Ask any design professor or student at the UH School of Art if collaboration is an important part of their process and you will most likely be met with a resounding “absolutely.”
Cheryl Beckett, UH associate professor of graphic design, says this is because it helps foster curiosity and experimentation. “It challenges us to develop as artists and expand our thinking,” she explains. To encourage collaboration, especially across disciplines, Beckett seeks out opportunities for her students to work on long-term projects with students in other UH programs, such as the Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture and the Creative Writing program.
The semester-long projects, supported by the Mitchell Center, ask students to work in small interdisciplinary teams to research, plan and execute an exhibition of original work, a first for many of the students. “It’s difficult, especially because most of the students haven’t created an installation before, but I trust them,” Beckett says. “I know they will be motivated and impassioned to rise to the challenge.”
This year, the hard work paid off – twice. The Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) recognized UH designers with two awards for outstanding exhibitions made with Creative Writing students. “En/Gulf: Ecopoetics of the Gulf and Bay,” an expansive exhibition made with UH Professor Martha Serpas, won an Honor Award, and “Written Wor(l)ds,” developed as part of a Creative Mapping course with UH professor Peter Turchi, received a Merit Award.
Beckett and Serpas’ students joined forces in 2015 to create videos, sculptures and small posters – called broadsides – investigating the local Texas ecology for “En/Gulf: Ecopoetics of the Gulf and Bay.” The semester included kayaking, bird watching and fishing; each field trip designed to introduce students to the environment in a new close up and meaningful way. Inspired by their hands-on experiences, the students created work addressing the duality of the landscape, reflected by the word “engulf” as something that can be both affirming and destructive. Contrasting definitions of the word were included on the introduction panel, setting up the dichotomy in the minds of the view as they entered the exhibition.
“We wanted to balance elements of the ecosystem, showing the beauty of the environment but also exposing its vulnerability,” says Tracy Ngo (BFA Graphic Design ’16), who worked on the exhibition as a senior.
The SEGD jury recognized that nuanced balance, describing the exhibition as remaining “light, lyrical and certainly poetic while expressing a powerful message.”
The second exhibition, “Written Wor(l)ds,” challenged students to dissect and translate the literary worlds of classic novels – including Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Emile Zola’s “Nana” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” – into physical installations. As students endeavored to make metaphors tangible and transform the symbolic into material, text spilled from the page into three-dimensions, wrapping around sculptural objects to fill the gallery space.
One of the jury members recalls the “Nana” installation, which featured a handmade paper dress in front of a sprawling excerpt of text, as “a singularly beautiful moment [that mingled] type and form. The ephemeral nature of the book’s language twisted around the dress was just breathtaking.”
Beckett beams with pride discussing the two awards won by her students. “[SEGD] looks at some of the best work from around the world for these awards, so to have our students recognized really shows that they are creating wonderful work.”