witty and sly installation Fin de Skirt, which connects with a "bouquet" on another wall. Lee's emeriti status was awarded at last May's commencement. Looking back at previous faculty shows, he says, "It's all the same thing that I've been doing since time began in one way or another. It just looks a lot different than what I was doing 30 years ago. But it's pretty much the same. That's not a real good answer, is it?"
- Dolph Smith (left) and Tom Lee with their works: Tennarkippi Penthouse, 2005 and Fin de Skirt, 2019
He's in the mood to say goodbye. "The bouquet that's kind of dead and falling apart is pretty obvious and pretty funny, too," he says of one part of his installation. "The other is the skirt that covers everything. This place has always had a lot more female energy in it and so does the artwork because, a) they're smarter, and b) because they actually feel life when it's happening and we try to ignore it, so it's an image of that. Plus a lot of other kind of hidden things that refer to specific people, most of whom I admire and who I've learned a lot from while I was here, and a few kind of digs that nobody's ever gonna get. Plus I just like the word 'skirt.'"
Jean Holmgren's digital illustrations are, she says, a bit of a sea change. "I fought digital tooth and nail when computers came out, saying 'that's not real art!' and I still have problems with that most of the time," she says. "But I'm loving my iPad Pro — it's so fast and easy and forgiving, and it's never done. You can always go back and tweak." One of her works at the exhibition is a 2019 homage to IKEA instructions, an assembly of an impossible machine with impossible directions, titled Some Assembly Required.
Heather F. Wetzel, the head of MCA's photo area, started teaching at the college in the fall of 2017. Weeks later, it was announced that the institution would close. "It was sad and disappointing to find that out," she says. But also: "It's a wonderful place, and I've gotten a taste of it." Even through her sadness at what will be her abbreviated time at MCA, she still says, "I'm happy and honored to be part of this."