AUBURN UNIVERSITY – Two area high school students will perform their nationally recognized performance piece, “A Tragedy of Errors: America’s Hypocritical Reaction to Artistic Diplomacy,” Oct. 13 at 10:30 a.m. at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. They will bring to life works from “Advancing American Art,” one of the museum’s permanent collections. The performance coincides with the museum’s ninth Birthday Party and Family Day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Heather Connelly and Katie Kirk developed the piece for National History Day, a competition that has qualifying rounds at the state level and culminates in the Kenneth E. Behring National Contest at the University of Maryland, College Park. Connelly is a junior in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Auburn High School. Katie Kirk is a homeschooled junior who is also in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. The pair won bronze for the Senior Group Performance at the national level this year.
In the piece, Connelly and Kirk take on the persona of two pieces of artwork in the “Advancing American Art” collection. A post-World War II touring exhibition, “Advancing American Art,” was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1946 but later disavowed by U.S. politicians who decried the collection based on immigrant artists’ names and the leftist views of some, hinting at the red scare in years to come.
The collection was sold as war surplus in 1948, and Auburn University, then Alabama Polytechnic Institute, was one of the winning bidders. Auburn is now home to 37 of the pieces and has joined with other universities to present 107 pieces anew in “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.”
Stepping out of the picture frame in costume, each student tells the story of this historical collection, from the initial warm response from viewers in New York, Paris and Prague, to the backlash at home and the project’s demise.
Connelly, who portrayed O. Louis Guglielmi’s “Subway Exit,” said, “In choosing characters, we each had to choose a painting which we felt we already understood and connected with. As time went on, we wrote about the lives of the characters and I really got to know mine through our research and our writing. By now, I feel as though Guglielimi’s ‘Subway Exit’ and I have been through a lot together!”
Kirk created her character based on Werner Drewes’ “A Dark Thought (Was Visiting My Peaceful Backyard).” She said the study of the works and historical context went beyond the museum walls.
“The most valuable part of our research involved poring over the bibliographies of books written on the art and then exploring the Auburn University library to find original copies of 1940s news articles about the exhibit,” Kirk said.
Connelly described the National History Day competition atmosphere as unforgettable.
“It is an incredible feeling to be in the middle of thousands of kids our age who have all been through the same experiences and are there for the same reason: to tell a story worth sharing,” she said. “The amount of passion and hard work all the competitors have poured into our project throughout the year overflows at the competition.”
While both Connelly and Kirk have extensive backgrounds in performance in the classroom and in their extracurricular activities, they said a little bit of nerves comes with the territory, especially in the final stages of competition.
“I had lots of adrenaline and lots of nerves,” Kirk said. “This one performance represented our last year competing as a team and our first time to ever make it to the final 14 competitors at the national level. As soon as we get into the rhythm of the piece, the nervousness falls away, and it’s just us and the exhibit.”
Kirk encouraged other students to enter their research projects and believes more entries at the state level would strengthen scholarship.
“Often, only two or three entries are submitted to the regional competition for first and second place,” she said. “The Auburn area has strong public and private schools and an incredible number of homeschooled students. Every student benefits from the research and presentation skills learned from National History Day.”
To Andrew Henley, curator of education for K-12 at the museum, a dramatic interpretation makes history lessons accessible.
The historical narrative can be difficult to explain without coming off dry,” Henley said. “Katie and Heather have brought a new dynamic to the telling of ‘Advancing American Art’ and engaged those who may not have keyed in to the irony of the exhibition’s closing or the importance of ‘Art Interrupted.'”
Connelly said she recognizes that while 21st century artistic tastes are more accustomed to the modern styles presented now as “Art Interrupted,” the story of “Advancing American Art” should continue to be told despite the passage of time.
“What made the collection important was the world, specifically the country, into which it was thrown,” she said. “The America we live in is much more open to new art; however, there’s always work to be done in opening people’s eyes to the importance of accepting others’ ideas, no matter how abstract and strange they may seem.”
Kirk agreed that a collection like “Advancing American Art” would be received differently today, but there are relevant themes. She said the debate about what is “American” still rages on.
To watch a preview of the performance, visit the museum’s YouTube channel: http://youtu.be/LuYny8w4qjo. For more on the current exhibition on display at Auburn through Jan. 5, visit www.artinterrupted.org.
“Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy” is organized by the Jule Collins Smith Museum, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma and was made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.
For more on National History Day, visit http://www.nhd.org/.
(Written by Charlotte Hendrix.)