• Photo Credit: Carlos Barron
    Photo Credit: Carlos Barron

Elena Gonzalez ’18 knows that residency programs have been instrumental in helping her grow as an emerging artist. She describes residencies as a “unique opportunity for artists to explore their potential in a critical environment with other educated and driven artists, whether peers or instructors.”

Elena’s confidence in the effectiveness of such high impact experiences is borne out by the two summer residency programs she completed on her way to graduating with a Fine Arts degree from Southwestern. Last summer, Elena attended the Currents Summer Residency at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia—an experience she says helped her develop ideas that she continued to pursue into her senior year.

This summer, Elena completed the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Summer Studio Program (VCU SSP) in Richmond, Virginia. She based her decision to apply to the Summer Studio Program on the program’s emphasis on multimedia practice and its focus on improving high quality portfolios for graduate school applications. She was very excited at her acceptance, eager to explore how her work from last year could be pushed further conceptually with a new audience.

Receiving the first Mary Visser High Impact Experience Endowed Fund award—which pays the program fees and most of her housing costs—made acceptance even sweeter.

The Summer Studio Program challenges students to put together a group show by the end of the first week, conceiving and executing a completely new idea and in a limited amount of time. Then, for the remainder of the program, participants prepare additional work in response to feedback from that first show. They receive frequent critiques from fellow student artists at similar points in their career as well as studio visits from visiting established artists and curators who offer ideas and knowledge from different viewpoints, different studio practices and different area of concern.

This give-and-take aspect of the residency setting made a lasting impact on Elena.  She says that she enjoys the fact that “although we are coming from varying conceptual, aesthetic, and material backgrounds, we can all share our insights on a cooperative level.”

However, for Elena, what is most unique and impactful about a residency experience can be attributed to its dislocation from a familiar environment. Elena claims, “Being placed in a new city, there is a strange mental stimulation, a sense of lost safety that encourages experimentation and opens up spaces for failure from which to learn. The city surrounding the school can be as much of a source of inspiration as the discussions that go on in the classroom.”

The Mary Visser High Impact Experience Endowed Fund was established by Tom Morin ’94 and his wife, Julie Morin, to honor the legacy of Mary Visser, professor of art at Southwestern since 1979. Elena’s acceptance of experimentation, and even failure, is not lost on Tom. Having entered SU intent on studying pre-law, but taking classes in all subjects (including a life-changing photography class with Professor Visser), Tom credits Mary with helping him find his passion, persist to graduation, and giving him the confidence to major in art.  Both he and Elena’s experiences exemplify what Tom calls “the beauty” of Southwestern.