Professor Sheila Gallagher Takes Her Art To Arkansas

For Sheila Gallagher in the fine arts department, life isn’t all about grading papers and taking attendance. Away from campus, she spends her time at her studio, making paintings from materials such as smoke, melted plastic, and old yogurt cups. Most recently, she was one of 100 artists chosen out of 10,000 to have their work exhibited at the Crystal Bridges Museum’s State of the Art exhibit in Arkansas.

The exhibit, which runs until January 2015, draws pieces from artists all over the country in efforts to represent the current state of American contemporary art. The pieces range from paintings on canvas to photography and video to installations.

Gallagher’s piece, “Plastic Lila,” displays a colorful array of floral patterns, reflecting her individual style. Her pieces often convey the spiritual and physical relationship between love and nature, and “Plastic Lila” showcases these natural themes with the use of contemporary materials. Gallagher uses these material objects to, in her words, “transcend the trashiness of the materials.”

“A lot of themes I deal with are ancient themes, but the materials are totally contemporary and also totally disgusting most of the time,” she said.

Another influence Gallagher finds herself drawn toward is the influence of her time on campus. “Being at a place like Boston College—which is a Jesuit, Catholic university—there’s great philosophers and theologians around here, so I feed off it. In my classroom, I try to help my students learn how to make and think like artists,” she said.

But she also notes that most of her artistic influence comes from within. “I once had a writer discussing my work who said, ‘Sheila makes these beautiful gardens, but they’re made of trash,’ and I try to see it as ‘Sheila makes these beautiful gardens and they’re made of trash,’ she said. That in all of our lives there’s this incredible intermingling between the sacred and the profane, the wonderful and the horrid, and they’re totally mixed. That’s what I’m interested in.”

As the exhibit’s title suggests, State of the Art also aims to show the ways in which technology now influences art. Not only has the museum provided YouTube videos to expose the different ways the artists work in their own studios, they also have dedicated an app solely to the exhibit. Via their smartphones, anyone can now access the work and information of the artists featured in State of the Art.

To Gallagher, this growing relationship between art and technology has its limits, however. “Art is something that largely has to be engaged with physically,” she said. “You have to go and see the art. So you can have all the apps and YouTube videos in the world, but for the real engagement with the artwork, it still has to be largely a one-on-one encounter.”

But she recognizes the fact that, like most of her students, there are people that cannot travel to Arkansas to see the show. “[The technology] allows people to have a more in-depth experience or to relive the experience once they leave the museum,” she said. “What Crystal Bridges is doing to publicize this show and to educate the public on contemporary art is fantastic.”

Gallagher also notes the growing focus on commercial success in many museums, rather than the art and artists themselves. “You see museums doing things like fashion shows. One of the biggest shows at the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) last year was Bowie,” she said. “I love Bowie, but do I really want my museums focusing on David Bowie? Now you see the higher end galleries becoming less commercial and more curatorial.”

She streses that, despite its commercial sponsors like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, the Crystal Bridges Museum deviates from this trend. “[The owners of the gallery, including Wal-Mart giant Alice Walton] were great to work with—it was a real love fest,” she said. “You know, usually museums are like, here’s your half a glass of champagne and your two cucumber slices, thank you artists, and then they get into the business of schmoozing clients. But this was completely pro-artists. It was very much about the artist’s voice.”

Here on campus, however, Gallagher finds the space for artists’ voices lacking.

“Boston College needs as many visual expressions of the identities and cultures that are on campus as possible,” she said. Last year, the Bapst Art Gallery closed because of its lack of handicap-accessibility. “What they should have done was just made it handicap-accessible,” she said.

This need for venues for student art on campus is not a new argument for Gallagher. She notes that the opening of Stokes Hall only makes this problem more apparent. “I find it absolutely crazy that we have blank walls,” she said. Especially with BC’s stress on its ranking among other universities (there’s a plaque in Fulton Hall denoting its place as the fourth-ranked business school in the country, according to Businessweek), Gallagher highlights the need to improve in artistic representation. “Great universities have always made the connection between visual manifestations of creativity and academic innovation,” she said.

Featured Image Courtesy of Gary Wayne Gilbert / Boston College Magazine