A Conversation about Photography, Creative Process and Tugs

Steve Nelson, associate professor of art

Professor Steve Nelson’s exhibition Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey is a photographic installation comprised of his most recent photographs documenting the tugboat industry in the state of Michigan. I had the privilege to listen to Nelson’s artist talk and experience the installation on view now in the De Pree Art Gallery at Hope College. To follow-up, I asked him a few questions to further the conversation and contemplation of his work.

Here’s what I asked and what Steve said.

Greg Lookerse, assistant professor of art

Greg Lookerse: Your work, on a basic level, is documentary photography, but there is something else behind each image that goes beyond just documentation. What does the process of making a photograph mean to you and how does it relate to this body of work?

Steve Nelson: I consider the work a very personal narrative in that it is an extension of my thoughts and dreams. I start with imagining images, then search for the opportunity to find them by choosing the subject, time of day/night, season or the year, along with other conditions.  

Although the style of photography may seem documentary I approach the project in a very different way than a documentary photographer would. The major difference would be that a documentary photographer would likely have tangible goal to inform or instruct the viewer about the subject of the photograph, whereas I am interested in bringing the viewer on a journey where ‘what is encountered’ brings a level of self-reflection and uncertainty with seeing something unknown in great detail.


GL: During your artist lecture you mentioned three themes in your work; artifact, apparatus and experience. How does the apparatus and aperture of the camera affect your experience of the places you photograph?

SN: By physically viewing the places through the aperture of the view camera, I see the world inverted and backwards.  Of course all images are received in our eyes this way, because of the nature of lens optics, but, for me, seeing the images presented this way is much more aligned with memory, than reality.  It feels more primal where what is encounter while under the hood inspecting the ground glass is both familiar and disjunctive. 

“As a young teen I remember carving a tug boat out of a block of wood, it was fitted with tires from my toy cars for bumpers like I saw on the real tug and was painted red, very similar to the tugs in the exhibition.” — Steve Nelson

GL: I detect a care or love behind your photographs for the subject matter in the work. Did you have a care for the subject before you embarked on this series or is that something that developed as you made the images and visited the places?

SN: Both.  

I’ve always been fascinated by the maritime industry. As a child I grew up in a major port city on Lake Michigan and lived near the channel where commercial vessels pass through, literally towering about the houses in my neighborhood.  This was a very impactful experience. As a young teen I remember carving a tug boat out of a block of wood, it was fitted with tires from my toy cars for bumpers like I saw on the real tug and was painted red, very similar to the tugs in the exhibition. 

By visiting the various sites over the two year working on this project I found great affection for the tugs.  In particular they enduring forms, as ‘little engines that could’ (move great things.) Their personal traits, with the variation of the hulls and other design features made them feel like members of a family, where subtle differences realized through close observation.  As I encountered them over time I became more aware of the differences and familiar qualities.

GL: How do you go about exploring a location to find the image you want?  

SN: Mainly through visiting the site. This was somewhat predetermined by the scope of the project as I decided to work with one fleet of tug boat because I was interested in the long trajectory of this particular fleet and the wide geographic distribution across a familiar body of water (The Great Lakes.)  Some of my access was restricted in time, because of security issues around accessing the site in major industrial complexes. Other sites were more accessible. Both presented challenges, in that I had some ideas about taking photographs in both daylight and at night. Working during the winter allowed me to access the sites at night because I could go onto the ice to take the picture, giving me more perspectives choice and working around security and access issues.  

GL: How many images do you take versus how many you exhibit?

SN: Probably one image exhibited for every two taken. 

GL: There are many ways to interpret the title of the exhibition; The odyssey of the tugs you photographed, your odyssey in going to photograph, and the narratives that the viewer can develop in a careful look at your work. What odysseys are most prevalent to you in the work?

SN: I can’t entirely separate these layers.  Maybe this is because they are all interwoven, as I am both the photographer who took the journey and the viewer.  The odyssey of tugs are probably the most prevalent, because the work would not exist without them.  

GL: The term odyssey carries with it a sense of growth. Odysseus’ journey was a coming home. Is the odyssey you have captured and created one of growing towards and end? What is that end?

SN: Yes, the journey was not planned, meaning the result was never predetermined for the work.  In retrospect, compared to my other recent bodies of work, both of industry with dealing with past operations in mining and manufacturing, this work is most satisfying for me because of my growth capturing and creating a growing narrative, in that the industry is not only the past, but also present and future, which to me is a more hopeful narrative, one that is circular in nature.

GL: Your circular photos seem to have morphed and changed over your career. I would characterize your older circular photos as little worlds. Now the circular photo has taken on a new meaning in the tugboat work. You mentioned the idea of a looking glass or periscope, I cannot help but see a porthole. Do you think that the circular format has found a new way to serve your subject matter in this series?

SN: Yes, they are both portals (into other worlds) or portholes (into a specific existence). In this context they hopefully serve to bring the viewer into the porthole to a dormant existence of a primary industrial form. This serves like a dream motif, to bring subconsciousness into awareness, to move the view from the states of sleep to clarity where the edges fade from the subject.  

“Beyond that my hope is to make work that opens up possibilities in multiple realms, both in the imaginary and real.”  — Steve Nelson

GL: You spoke of how invention is developed to address a need. Are your photographs developed out of a need as well?

SN: Maybe only in fulfilling my creative need. Possibly in that they provide an experience for a different kind of encounter, one that is physically experiential and reflective.   

GL: Speaking further of invention, you described these industrial sights and vessels as fulfillment of individuals’ dreams. Does you work further those same dreams? Augment those dreams? Take the burden of the dream to some other context?

SN: I think that it takes the burden of the dream into another context being one that could be experienced intimately with in the gallery environment.  Beyond that my hope is to make work that opens up possibilities in multiple realms, both in the imaginary and real.   

