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.

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