Exploring Identity, Place, and Representation through the Arts in Aix-en-Provence

A trip to France helps students learn about art, and others

A summer trip to France gave 20 UO students a chance to learn a little more about art — and a lot more about themselves and others.

It was kind of a mixed-media group: some were art majors but others study business, math or social sciences. Some were current or former student-athletes; others were not. But together they immersed themselves in the challenges of representing place, identity and race through art.

The new study abroad program, Exploring Identity, Place, and Representation through the Arts in Aix-en-Provence, was led by Lisa Abia-Smith, director of education at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and a senior instructor in the College of Design.

“This program represents a true collaborative effort between different units within our university,” said Tom Bogenschild, executive director of Global Education Oregon. “This program brought together students from different backgrounds and gave them the opportunity to explore issues of identity in a cross-cultural context.”

Abia-Smith developed the curriculum for the course and taught alongside faculty members from the Institut Américain Universitaire and the Marchutz School of Fine Arts in Aix-en-Provence, France. The summer program is the first of its kind at the UO, but Abia-Smith is hoping to make it a permanent staple.

“The Art of the Athlete program at the JSMA as well as the courses I teach for undergraduate and graduate students focus on diversity and inclusion through the arts,” Abia-Smith said. “Assignments and museum projects always prompt students to reflect upon their own identity and use that exercise as a way to get to know who they are, but they also let the public know who they are as individuals. This summer, I wanted to give students a chance to know someone else, different than themselves.”

Students in studio

To start the process of self-reflection, Abia-Smith gave students as assignment called an “auto-bio-poem,” which requires an inventory of themselves. Each person then exchanges their written piece with a partner and discusses personal attributes. The writings are also key in group discussions and reviews in the studio.

The next day, students begin drawing up a portrait of their partner based not on the person’s appearance but the inventory and characteristics provided. The idea is to capture the essence of the other person through art.

The program brought together student-athletes and nonathletes for several conversations exploring academic stereotypes, social expectations for athletes and the representation of athletics in media. The discussions greatly influenced the discourse of “portraiture” in the studio and the exploration of identity through artistic expression.

“Coming in, I did not know anyone, so for me the program also helped me make new friends,” said Roderick Hall, community and regional planning graduate student. “It was very revealing to watch a lot of student-athletes grow as people and not as athletes, especially since many will leave the university and not carry with them that label. I saw a lot of people take the work they were doing very seriously, working extra hours.”

Student working on portrait

Students were also introduced to art history in lessons about post-impressionists Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh, who both retreated to southern France for much of their lives. Participants had the opportunity to visit the Louvre Museum — the world's largest art museum and a historic monument — in Paris and admire some of the most influential works of art in the world.

The experience also allowed students to visit Paul Cezanne’s workshop and conduct “en plain air” landscape painting exercises.

The majority of students in the program had never been abroad. The immersive art experience left a huge impression on many of them.

“You are learning so much about a different culture, and you are just gaining cultural capital, which is always essential for someone who is a well-rounded person,” said Sean Killpatrick, a Clark Honors College accounting major and UO football student-athlete. “People should take the chance to study abroad, take a journey, take a new step. Try something different; it really gets you to know more about yourself.”

For Abia-Smith, the program and its many conversations were also a sort of homecoming experience, as she had spent time in Aix some 30 years ago as a student at the Marchutz School of Fine Arts, her alma mater.

For more information on this study abroad program and other opportunities to study abroad, visit the Global Education Oregon website.

By Chakris Kussalanant, University Communications