GL: This may be my own interpretation bias coming in, but do you think of the tugs as people or entities that are fallen? Are you helping sanctify them?

SN: That would not be irrelevant, mainly because you mentioned it.  My earlier comments about the familiar relationships of this particular fleet reflects this interest.  Hum…maybe not sanctify but more acknowledge their fragility and endurance, as well to recognize the limitations of physical form over time with the images of the construction of new tugs in the fleet. 

I would like to thank Professor Nelson for his consideration in answering my questions and for creating this body of work. It is both monumental and quiet. 

Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey, is on exhibit in the De Pree Gallery until November 8th.

Inspirational Musical Globe-Trotting

As part of my musical globetrotting, I always look for exciting and appealing music from around the world that is not only a crowd pleaser but also has a transformative and enlightening effect for the mind, body, and soul. So the music for an upcoming concert, “From Armenian Dance to Argentinian Tango,” brings together Armenian and Argentinian folk and popular-inspired music written by iconic composers of these cultures. This concert will take place on Sunday, October 27 at 3 p.m. in the concert hall of the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts.

The Trio in F Sharp Minor, by renowned Armenian composer Arno Babajanian, combines beautifully the soulful touch of Armenian song in its second movement that can literally bring one to tears, with the exuberant energy of the Armenian dance rhythm which at times reaches the intensity of fireworks.

As for The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by celebrated Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, it has become a cornerstone of the tango repertoire. Perhaps inspired by another famous season cycle (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons), it brings nostalgia and a romantic feel framed masterfully in a sensual dance flavor of the tango. Performed in the reverse order of Vivaldi’s “seasons,” it reflects nature’s course: the reversal of the four seasons between the earth’s northern and southern hemisphere.

The Concert will also include the famed milonga, Oblivion by Piazzolla.

As a violinist, I have the pleasure to perform this inspiring program with two excellent players: pianist Christina Giuca-Krause of Chicago Lyric Opera and Northwestern University, and Alicia Eppinga, principal cellist of the Grand Rapids Symphony and cello instructor at Hope College. The concert is sponsored by a grant from The Patrons for the Arts.

Admission is free. A dessert reception follows in the lobby of Jack H. Miller Center.

Hope Theatre Welcomes Professor Andrew Dell’Olio to the Stage

Dr. Andrew Dell’Olio, professor of philosophy

Dr. Andrew Dell’Olio, professor of philosophy, is returning to the Hope College stage in the theatre department’s next production Smokefall. The play, by Grand Rapids-native Noah Haidle, will appear on the DeWitt Studio Theatre stage on Friday and Saturday, October 11 and 12, and Thursday through Saturday, October 17 to 19 at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, October 13, there will be a free matinee of Smokefall’s at 2 p.m. 

Through magical realism, the play follows four generations of an eccentric family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The piece explores 70-years worth of familial drama in a dark yet also comedic light. The Hope Theatre Department is thrilled to have Professor Dell’Olio back on stage playing both the Colonel and Johnny in the upcoming production. 

Dell’Olio is no stranger to acting. “I have been active in local community theatre, including the Holland Civic Theatre and the semi-professional company, Exit Left Theatre, whose co-artistic director is Hope’s own Richard Perez. I have been involved previously in a few Hope Theatre productions, including Big Love (2009), directed by Daina [Robins], and Stage Door (2013), directed by John Tammi,” he explained. 

Dr. Andrew Dell’Olio as Buddy Plummer in Exit Left’s production of Follies (2019)

Professor Dell’Olio is able to use acting as a creative outlet that “is not always available in the world of academic philosophy,” he explains. Hope Theatre is lucky to have this willing and collaborative actor from the philosophy department. 

“I was teaching Oedipus Rex in my Cultural Heritage I class the other day and as we discussed Oedipus’s failed attempt to avoid his fate, I kept hearing in my head a line from the play that my character [in Smokefall] says: ‘You can’t outrun a lineage!’” — Prof. Andrew Dell’Olio

Through these theatre experiences, Dell’Olio has been able to bring excitement and new lines of communication into the classroom that he might not otherwise have experienced. He has also found that Smokefall has snuck its way into his classroom as he compares the traits of his characters to those of the Greek classics.

“I was teaching Oedipus Rex in my Cultural Heritage I class the other day and as we discussed Oedipus’s failed attempt to avoid his fate, I kept hearing in my head a line from the play that my character [in Smokefall] says: ‘You can’t outrun a lineage!’” His experience with Smokefall has helped him create “contemporary relevance to age-old ideas” with the texts in his classes. 

Smokefall is directed by Professor Daina Robins. It touches on themes of familial bonds, mortality, and the human condition in a serious yet whimsical way. Dell’Olio hopes that the audience is able to come away from the production with the thoughts that the “brief nature of our existence is to be cherished despite the brokenness, despite the suffering; to appreciate, in the words of playwright, Noah Haidle, ‘that the greatest possible act of courage is to love.’ And that it is through such love that our lives are ultimately redeemed.”

The cast also includes junior Maxwell Lam of Holland; sophomore Ellyn Purnell of Zeeland; freshman Katy Smith of Plymouth, Indiana; and freshman Adam Chamness of Holland.

Tickets are $10 for regular admission; $7 for senior citizens and Hope faculty and staff; and free for Hope College students and students ages 18 and under. Tickets are available at the Events and Conferences Office located in downtown Holland in the Anderson-Werkman Financial Center (100 E. Eighth St.).

It is More Than a Performance

Maria, Lucia, and Angella Ahn
Maria, Lucia, and Angella Ahn

This is the story of a hat, a little boy, and three musicians…and, maybe a bit more.

For those who follow the Hope College Great Performance Series, you know the Ahn Trio. The three Juilliard trained sisters who make up the piano trio are Maria (cello), Lucia (piano), and Angella (violin). Angella is the youngest and she’ll want you to know that. Her older sisters are twins. They sold out performances in Dimnent Chapel twice, the last time being 2007. 

