In Conversation with New Faculty Member
Fine Arts Marketing Associate, senior Art History major, and President of Loyola Art History Club, Alexandra Senycia sat down with Professor Betsy Odom to discuss her experiences at Loyola as one of the Fine Arts Program’s newest faculty members, her own sculptural works, and her upcoming exhibition at the Ralph Arnold Gallery, Near at Hand.
AS: How did you start teaching at Loyola?
BO: I actually taught here as part-time faculty member before becoming a full-time professor. I taught sculpture at a few other schools in the area—like Colombia and Lake Forest College—but I grew to really appreciate Loyola. I like the facilities a lot. I like the students a lot. I feel really lucky to have received the lecturer position in Sculpture and 3D Design.
AS: How is Loyola different than some of the other institutions that you have taught at?
BO: One thing that stands out here is working with core students. I end up with a whole bunch of students who have never taken an art class at all. For me, it’s a really exciting teaching experience because everything is so new! It’s exciting for everybody, and the energy in the classroom gets really high. Also, you get such a weird, interesting range of aesthetic ideas and approaches to making that come out of people who aren’t art initiated. Often, by the end of the semester in Sculpture I, you’ll have Criminology students and Dentistry students doing these bizarre abstract sculptures that you’d never expect to see come out of them. Part of what makes their projects so special is that they come from such a different background, and I enjoy that a lot.
I have also enjoyed getting to know the Fine Arts majors and the Visual Communication majors through my 3D Design class, which I think is a unique class for the Fine Arts student because there are not a lot of opportunities to do three dimensional work. I see 3D Design as a real opportunity to expand the boundaries of what design is. I run it as a really fun class with eight different projects. It’s constantly moving, and there’s a lot of variety. I get a good sense of the creative excitement that you can get out of a Fine Arts student by making them do tons of work all of the time.
AS: What kind of environment do you try to create in your classroom?
BO: I put way too much thought into it! It’s just little, simple things that create a situation where you respect one another as makers. I feel like my classrooms are a fun environment and a safe, creative space.
The first rule of my class is that you learn everybody’s name. I drill this into my classes! We do different name learning exercise at the beginning of each semester to make sure it happens. I encourage a lot of conversation and a lot of opportunities to critique each other respectfully.
I also encourage students to take ownership of what they’re doing. I have very little patience for students who ask me what to do. I don’t want to tell students what to do. I want students to tell me what inspires them.
AS: What else do you teach in addition to Sculpture I and 3D Design?
BO: I also teach 2D Design, and next semester, I am also teaching the Senior Exhibition class with Nicole Ferentze and Rick Valicenti, which is really exciting. It’s a unique opportunity for Fine Arts students. Who knows what’s going to come out of that class!
AS: Where did the idea for your upcoming exhibition, Near at Hand, come from?
BO: There are three new hires in the Fine Arts Department, and we were each given the chance to curate an exhibition at the Ralph Arnold Gallery as a way to celebrate our first year here.
For my exhibit, I proposed a show called Near at Hand, and it features works by three Chicago artists who are really active in Chicago’s art scene right now. I did this because part of my interest in this in curating is getting the Gallery more connected to the Chicago art scene because there are a lot of great opportunities there.
I’m featuring sculptural works by these three artists. They’re all very different in their approaches to making, but they all share this importance placed on the hand within making—the idea that you can see the mark of the maker in the work. Sometimes it’s just through seeing gestures, or sometimes it’s relating to a specific craft. For all of the artists, part of the context comes from the fact that these are very handmade things.
In a way, it’s in stark contrast to Rick Valicenti’s show (maybe) This Time, which is open right now. Everything feels so intentionally polished. There is a veneer of class and of money, which relates to the discourse Rick is promoting. It’s part of the concept of cultural excess in tandem with the violence and injustice that happens almost hand-in-hand.
Near at Hand is going to be almost the opposite experience. The work is very handmade. Some of the work feel intentionally fragile, as if it might fall over if you get too close. There’s a tension that happens when you can see how something was built and deconstruct it in your own head as you look at it.
But the sense of how the handmade applies to each artist is very different. I’m excited to see all of the artists’ work in this space together because each artist has put in a lot of work, and there are few enough artists where conversations will be possible between the pieces. For example, working with fibers has a lot in common with working with metals, or positioning things on the wall has a lot in common with positioning things on the floor. I’m looking at the gallery as a site for these conversations about making.
AS: How did you select the artists featured in Near at Hand?
BO: I did a lot of research about what’s been happening in the past two or three years. I looked at a lot of different artists, but my primary curatorial position was really about which three artists are going to be the most interesting together. It’s much about the artists as it is about the conversation between their works in the space. I think the mix that I’ve landed on for this show is a great combination of people who are very active in Chicago right now and people who are in tune with sculpture making right now.
As a sculpture teacher, I feel it’s my duty to show students some sculpture! I’m really excited to expose my classes to this show. I hope that it will be eye-opening for them.
AS: What can you tell me about your own work?
BO: I focus a lot on material choices, and I’m very interested in different craft techniques. I’ve spent a lot of time learning highly specific skills: I’ve learned woodcarving, leather tooling, airbrushing, carving, and casting. I’m interested in techniques that are traditionally masculine in some way—stuff like carving, auto body finishing, etc.
Craft has a gendered quality that I play with a lot, as do materials like wood, cork, graphite, leather—we put all of this cultural information into these materials, and they become meaningful. Even if you’re not directly in touch with the meaning of a material, it is still there. You can feel it in its texture, composition, and the ways that you work with it.
I try to make objects that speak about gender or subcultures. A lot of my work is funny, too. I try to have a sense of humor.
AS: What are some of the current pieces you are working on?
BO: I’m working on a huge sculpture right now that’s basically a full sized motorcycle that I’ve carved. It’s kind of in a dirt bike style. It’s carved out of foam, and then I’ve covered it in the polyurethane shell that has a cool, gloopy texture to it. It plays into the childhood fantasy of having a motorcycle and the gendered conversation about motorcycles being this masculine thing. I’m putting an intense white, matte finish on it with flakes that have a glittery, reflective surface.
The motorcycle piece will be in a show called Precariat that opens at the Hyde Park Arts Center in February. It’s an interesting show that’s themed around some of Judith Butler’s writing, specifically the idea of different categories of identity and what happens when they intersect. It’s in correspondence to the Art AIDS American openings that are happening.
I think it’s important that I am a working artist because my art informs my teaching, and my teaching informs my artmaking. That organic nature of both being an educator and an artist is something that can be a bonus to students if you are open to sharing your art practice.
AS: What is some advice that you have to Fine Arts students?
BO: If I can encourage Fine Arts students to do one thing, it is to keep making art. No matter what or where you get to, you cannot let your art practice stagnate or you’ll just end up being behind and not keeping your creative thought process. I always encourage students to at least have a drawing practice or have some kind of place where they are creatively making no matter what kind of day job they end up with.
AS: What direction would you like to see the Fine Arts Department travel?
BO: In the “academy” of Chicago, there are institutions like the Art Institute where they teach this very conceptual form of art practice, or the University of Chicago where there’s a much more formal relationship to making.
Loyola can be a place where the relationship between content and craft is at a premium. Here, we have a lot of teachers who are conceptual, but they are also great at crafting things. Matt Groves, for instance, is brilliant at his medium, but he’s very much involved in the ideas behind his work.
I would love to see our department situate itself as having an interesting relationship between art and craft. I think we’re headed in an exciting direction.
Betsy Odom’s curated show Near at Hand opens at the Ralph Arnold Gallery on December 1, 2016 and runs through January 21, 2017.