For the past two semesters, several Hiram art & design students have been involved in an experimental collaborative art-making activity with art students from John Cabot University (JCU) in Rome, Italy. Students were paired with JCU students and electronically conversed, shared, and worked with one another to produce a coherent group of art pieces. They could add on to what their partner had created or respond with a new piece of their own. Some pairs decided to adopt a theme to help structure their ideas and decisions, while others decided to leave the sharing process more open-ended.  Students worked on 10×10-inch boards and created multiple pieces to form a grid-like composition which revealed a visually intriguing representation of the exchange of ideas and imagery.

The students that volunteered their efforts for this project are James (Jimmy) Thomas ’25, Elena Rinaldi ’24, and Quinn Nutter ’25.

Christopher Ryan, M.F.A, director of the Gelbke Fine Arts Center and professor of art and design, reflected on the long-standing relationship John Cabot University had with Hiram College. JCU was founded in 1972 as an affiliate program of Hiram College, before becoming an independent university in 1991. Two close friends, Paul Frohring and William D. Cavendish shared a vision of bridging Italy and the United States through educational efforts, and for the past fifty years, the affiliation remains true.

“It was kind of a serendipitous moment when I got an email from Professor Gardner, and he recognized the connection John Cabot has with Hiram,” said Ryan. “He wanted to do something daring and dramatic to commemorate John Cabot’s fiftieth anniversary. I really enjoyed his enthusiasm for doing something experimental and out of the box.” Rather than doing something simple like a one-time exhibition, the idea of an ongoing, back-and-forth exchange was exciting to Ryan, who appreciated that “the whole idea was to get our students to come out of their comfort zones and do something they have never done before.”

Professor James Gardner serves as chair of the new art and design department at JCU and was named one of London’s Apollo magazines “40 under 40 in the Art World.” After observing the students’ interaction over the last few months, he described the experience as a collaborative opportunity. “It was interesting to see the contrast between the students and their studies from both institutions,” he said. At JCU, students work more with technology and balance digital art with hand-crafted images. “This was an important life experience for our students. You must learn to work with others. When you are an artist, you must be open to collaboration and it’s vital to learn that life skill. Artists never work in isolation.”

For our Hiram students, collaborating with JCU required additional tact and overcoming communication barriers.

“It was difficult to communicate with my partner at times with the time difference,” said Nutter. Most communication was done via email or through Instagram and coordinating time to discuss the project required more effort than what Hiram students originally thought.

For Thomas, he felt hesitant beginning the project and worried there might be a lack of vision. “I thought we weren’t going to have enough unity,” he said. Working through a shared google document, Thomas worked with his partner by choosing 10 prompts/themes and ensuring that each art piece had a level of distortion to it. “You can really see the relationship between all of them in some way.”

The Hiram community was invited to view the experimental art display and make their own contribution during a one-day collaborative art-making event. Ryan encouraged participants to find a connection, be it shape, color, subject matter, or meaning, and react to it by adding on to one of the existing grids or creating their own and having someone else add to it. At the conclusion of the event, Gardner collected the work and brought the pieces overseas to JCU for a similar exhibition and interactive event.

“This has been really exciting, and I am happy Hiram students got involved with this. Nobody is getting paid, no one is getting credits, this is just for the sheer fun and joy of being involved,” said Ryan. “This opportunity is quintessentially Hiram. Our location can be a somewhat isolated, rural environment and some of our students may not have traveled extensively. This opportunity to interact and create with someone overseas to make artwork together is a powerful thing.”

By Elyse Pitkin

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