Ahn Trio, Nai Ni Chen and dancers with Hope College Students
Ahn Trio, Nai Ni Chen and dancers with Hope College Students after their sold-out Friday night performance.

They just performed at Hope College again in September, but this time performing live music on stage for Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, another group that sold out at Hope College 15 years ago. 

Which brings us back to the hat.

Twelve years ago, I brought the Ahn Trio to the airport after a wonderful performance and masterclass with our students. Just after I returned to Holland I had a call from them — they were bumped off a flight because of the cello [Interesting tidbit: cellists usually buy another plane ticket for their cello and it sits next to them. Some airlines don’t like that!] They were not asking for anything, just bummed because they were going to sit in the Grand Rapids Airport for about five hours before the next flight.

Five hours in the Grand Rapids airport can be rough.

Maria Ahn talks with GPS subscribers
Maria Ahn speaks with Great Performance Series subscribers after the Friday concert.

So, I offered to pick them up and take them out to eat, as long as they didn’t mind my 7-year-old son, Dov, coming along. They didn’t mind. We picked them up and went to eat at a Korean restaurant in Grand Rapids. They were quickly taken with Dov (he is pretty charming) and Dov loved the attention of all three women. They taught us about Korean food, helped us pick what to eat, and then proceeded to steal food from one another with abandon. They are sisters!

After that, we went to Woodland Mall and we split up, but when they returned they were bearing a new winter hat for Dov. He loved it, put it on, and we took them back to the airport.

Dov Emerson 2008
Dov Emerson and his “Ahn Hat” 2008

What they didn’t know was that for years Dov would wear his “Ahn Hat,” as he called it, whenever it was cool outside. He even ran a 5k wearing that hat. After a number of years, it was, alas, too small, but we’ve never parted with the hat. And an autographed Ahn Trio poster stayed on his bedroom wall the whole time.

When the Ahns returned this year, they remembered the shopping trip clearly and wanted to see Dov again. As it happened, we needed to get them lunch and Dov had just invited me to lunch (Dov is a junior at Hope College and he invites me to lunch whenever he wants me to buy him lunch). So, he joined us at Mizu Sushi on 8th Street which the Ahns, upon seeing the menu, claimed most to be owned by a Korean. A quick check with the waitress confirmed this with the added bonus of a Korean chef.

Dov Emerson and the Ahn Trio 2019
The Ahn Trio and Dov (now a junior at Hope College), reunited in 2019

As you can see from the picture, and the Ahns could see in person, their 7-year-old friend had grown up. We ended up discussing food, of course, and the Ahns and Dov’s shared love of fashion, as well the pros and cons of living in New York City versus Montana (the youngest sister is a professor at Montana State University). The photos were put up on Instagram and Facebook with texts flying back and forth, something that did not occur 12 years ago. And they still stole food from one another with abandon and nothing on my or Dov’s plate was safe.

So, there we were once again reunited around Korean food and they again helped us find new ways to expand our palettes (I can personally vouch for the Beef Bibimbop).

When artists come to campus, we meet people, not artists.  Some are in and out of Hope pretty quickly, but most spend a couple of days here. We help them find the beach, make sure they are fed, and direct them to our amazing downtown. They tell us about the families they miss when out on tour. And they seem to love talking about visits to venues that went really wrong.

Over a couple of days with the trio, I learned many interesting tidbits. Did you know the Ahns were invited to Prince’s Paisley Park mansion for a jam session with him? That the sisters were 11 and 9 when they moved to the U.S. for Juilliard and came with their mom while their dad remained in Korea? That Lucia’s husband is “half-Dutch” so she had to buy “Holland, Michigan” shirts for him? That Maria only lets her sisters carry her cello unless she really, really trusts you — I was allowed to carry it on day two (I nearly cried for the honor).

Roscoe Lee Brown in The Cowboys
Roscoe Lee Brown in “The Cowboys”

What does all this have to do with the Great Performance Series? Everything! The performance on stage takes just a few hours and in between presenters and artists make connections that make the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the merits of Somerset Maugham’s short stories with the classical guitarist Paul Galbraith, hold a Stradivarius (as did Dov!) owned by a member of the Emerson String Quartet, and discuss films with actors Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne (and even he quoted a famous line of his from John Wayne’s “The Cowboys”).

The artists are people with a wide ranges of tastes who don’t just want to bounce from hotel to hotel. They want to know about the communities they visit, sometimes talk about matters other than what they do all day, and love to meet people of all ages. In other words, they want to connect with people which, I believe, makes them better performers and artists. As for me, it clearly makes my work more enjoyable to learn more about people from around the world and even get to expand my culinary experiences.

Plus, sometimes we get a hat and some great memories out of the whole thing.

Hope Theatre Alums Tread the Boards Nationwide

Hope theatre majors often choose one of three large markets to start their careers – New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  Recently, three graduates of the theatre department at Hope have started new and promising adventures at other prominent theatre hubs.

Mollie Murk ’16 is an acting apprentice in the 2019-20 Professional Training Company at Actors Theatre of Louisville, a celebrated regional theatre, after spending a number of seasons with the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.  Mollie clarified this shift in her training focus:

Mollie Murk as Banquo, MACBETH, Kentucky Shakespeare Parks Tour 2019
Photo credit: Kyle Ware

“I chose to pursue this particular apprenticeship because of the amount of opportunities it offers to connect with artists from across the country. I visited the Humana Festival of New Plays when I was a student at Hope, so getting to be in the building with theatre artists who are really shifting narratives in our country is such an honor. The on-the-job training at ATL prepares early-career artists to work at other top-tier regional theaters, which is very exciting, but I also sought it out for the opportunity to create and produce my own work with peers and collaborators.”

