by Ben West ’14; photography by Carl Socolow ’77
You’ve seen them, and you know who they are.
They just seem to exude cool. You’ll find them gathering in improvised and off-the-grid creative spaces, whether it be in their own apartments or in classrooms after dark. And if you’ve ever wondered how they manage to carry an impressive, rigorous course load, yet still find time to make art on the side, for fun, you could do worse than ask American-studies major Fabian Hernandez ’15.
Or Sasha Shapiro ’15, a philosophy and Russian-studies double major who met Hernandez, a fellow Californian, when they were first-year students and began drawing together in their residence hall. Or any of this informal constellation of artists — to a great degree, orbiting Hernandez — including Cassie Lier ’15, Brittany Barker ’15, Martin Alvarez ’15, Edwin Padilla ’16 and Alejandro Heredia ’16.
“I’ve always been keen to my experiences, and I’ve always felt the need to tell a story or just tell people about it,” says Hernandez. “Honestly, all of this art stuff is about me — it’s for me.”
And while Hernandez’s work is itself part of a much larger oeuvre (he has been creating since he was 14) the pieces have roommates and acquaintances all over campus, produced by friends — themselves often poets, illustrators, musicians and writers.
Their collaboration is symptomatic of a burgeoning collective spirit on campus — an activity of creation and self-exploration and a shadow curriculum that provides an education built from an eclectic combination of classes, personal challenges and new experiences. In February, Dickinson Magazine had the good fortune to illustrate their process — sketching, playing, riffing, creating in Goodyear’s life studio.
Of the group, Lier is the only studio-art major. She originally came to Dickinson to pursue a business-oriented degree, much as she had in France, where she grew up. “I took a sculpture class my sophomore year, and I loved being in that environment where you’re doing things with your hands,” she says. Leaving behind margins and numbers, Lier immersed herself in a world of colors and lines, cramming art classes into her schedule.
“It was just a wave of art,” she recalls.
For Padilla, a music and computer-science double major, one particular collaboration with Hernandez and Barker last spring stays in his mind. The premise was simple, but the execution challenging: While Padilla played his sax, Barker and Hernandez would midwife sibling works in their own media. None of them had ever worked in this way before.
“It was very new for me,” recalls Barker, an English major and founder of Exiled, Dickinson’s spoken-word poetry group. “I had never written to music. I was being influenced by whatever note he was hitting on the saxophone, and I was looking at his face and thinking, ‘What does this mean?’ ”
Padilla and his saxophone appear at dozens of gigs per semester, either playing solo or as a member of four bands. He prefers the avant-garde and has been known to rile otherwise mellow audiences at open mics with his jarring solos, the kind critics in the 1960s labeled as “anti-jazz.”
“I fight every day for jazz,” he says. “Most of the time musicians play for that one-out-of-10 times when you feel like you’re not on earth. And it happens for about 20 seconds, so you can’t really enjoy it for long, but you’ll enjoy it enough.”
Barker, who came to Dickinson already a nationally recognized spoken-word poet — taking second place at the 2012 Nicks Poetry Slam in New York City — carries a personal notebook everywhere she goes, sometimes stopping mid-conversation to jot down a thought.
“I started writing for myself, but I noticed that the more personal I get, the more universal it is for the people who hear my work,” she says. “It’s something that I know I won’t ever stop doing unless I lose my hands, and then I might try to find a recorder or something.”
Hernandez is now deep into his senior project, guided by the work of scholars such as Gloria Anzaldua, whose semi-autobiographical accounts of race, gender and nationality Hernandez seeks to replicate, and Anthony Cervino, associate professor of art & art history and Hernandez’s advisor. Cervino comments on the density of lectures, exhibitions, studio spaces and artist visits in what should be a comparatively small arts community, all the while noting that most of his students, like Hernandez, are not majoring in studio art.
Nevertheless, Hernandez’s project is ambitious: a several-thousand mile trip to northern Mexico, where is he documenting and cataloguing the spectra of race and color. It’s an attitude that fits him well — whether it’s a scholarly or creative act, and often a combination of both.
“I don’t make mistakes,” he says. “I adapt that ‘mistake’ into what it’s supposed to be, into the finished product. Say that a droplet of ink falls where I don’t want it to. Then I’m like, ‘maybe that’s where it goes. Maybe that was part of the process.’ ”
Edwin Padilla '16: "There are a lot of different aspects of jazz. It's not all upbeat swing music. That's like saying popular music is just Lady Gaga. Everybody knows it's not. So why doesn't everybody know that jazz is not just an upbeat tempo?"
Fabian Hernandez ’15: "I’ve always tried to keep to myself and try to create something that’s raw and that’s from me."
Sasha Shapiro ’15: "You start off with an idea, and it’s starting to look like the idea you have in your head, but then you completely mess it up. That’s a very interesting time in the drawing process."
Cassie Lier ’15: "I love being around that environment where you’re doing things with your hands."
Alejandro Heredia ’16: "Collaborating is as I think art should be: communal, inspiring, freeing. When I write in a room with other artists, or when I share my work with others, I feel a sense of purpose. Yes, this art is for my own liberation, but how does my presence, or the presence of my art, affect another’s experience? I think about that a lot."
Brittany Barker ’15: "I want to leave my fingerprints behind, and I feel like I just write for me and everything around me, and everyone around me."
Martin Alvarez ’15 "Because of my definition and the meaning that art holds for me, collaboration with other artists becomes a means of challenging not only your style but your whole relationship with art. It’s in these spaces that I think we can really grow and develop new means of understanding art."
Sasha Shapiro ’15 contributed to this story.
Edwin Padilla '16, one of the students featured in this article, performed his junior recital with Julia Nadeau '16, Sunday, April 19 in Rubendall Recital Hall.
Read more from the spring 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Published April 14, 2015