This semester, I wanted to find a creative outlet in my life that would serve to ground me through another crazy Yale schedule. So I thought it would be a cool idea to create an art project. I came up with an idea for multimedia project that would explore the inner lives of Yalies: It would be a collection of photos, audio interviews and drawings that people submitted. It would be a platform for students to draw and talk about whatever they wanted. That could mean something that scared them, or a new band they loved. My project would be cathartic, raw and, sometimes, uncomfortably personal. I would call it, “What are you thinking?” and it would try to answer that question.
After the first week of classes I had written an introduction and taken exactly one picture, at which point I decided I had no time, gave up on the project and converted the desk drawer I had devoted to necessary materials into storage space for office supplies. I was too busy, and had no time for a creative pursuit that wasn’t class-related. Who does?
Lots of people, as it turns out. An artist collective devoted to visual arts at Yale helped me meet some of the Yale students perfecting their craft.
One such student, Gabriela Bucay ‘17, is an art major who concentrates on painting. She also has a seriously cool pair of glasses — thick-rimmed on first appearance, but actually surrounded by a transparent outer second-rim. I first heard about her work through a Yale artist collective called Vision. When asked if she feels creatively fulfilled at Yale, she answered, “Yes,” almost immediately.
“Art is the one field in which I feel like I’m using all aspects of my mind. It’s both analytical and emotionally expressive. A lot of problem solving is involved,” Bucay said.
Her philosophy of art is markedly different from the cliché of the artist as an anti-intellectual, someone thrust into a mad frenzy of creativity as soon as he or she is struck by inspiration. “Most people think that with art that you could reinvent the wheel every time, but so often you stay with some subject matter and do really rigorous investigation of it until you know it in ways you wouldn’t have thought before.”
She described her art as an exploration of the female body and the female form. While the Guerrilla Girls — the anonymous, all-woman group of activists fighting race and gender bias in the art world — have made headlines for their protests against the art world’s pervasive trafficking in exposure of the female form, coupled with rejection of female creators, Bucay’s art goes deeper than a body.
For her, the body is a means, not an end, and she uses her paintings of women’s bodies (particularly women in her family) to explore women’s emotional and psychological states. The body is merely a point of access. She hopes her work will be appreciated as “nonphysical, more spiritual.”
She also rejects solemnity in art, lamenting a certain lack of humor among serious artists. She hopes that her drawings will bridge this gap. Her admiration for surrealists reflects wonder, joyousness and a sense of humor, so often lacking in contemporary art. She is from Mexico and admires several Mexican artists involved in the Surrealist movement, including Frida Kahlo, but also her lesser-known contemporary Leonora Carrington (whose quote, “I didn’t have time to be anybody’s muse,” belongs on a T-shirt somewhere).
To hear Bucay speak about art is to believe that artistic exercises and intellectual exercises are not exclusive. You get the sense that she is someone who never stops thinking about what her art is accomplishing, and what she wants it to accomplish. She clearly takes her art very seriously, even if she tries to avoid too much seriousness in the art itself.
Caroline Tisdale ‘18, a staff illustrator for the News, is one of Bucay’s fellow art majors, albeit one with a different artistic philosophy. If Bucay has her cool glasses, then Tisdale has her cool jean-jacket-trenchcoat, which makes her look like she just stepped out of a “no-wave” music video.
Tisdale spent much of the summer in Iceland thanks to a Yale art grant, which resulted in a series of abstract paintings based on maps. The deceptively simple images achieve a kind of primitive intensity the longer you look at them. It’s sort of spooky. Unlike Bucay, she is reluctant to describe her art in any one particular way, feeling that she is early enough in her career and artistic education that she can afford to develop a technique across disciplines and styles.
She laughs as she tells me that other students, upon hearing she’s an art major, say, “‘You’re so brave.’” But for her, art isn’t about brashness or bravery, but, as Bucay said, it’s as much about analytical thought as it is about form or technique. “It’s always been a good way for me to figure out what’s important and the things that interest me in the world.”
American Studies major Julia Carnes ’17, on the other hand, doesn’t consider herself an artist. In fact, in our first email correspondence, she corrected me for using the term artist, instead saying, “I consider myself more of an artsy person than I consider myself an artist.” I’ve actually seen her before, I just didn’t know it. She sings in Mixed Company, and in one of the group’s videos she plays a wildly self-obsessed diva plowing through an absurdly varied range of notes. It’s a perfect introduction: She is someone who is very talented, but willing to make fun of that talent.
When asked about her art she laughs at the question, before responding with a smile, in a half-joking tone, “I have a vaguely serious Instagram.” A little Google searching reveals an Instagram filled with images of everyday views so decontextualized they fade into near-total abstraction. It’s beautiful. In addition to her photography and her a cappella duties (she’s so busy with rush she didn’t have time to change out of her Mixed Company uniform before our talk) she’s also begun writing songs.
Not being an art major gives her less time to “produce consistently,” the qualification which she considers the true barrier that prevents her from thinking of herself an artist. But as she now creates her own music, she feels that she is edging toward considering herself an artist in a musical sense, if not a visual one.
Alexandra Smith ‘18 is an (excellent) ballroom dancer, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major and a part-time artist, though she hasn’t actually gotten around to taking an art class at Yale. Her work consists primarily of portraits of her friends (and full disclosure: I was one of her subjects last summer, based on a photo someone took of me while we were sitting on Old Campus). With her portraits she tries to capture people’s personalities through the palette she uses to depict them. “I also want everyone to feel like they’re pretty enough to have a portrait of themselves,” she said. She’s the artist as altruist, and I can say from personal experience that it works. Her portrait of me is still the nicest gift I’ve ever received.
Smith echoes Bucay’s more planned approach to art, contrasting the instinctual elements of dance with the necessary preparations and forward-thinking elements of drawing. “You really get to plan and execute things. I don’t plan ahead while I’m dancing, I just react to what’s going on with the music. With art you more see the future and trace it out.”
Her portraits all seem like they’re on the cusp of an even bigger smile than the ones they display, like they can’t quite believe their luck to be existing at this particular, lovely moment. In addition to a shared affinity for the planning and discipline art requires, she and Bucay also seem to share an appreciation for joyousness.
Katherine Xiu ‘18 is a math major who does most of her drawing “when [she’s] avoiding math.” She draws cartoon characters based on her friends and family, but trapped in a crazily heightened world, frequently overwhelmed by the more trying aspects of everyday life. My first interaction with her art was a cartoon she drew commemorating a gruesome Spanish class music performance I had to perform sophomore year. She was kind enough to idealize the event, drawing me as a professional singer.
Her prolificacy combined with her generous reimagining of real life makes her cartoons a common sight among Jonathan Edwards dorms. At one point, every member of my suite had one of her drawings of him hanging in his room.
While my artistic endeavors ended before they started, many Yale students are still leaving a creative mark on their worlds. That being said, finding a common typicality among the artists I talked to would be very difficult. Bucay and Tisdale are trained artists, and will probably go on to incredible careers, with their works hanging in galleries across the world. Carnes will continue to carve her own path as a musical artist, and keep expressing herself in any way she can. Xiu and Smith will keep being artists so that their friends and family can see the joys and absurdities in their own lives.
What are you thinking? It’s such a hard question to answer, maybe because it’s so abstract. But perhaps a better way to get at the answer — beyond classes and social drama and what we wear on any given day — is to ask what a person would create, if she had all the time and resources in the world. What would you make? What would you contribute to the world? If you were lucky enough to be talking to one of the five artists I talked to this week, maybe she would take out a project she had just finished, and be able to show you.