Bridget McCarthy ’15 is joining the 2019 Hatch Cohort at C4 Atlanta while launching a new non-profit, Atlanta Speaks, that will seek “to give voice to the unheard to create a more just community.”  Atlanta Speaks is an outgrowth of Bridget’s varied work as a teaching artist with incarcerated and at-risk youth, and survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking. All the while she has performed with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, among others. 

Bridget McCarthy

Bridget describes the six-month Hatch Training Intensive as “an incubator for professional artists committed to art-making that amplifies community….This work can be really lonely. It is easy to feel (as a community arts facilitator) that I am working in a vacuum. It has been so inspiring to connect with eleven artists of incredible caliber who are investing in this city. I feel so energized by our training together, and leave every intensive feeling refreshed and ready to deepen my community practice.” 

The Hatch Intensive provides its annual cohort of artists training in business management, grant-writing, cultural competency, and a network of resources and advisors as they work to make a difference in the cultural life of Atlanta.

Jocelyn Vammer ’09 has spent most of her time since graduation in New York City.  She has held numerous jobs while pursuing film and stage acting, modeling, aerial training, and yoga. Her acceptance this year into the MFA acting program at the University of San Diego’s Old Globe Shiley Graduate School of Acting is a testament to her talent, perseverance, and, as is often the case in the arts, serendipitous connections.  Jocelyn recounts her road to the Old Globe training program:

Jocelyn Vammer, right

“My grad school journey has taken a decade. I was very specific about which programs I wanted, so it took me longer than most. Right out of undergrad, I tried U of Delaware (forgot a monologue entirely), NYU, and Yale, and then focused on Yale for four years (which, after my last attempt included a flat tire in a rainstorm, never panned out). Then I met Brian McManamon, who coached and convinced me to open the lens a little wider, and two years later, I was waitlisted at Juilliard. I never made it off that list, but was invited back for an unusual third try as a waitlist is still a positive result. I went through the entire process again, and wasn’t accepted (that same year I also managed to get a callback for NYU and USD, but I was crushed). I went back and did another class with Brian, who encouraged me to try again and the next year I was a finalist at USD but no acceptance followed. Now, nine years out and getting too old for the nonsense side of acting and potential college debt, I decided on a final try for only USD (the program is free, but they only take 7 people).”

“In that room was the awesome Jesse Perez, now head of USD’s program, who I’d met through my Juilliard journey,” Jocelyn continues. “Suddenly I had hope, only to open the now-familiar letter telling me I was again a finalist, but not accepted. Jesse asked if I’d be willing to go on waitlist, and I absentmindedly agreed. I signed up to become a 500-level yoga teacher and put acting away. Then, a week before classes, Jesse called me to offer a last-minute spot. Not only that, but I am the first woman to flip their traditional ratio of three women to four men. I bought a car and drove cross-country from NY to CA in five days and am now exactly where I was meant to be.”

I asked each of these gifted young women how their education in the Hope College Theatre Department perhaps prepared them for this exciting new step.  Here are their answers:

“Hope College prepared me to wear all of the hats, learn how to wear them well, and how to find help when I need help figuring out how to wear a hat.  On a daily basis, I am a working actor, an educator, an administrator, grant writer, translator, resource connector, development coordinator, and a dog mom. There isn’t enough time in the day to pretend I have all the answers. Hope taught me to harness the assets of my circle to make good work happen.”

Jocelyn (center, white top) in a grad school class

“I think all of the performance opportunities, self-producing opportunities, and tech possibilities really instill the idea of this art as an entire craft. You come away with an appreciation for storytelling and the many facets of putting a story onstage. Any performer who can think about more than just themselves in the vast scope of a piece is a performer directors love working with. That attitude and awareness opens so many doors.”

“Hope College’s liberal arts curriculum structure encourages a curiosity in young artists that allows us to be versatile, flexible, and big-picture-minded when taking part in any area of the production process. I was taught at Hope to be a kind actor. Say “thank you” when given direction or notes; appreciate and respect technical staff, designers, and crew members; support your fellow ensemble members, etc. Hope College prepared me to approach each day with gratitude to be doing this work that I love so much.”

“I also think that the very self-led nature of Hope’s theatre training builds artists that are ready to take initiative in this field,” Mollie added. “The ability to craft my own individualized schedule and degree program, jam-packed with classes across several artistic and creative disciplines prepared me to enter this industry ready to build my own path as well. There is no one linear version of success, and Hope taught me that by allowing me to explore many winding roads in my education.”

I also asked them what advice they might have for our current students.  Their answers were so generous and insightful that I want to include them in full:


“It’s ok to give it up for a bit. Performing, unlike other careers, is not usually a linear trajectory. You have to find ways to keep your soul alive and feeling full. I trained in circus arts and stage combat. I got a yoga certification. I painted, wrote, and held a 9-5 day job amongst many random others. My point is that sometimes you have to just do things to take care of your physical, emotional, and financial health, and you shouldn’t punish yourself with this ‘starving artist’ story that for some reason is the only dang story we tell about artists, which is a complete load of nonsense. Each path is as individual as the artist who takes it. Make deals with only yourself- you didn’t miss any opportunities that were truly meant for you, and while being ready for anything to come knocking is an incredible ideal, it’s just that- an ideal. I botched an audition in front of Christopher Durang because of nerves, and still managed to get work after that. You’ll get there. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t give it up, but tend what needs tending.”

Mollie Murk as Lavinia, TITUS ANDRONICUS, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
Photo Credit: Bill Bryme

“I would encourage Hope College theatre students to take advantage of every opportunity that gets thrown your way. The reality is, whether it’s undergrad, grad school, apprenticeship/training programs, or in the ‘real world’ — you won’t always be cast. You won’t always be working on your dream role in your favorite play. You won’t always be booked. Find ways to continue activating your creativity and feed your soul during those times. Seek like-minded peers with whom to create work. Take general education classes seriously, and learn as much as possible about every aspect of this beautiful art form (and other art forms too!) while you can. Hope College will offer you endless opportunities to be involved in producing creative work, and it will serve you so well beyond your college experience to get in the habit of seeking those opportunities out.”

