Inspiration Information Portfolio Exchange

Posted by Melissa Meinzer July 26, 2020

Portfolio boxes, and a look at one full set of contents from all participants.

Sometimes inspiration comes from rules, and sometimes it comes from no rules.

A project by lecturer Heather Bennett with juniors in the spring 2020 Methods & Contexts II class put both in the mix, with delightful results.

She invited students to participate in an optional portfolio exchange with no demands, no grades, no criteria—except that whatever they made had to fit in a 5" by 7" box.

“No assignment, no stakes,” class instructor Bennett says. “Do whatever you want—explore a little.”

Each participating student (as well as Bennett, instructor Jen Logan Meyer, and graduate teaching assistant Alex Klein) created a portfolio with 13 works, enough for each participant. Some of the eleven students created particular works with a specific classmate in mind while others directed their work randomly. Then Bennett distributed their creations, by hand or by mail.

“The idea came after lockdown,” says Bennett, a lecturer in art. “It seemed like everyone was talking about motivation—I was feeling that. I was trying to think about things that motivated me in the past. A lot of times making artwork for someone motivated me.”

The students made original paintings and drawings, print series, stickers, a series of daily drawings inspired by the newspaper. Some works were interactive, like a fortune telling device and an evocative “clueless” crossword puzzle.

Bennett named the project Inspiration Information Portfolio Exchange, for the 1974 Shuggie Otis record including his funk classic “Strawberry Letter 23,” since sampled in countless hip-hop tunes. She used lyrics from the song to title her works, individualized collages for each student.

For the many students still living in St. Louis, Bennett took off on her bicycle, oppressive heat be damned, and provided no-contact delivery.

“We made the delivery dates after finals so they could feel like they had some continuity after the semester ended, so it wasn’t like, boom, out of touch,” Bennett says.

(from left) Works created by Gavi Weitzman, Quinn Kernell, and Tirzah Reed.

For Meyer, the School's assistant director for career development in art who is part of the team-teaching crew for the junior and senior studio art majors in the Methods & Contexts and Capstone courses, it was important that she and Bennett participate. She said that being vulnerable themselves and presenting work added to the authenticity of the effort.

Meyer’s role on the team is to direct professional practice integration and work with students on writing their artist statements, as well as leading and teaching some of the seminar portions of class. She is not a visual artist herself, so her works were written.

Walking in Forest Park was part of how Meyer kept structure and sanity in her quarantine. For the project, she’d read a student’s statement and look at their visual works before heading out.

“I would go on my walk and try to embody the work on my walk, very literally using the work as a jumping-off point,” Meyer says. Something in the park would trigger a connection for her, and she’d consider that as well an obvious or subtle reference to the specific, pandemic-dominated moment we’re in.

It was refreshing to have a physical component to the class again, says Meyer.

“So much of how we engaged with each other was all in this space,” she says, gesturing to indicate the ubiquitous Zoom window we’re talking through. “Now we have this tactile, analog thing that’s evidence of all that input.”

Student Gavi Weitzman says she misses the in-person environment of class quite a lot, but the pivot to online work was instructive in its own way.

“I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to make work and be outside the classroom,” she says. “I have a different relationship with making work—it gave me a little taste of what it’s going to be like after school.”

Her projects for the exchange were made of collages using the day’s newspaper. She sometimes integrated watercolor into the works and explored sewing on the paper—a relatively new technique for her.

Creating with the knowledge her work would go to her close cadre of peers gave her new perspective, she says—a perspective she’ll take forward with her.

“I think the element of giving, and making something for someone else, is something I want to do more of,” Weitzman says.

Bennett says she hopes the project activated some new creativity muscles for the students.

“Personally, what I had hoped was that if they have this other kind of focus, that maybe work would come out of it,” she says. “That’s happened for me—the collages that I started making for the project, I hadn’t made them before and it’s taking off. Maybe there’s something in that, an isolated project that’s not your main body of work leading somewhere.”

Both instructors—as well as the students—say the project was an overwhelming success and a bright spot in a bleak time.

“It not only met but exceeded our hopes and dreams,” says Meyer. “Whenever I get on a Zoom with a student, they bring it up. It’s really special.”