“Also, on the flip side of that— any time you do find yourself working on that dream role/job/company/project, you earned it,” Mollie continued. “Be proud of the work that got you there, and let that spur you on to the next extraordinary project you’ll be a part of. Stay curious, and keep learning.”

Bridget in red

“I can only be creative when I am working from sufficiency, the belief that I am enough. Creativity and fulfillment will never come from muscling through, from desperation, or panic. Relax. Take deep breaths. Take time.  I remember looking around productions when I was in school thinking, ‘Wow, I am never going to be lucky enough to make stuff with my friends again.’  I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how wrong I was. My favorite work (and most constant work) is with an artistic community where I feel a sense of radical belonging. I make great theatre with great people. That is incredible. I am so grateful to be able to work professionally with a community that enlivens me and supports me. Find your tribe, make good art, inject joy where possible.”

It has been a joy to hear from these fine young artists and catch a glimpse of their bright futures.  The Theatre Department is immensely proud of them.

And if you are ever in Atlanta, Louisville, or San Diego in the next couple of years, find out if they are performing and go see them on stage! 

Why Every Hope Student Should Be in a Music Ensemble

When I was an undergraduate, just after the last Ice Age, my fraternity demanded that all pledges participate in serenading at sorority houses. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t sing; the actives deemed it a capital-letter Important Experience, so I did it. Here’s a picture of one of Hope’s fraternities serenading the women of Voorhees Hall (then an all-female dorm) sometime after World War II.

Aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century? Serenades disappeared from the college scene decades ago. But even with their silliness it was, indeed, an Important Experience: it taught us teamwork.

There’s an emerging literature on the vital role teamwork plays in successful organizations. One source puts it like this: “To have a meaningful and lifelong career, you need to work well with others.” So, it’s on me: I need some teamwork practice before I join a team, to learn what teamwork is and to discern what role I can play.

Here’s where music ensembles come in. Whether it’s a small vocal group or a 50-student orchestra, students might think of ensembles as proto-workplace teams, laboratories where you can learn to work well with others, to deepen a transportable skill. Of course, being in an ensemble is about the joy of making music, but in terms of students’ future such an experience is about so much more.

Ponder two statements. The first: “You really hit that note.” Everyone on a team needs a morale boost from time to time to help achieve a common goal. Succeeding together helps grow mutual trust, deepen commitments, foster comradery, and perhaps friendships. Bonding can come from encouraging others and being encouraged by them.

The second statement: “I wonder why you played that piece so fast?” Working on a team enables us to learn from one another’s mistakes, gain insight from differing perspectives, and learn new concepts from more experienced colleagues—or performers.

In today’s knowledge economy, most of our jobs involve interacting with others who do not know what we know or do what we do.

Working alone decreases the possibility of getting useful feedback; working as part of a team means you’re less likely to go down rabbit trails. In today’s knowledge economy, most of our jobs involve interacting with others who do not know what we know or do what we do.

Encouraging others and learning from them creates a workplace environment based on fellowship, respect, and cooperation. After you graduate, wouldn’t you prefer to work in a setting characterized by those attributes?

You should join an ensemble to make great music: that is of course the end. But pay attention to the means—teamwork—as a learning experience which can be transferred to life after Hope.

There’s a term I recently encountered that has stuck with me, the “new foundational skills.” You may want to learn to code. But the article I read screamed at me, learn collaboration! Would you want to work alongside a whiz of a coder who was a total jerk, the sort of bloke who can’t stop taking selfies? You get my point: a work setting where employees become focused on trumpeting their own achievements produces an unhealthy competition. A work environment characterized by cooperation and complementarity produces joy and a sense of accomplishment.

Working on a team fosters accountability and in turn motivates us. Ask a member of Hope’s chapel choir, pictured above while in Florida touring during spring break: Was your achievement exhilarating? Did you return home with a sense of unity? Did the experience encourage you to find ways to work with fellow students in other contexts?

Next semester I encourage you to join them or another music ensemble. Having taken the plunge, you may discover that it changes your life.

Collaboration is Truly a Gift: Reflections on Faculty-Student Research

Summer at Hope College is, for many faculty and students, a time of research, writing, and creative activity. Hope is nationally known for the many opportunities students have to be involved with the scholarly projects of faculty in all four academic divisions.

Dr. Anne Heath in Vendôme, France.

In the Department of Art and Art History, we are very fortunate to have the Borgeson student-faculty research grant, foundede in 2016 thanks to the generosity of Clark and Nancy Borgeson. In 2017, I first teamed up with senior art studio major Emily Lindbloom. I was in the early stages of a new research project, and I wanted Emily to create drawings of medieval shrines that I had been researching, but which have since been lost to history. Emily’s drawing skills helped me to test out what I thought the shrines might have looked like, which I based on my study of medieval environments and archival research.

Studio art major Emily Lindbloom in Vendôme, France.

Two years later, I am completing an article on one of those shrines: the shrine of the Holy Tear at abbey church of La Trinité in Vendôme, France. This shrine once displayed what medieval people believed was the tear Christ shed at the tomb of Lazarus. Emily’s experimental drawings helped me to be more exact in my research. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s quite another thing to reconstruct it. Every detail suddenly becomes a question. Getting to this point in my research in 2019 took hundreds of hours of meticulous archival research, careful study of the church’s interior space, and exhaustive study of countless examples of medieval art. To come up with a new visualization of the Holy Tear shrine, however, I needed Emily again to help me create a new drawing that I could use for publication.

For Emily, standing in La Trinité transformed an abstract research project into a lived experience

This summer, again with a Borgeson grant, Emily was able to join me at La Trinité while on the Paris May Term.  For Emily, standing in La Trinité transformed an abstract research project into a lived experience. “In my ongoing research with Dr. Heath, I had seen many pictures of La Trinité. However, standing there, I fully recognized that no picture would ever do the building justice,” Emily says. “Meeting La Trinité ‘in person’, allowed me to visualize Dr. Heath’s hypotheses more clearly. With my eyes, I collected and connected visual information for creating the reconstructive drawings of the shrine.”

Emily photographing the interior of La Trinité

After meeting in France, Emily and I worked for the rest of the summer on campus. Hours were spent pouring over new drawings, changing the smallest details until the finished drawing was just right. Emily describes the process like this: “It is often long and detailed. Before I worked on the final drawing on high-quality paper using a nibbed pen, I went through at least five preparatory drawings, each time receiving feedback from Dr. Heath. We also discussed methods for communicating conjecture and uncertainty. Accuracy and detail is important to both of us, but we also need to be upfront with readers in what we do not, and cannot, know. This means that elements of Dr. Heath’s ideas about the shrine will sometimes be ‘sketchy’ in nature, or conveyed as a dotted line, suggesting the unknown. The process has encouraged me to slow down when drawing in order to truly consider what is known and unknown.”

One of Emily’s drafts of the shrine

In the give-and-take between what I gathered in my research and how Emily translated that information into a visual picture, she experienced first hand the nature of humanistic research.

“Art historians go about their research in multi-layered, connective, and process-oriented ways,” says Emily. “Most profoundly, I learned that in historical research, there are no clear answers, but this should not deter one from asking interesting questions. In fact, after watching Dr. Heath in her work, a lack of clear answers actually heightens the importance of her research as an act of cultural preservation. Art historians take on the role of stewards for culture, creativity, and humanity itself.”

All the while we worked our renderings of the shrine at La Trinité, Emily developed her own body of work. Emily used the readings that helped us understand the shrine, such as the writings on vision from Saint Augustine, to inform her paintings. Emily took these ideas and thought about how she could make art that also addressed the philosophical problem of representing God. Ironically, while Emily’s drawings of the shrine are very architectural and exact, her own body of work became very abstract.

Paintings in Emily’s Hope studio

Ironically, while Emily’s drawings of the shrine are very architectural and exact, her own body of work became very abstract.

As Emily explains, “While in Paris, doors caught my attention because of their unique character, bold color, and ornate detail. Yet also as I began to pay attention to the doors, they took on multiple meanings and revealed several connotations. I came to see these doors as representative of hiddenness, mystery, ambiguity, and hope. Reading with Dr. Heath helped me develop and root my ideas within the context of art history,”

“I was also intrigued by Ellsworth Kelly’s window series, which I saw at the Pompidou Center in Paris,” says Emily. “This led to an in-depth study of the meaning and history of the color blue. I was drawn to how the medieval church used blue in stained glass.  I began to take these traditions and experiment with ways of including them in creating contemporary artwork.”

“I believe there is something at the core of art that extends beyond self-expression that must be communicated through one’s work.”

As in the humanities, reading is an essential component of creative output in the arts. Emily and I read and discussed in coffee shops, in sunny spots on campus, and in the DePree Art Center. For both of us, conversation sparked new ideas.  I thought about new directions I could take my research on La Trinité, and Emily thought about the purpose of her artwork.

“I found that the more I read, the more my ideas were no longer associated only with self-expression. Instead, I created a body of work from an intellectual grounding that responds to other artists, art movements, and styles. Today we live in a culture where we tend to think of art as solely a means of self-expression. But I believe there is something at the core of art that extends beyond self-expression that must be communicated through one’s work. This revelation was actually freeing to me. Instead of dealing with the pressure that students feel of coming up with unique ideas, I pull up a chair and participate in the conversation that is, in essence, art history. I hope that as I continue to create, I can make connections between studio art and art history. I want my work to be a dialogue set against the backdrop of art history.”

“I hope that as I continue to create, I can continue to bridge connections between studio art and art history. I want my work to be a dialogue set against the backdrop of art history.”

Working together this summer, both Emily and I had the privilege of doing what we love to do. Our research and creative practice were enhanced by our time together, by our discussions, and by our fresh eyes on each other’s work.  Collaboration is truly a gift.

Custom-Built Organ Is Part of Music Professor’s Lasting Legacy

Across his 27 years at Hope, the late Roger E. Davis of the music faculty helped guide the talent of hundreds of organists and vocalists.

Starting this fall, he will do so again through the custom instrument that he built for the studio in his 14th Street home, where he used it for rehearsal and master classes.  In storage since Davis’ death in January 1990, the organ is being reconstructed in the Robert Cavanaugh Choral Room in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts.

New generations of students will soon benefit from the talent of former long-time music professor Roger E. Davis, whose custom-built home-studio organ is being installed in the college’s choral rehearsal room.

“The intent of the organ is to accompany choirs in preparation for performances such as Vespers.  It will also be an instrument for student organ practice,” said Mark DeWitt ’87, who, in addition to being senior director of principal gifts at Hope, was one of Davis’s students.  “Also, the pedal board is comparable to many European instruments, which offers the students a contrast from the standard American Guild of Organists specification.”

The instrument is being reassembled by Swem Pipe Organ Maintenance Inc. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which cares for all of the college’s organs. Pictured with the cabinet is Bill Swem.

Given to Hope by Davis’ friends and family, the organ is joining five other performance and rehearsal instruments at the college.  Its colleagues include the historic E.M. Skinner chancel organ in Dimnent Memorial Chapel; the Casavant concert organ in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts; the Dutch Pels and van Leeuwen organ in the chapel’s gallery; the J.W. Walker and Sons organ in the studio of Dr. Huw Lewis, professor of music and college organist since 1990; and one practice organ.

Davis, a professor of music who joined the faculty in 1963, enjoyed organ building and wood crafting as an avocation, and earlier in his career had spent two years working in pipe organ building and maintenance.  While at Hope, he spent many summers on pipe organ rebuilding and voice projects in several West Michigan churches, and was often called upon to serve as an organ consultant.  He based his own organ on the casework and pipes from an instrument by the Kilgen Organ Company, a U.S. firm that built many church and theatre organs during the 20th century.

In addition to teaching organ and music theory, and serving as the college organist, Davis directed the College Chorus for 20 years, and for 10 years chaired and was program director of Christmas Vespers.  In 1971, he initiated Hope’s annual Tulip Time organ recital series, which continues to this day.  He had played a central role in the college’s acquisition of the Pels and Van Leeuwen organ, which was installed in the chapel in 1971.

Davis was also an active recitalist, and performed in many churches in the Midwest.  His scholarly work included the textbook The Organist’s Manual.

Thank You, Perry and Paul!

The department of theatre at Hope College will be saying goodbye to Perry Landes and Paul Anderson as they say hello to retirement at the end of this academic year.

Paul Anderson, Theatre’s Technical Director

Originally from Illinois, Paul spent several years working for Wayne State University before coming to Hope.  While at Wayne State, he saw several seasons of productions by the Hillberry Repertory Company; one of the only graduate-level repertories in the country. After his time at Wayne State, and out of a job, a friend invited him to sing in the pit choir for the musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  

During scenic strike for the production, Paul thought to himself, “I could do this,” and he enrolled at Hope College, where he was a student from 1986-1988. After graduating, Paul worked as a freelance carpenter around Holland until he received a phone call from Hope professor and  then theatre department chair, Richard Smith.  Richard told Paul that the theatre department had been granted funding for a technical director position, so Paul applied for the job and was hired.

Perry Landes, Theatre’s Facility Manager, Lighting and Sound Designer and Associate Professor

Perry grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and studied music performance and composition at Colorado State University and Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington.  At Whitworth, he caught the theatre bug when he designed and ran sound for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  After graduation and a brief stint as a performing musician,  he returned to Whitworth as the Auditorium Coordinator. He then obtained an MFA in Design Technical Theatre from the University of Montana, where he also composed incidental music for plays.  After the MFA was completed, he started a freelance career in Salinas, California. Shortly thereafter, a phone call from Richard Smith brought him on a one-year appointment to Holland starting in the fall semester of 1987.  

“One year.  I was here for a year, I thought,” Perry says. “We see how that worked out!”

Perry is the Lighting and Sound Designer in Residence, Associate Professor and Facilities Manager. He explains that no two days are alike, which has always kept the work fresh and interesting.   There are always plenty of problems to solve, both creative and otherwise. His schedule takes him all over the building and elsewhere, so he admits that he isn’t in his office very often.

Paul says his job as technical director for the theatre department is more regulated than Perry’s job, and he has tried to keep it that way. Despite the depth of the tasks Paul is given, he has managed to keep his work schedule to five days a week:

“Theatre is known to eat some people’s lives, and I have attempted to not let that happen.”  Paul’s main task as the TD is to take Richard Smith’s scenic designs, or drawings, and to interpret and build them in the best manner to safely support the productions.

The Hope College theatre department and community will greatly miss these dedicated departmental members after their 63 years of combined service.

Perry indicates that picking a favorite production from his time at Hope would be equivalent to picking a favorite child. He did, however, name The Nutcracker, a Play, which featured puppeteer and alum Brad William’s giant mice and spiders. The Nutcracker, a Play was presented five times between 1990 and 1995.  Another piece that came to mind was Buried Child, staged in 1992, featuring Professor Emeritus George Ralph. But there are so many, he says, all wonderful memories.  Paul also had a hard time picking a favorite production but was able to identify one of his favorite parts of technical directing. He said that even when the construction of a show seemed to drag on beyond endurance, or if there were real struggles getting the show up, sitting in the auditorium and witnessing everything come together on opening night made all of the challenges worth it:

“If there are functional elements in the set, there is always a moment of anticipation to see if it works, and when it does, I think wow, it worked, it came together.   Seeing the results is the most rewarding.”

We also asked Perry about his favorite aspects of working at Hope College. “Working with students” evolved over the years into a primary interest.  Hope students can be so bright, articulate, intellectually curious, and engaged. Perry explained that he had never planned on becoming a teacher. He intended a career as a composer and designer, and thought he might teach for a year or two, perhaps, later in his career. Here at Hope, however, his relationships with students became as interesting as his design work, often more so. He admits, however, that he loves those rare, precious moments during a production when the audience members forget to breathe because they have become transfixed:

“That’s what it’s all about.  I live for those moments,” Perry says.

Paul’s and Perry’s last working day at Hope College will be June 30th. In retirement, Perry plans on taking some steps away from theatre to follow other creative passions and do more writing, home improvements, and travel. Similar to Perry, Paul hopes to travel, build furniture, and work on a miniature working steam locomotive that runs on real coal. When it’s complete, it should produce enough power to pull a couple of adults on a riding car.

Perry’s advice to new faculty would be to make the most of the ‘honeymoon phase’,  just after being hired. Chairs, deans and provosts are at their most amenable! Be sure to make recommendations, ask for things, and take action. It’s a very valuable time. Paul’s advice to anyone who may fill his shoes in the future is to get to know the students and truly pay attention to them: “They come in with such a wide range of talents.  It will be a challenge, but don’t judge a student based strictly on their initial abilities, give them a chance.”

The Hope College theatre department and community will greatly miss these dedicated departmental members after their 63 years of combined service. We are beyond grateful for all of the wisdom, guidance, creativity, dedication, and love for the arts they have shared with us.

Object Lesson: Christ’s Life by Rembrandt van Rijn

Lent is a time for prayer and reflection on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. On April 9, the Kruizenga Art Museum opened a focused exhibition of etchings by the 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn that includes eight poignant scenes from the life of Christ. These beautiful images may inspire special contemplation as we prepare to celebrate the Easter Season, but their broader meaning and relevance continues to resonate throughout the year.  

The Holy Family. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1632.  Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.10

Throughout his life, Rembrandt made sketches of ordinary people he encountered in the course of his daily activities. He then used these sketches as models for many of the figures that appear in his prints and paintings. This etching of the Holy Family illustrates Rembrandt’s prodigious ability to observe and record the mundane details of everyday life. It shows Mary nursing the baby Jesus in the foreground while Joseph leans against a wall in the background reading a book. There are no haloes, angels or other signs of the Christ child’s divinity. Instead, Rembrandt has captured the moment when Jesus seems to be nodding off after his feed and the slightly disheveled, tired-looking Mary—who has kicked off her shoes to relieve the pressure on her aching feet—is preparing to return to the sewing basket that stands open beside her.

The Flight into Egypt: a Night Piece. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1651. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.4

This print from later in Rembrandt’s career adds drama to this image of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt by setting the scene at night. Dense areas of cross-hatching on the plate create an inky darkness that envelops Joseph, Mary and Jesus as they flee King Herod’s murderous wrath. Rembrandt’s technique is so effective that the untouched areas of the paper inside Joseph’s lantern truly appear to glow with light. Rembrandt revised the plate for this print many times until he achieved the visual effects he desired. Christ Healing the Sick (The Hundred Guilder Print). Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), ca. 1649. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.13

Rembrandt was masterful in his ability to create complex visual narratives. This print, for instance, conflates several stories from the Gospel of Matthew in which Christ ministers to the sick, debates the Pharisees on points of religious law, exhorts a wealthy young man to give up his possessions, and declares that children belong to the kingdom of heaven. It has long been recognized as one of Rembrandt’s masterworks for the variety of facial expressions and bodily gestures evident in the crowd of figures around Christ, and for the dramatic play of light and dark passages throughout the composition. Some scholars think that Rembrandt did not sell this print during his lifetime, and that he only gave impressions to close friends and important patrons. The relative rarity of the print drove up its value to the point where an impression once sold for one hundred guilders, a very high price for a print and the equivalent of about four months wages for an average worker at the time. 

The Raising of Lazarus. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1632; this impression late 17th-early 18th century. Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.6

Rembrandt created this print when he was only twenty-six years old. He had just moved from Leiden to Amsterdam and he used the large, dramatic image to advertise his artistic abilities to potential patrons. The print depicts a story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus resurrects a man named Lazarus who had died four days earlier. The gospel says that after raising Lazarus from the dead, Christ proclaims, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” The image captures the climactic moment when Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from his tomb. The blazing light that emanates from Jesus’s body gives the scene a theatrical quality and emphasizes the miraculous, almost magical power of Christ.    

Christ Driving Money Changers from the Temple. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1635; this impression 17th-early 18th century. Etching. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.9

All four gospels say that when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, Jesus was outraged to find merchants and money changers operating in the temple courtyard. He accused them of turning the holy site into a “den of thieves” and drove them out with a whip made of cords. Here, Rembrandt conveys the inherent drama of the scene by placing Christ at the center of the composition, his body torqued as he raises the whip to strike the merchants and money changers who cower before him. The expressions on the faces of the people and animals surrounding Jesus clearly show the shock and confusion caused by the sudden explosion of his righteous anger. The frenetic cross-hatching and jagged line-drawing further enhance the feeling of energy and emotion in the image.   

Christ Before Pilate. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1636; this impression 17th-18th century. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.2

This print portrays Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the people of Jerusalem for judgement. It is one of Rembrandt’s most ambitious etchings and took more than a year to complete. Scholars now think that Christ and the other figures in the center of the image were drawn by Rembrandt himself, but that the surrounding parts of the composition were completed by Rembrandt’s workshop assistants. One of the figures in the central group who appears wearing a plumed cap and leaning over the balustrade bears a striking resemblance to Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and may have been included by the master as an amusing allusion to the status of artists as observers and interpreters of history. 

The Crucifixion. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1635; this impression 17th century. Etching. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.8

As Rembrandt matured artistically, his compositions became increasingly subtle and sophisticated. In this image of Christ’s crucifixion from 1635, Rembrandt leaves almost half of the printing plate empty, allowing the blank space to magnify the feelings of sorrow and desolation evoked by the anguished figures that surround the cross. Rembrandt experimented with different ways of inking the plate for this print to make the image appear lighter or darker. This impression, which may have been taken during Rembrandt’s lifetime, has an even, mid-range tone.

Christ Carried to the Tomb. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), ca. 1645; this impression 17th century. Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.3

Part of Rembrandt’s genius was his ability to imagine and convey the inner feelings of the characters in the stories he depicted. This etching of Christ’s followers carrying his body to the tomb perfectly captures the somber dejection they must have felt after Christ’s execution and before his resurrection. The jumbled, nervous lines of the landscape around the figures further magnify the mood of uncertainty and confusion. This is one of the few etchings that Rembrandt did not re-work and re-print in multiple states. It exists in only one state, and the quality of this impression suggests that it may have been printed during Rembrandt’s lifetime.

All of these prints are included in the focus exhibition Rembrandt Etchings, on view at the Hope College Kruizenga Art Museum from April 9 to June 1, 2019. The museum is located at 271 Columbia Avenue in Holland, MI. Public visiting hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-4pm. The museum is closed on all campus holidays, including Easter weekend. Admission is free and all are welcome.