McKee Photography and Kaempfer Art Grant recipients presented their summer projects at the visual art department’s first annual PechaKucha night, an event designed for the artists to display their work to the Bowdoin community. Developed in Tokyo as an avenue for designers to meet and discuss their work, PechaKucha nights have now been held in over 800 cities around the world.

The artists’ presentations were constrained to 400 seconds in totality, consisting of 20 slides with 20 seconds to speak about each.

“It’s practical and kind of pedagogical; practical in the sense that we do have a number of them to get through, but at the same time it’s a really useful format to think about how to talk about your work,” Associate Professor of Art and Chair of the Art Department Michael Kolster said.
Compiled over the summer, the projects allowed students to focus on a subject and approach it individually. Grant recipients said that they faced the most difficulty in just that: working independently and without the cushion of the Bowdoin community. 

Visual arts major Hy Khong ’16, whose photographic work explores Asian American identity, notes that it was this struggle that prompted the greatest learning experience.

“The biggest thing I learned was that if I looked at something and my initial response was that I like it, that I should just stick with it,” Khong said. “I shouldn’t second-guess myself but trust that what I like is what I like and that’s a genuine depiction of myself. And that’s what I want for my art. I want people to be able to see it and see that this is a part of me.”

The question of identity was a common thread throughout the projects, prompting students to look both internally and outwardly to explore their art. 

“I couldn’t just take pictures of pretty things anymore,” Khong said. “I had to look at things through this lens of what it means to me personally—how do I represent these feelings and this confliction of an Asian identity and an American identity, and how do I represent that visually?”

Rachel Zheng ‘16, a Kaempfer Grant recipient, explored issues of both gender and racial identity in her installation art inspired by the California Light and Space movement, using material and immaterial mediums to create an almost meditative experience for the viewer.

“This movement particularly was thinking about technology and what it could do to harm the human existence,” Zheng said. “These artists are mostly white men, and being an aspiring artist and being a woman of color, I thought a lot about how I could incorporate my identity into the work and how that could relate to a wider audience, and even if that is possible in this minimalist mode of art making.”

For others, the opportunity to create art over the summer induced more technical and stylistic artistic growth. McKee Grant recipient Nevan Swanson ’18 spent a portion of his summer assisting photographer Abelardo Morell ’71 in his studio in Paris, France before venturing to Baja, California to complete the remainder of his project. 

Centered around the idea of the familiar, Swanson’s work utilized both film and digital photography to explore locations around Baja.

“I have one photograph of two people in a grocery store at 9:50 at night and it’s very intimate,” Swanson said. “But it’s that intimacy that lends to ambiguity in that it could be anywhere. It’s just a normal picture—not so much created overtly but rather exploring the familiar. I think I learned most importantly about finding the fascination in the normal moments that in one respect could be thought of as benign but are intrinsically powerful.”

Established in 2003 in honor of former Bowdoin photography professor John McKee, the McKee Fund for Photography aims to augment the photography offerings of the visual arts department beyond the budgetary expense restrictions. The McKee Fund awarded eight students grants this summer, while the Kaempfer Fund gave four. Initially endowed for the purpose of providing art supplies to students of demonstrated financial need, the Kaempfer Fund was able to support independent summer projects this year that weren’t necessarily photographic.

Students submitted proposals for their projects in April, articulating the kinds of work and questions they wanted to explore and how they planned to do so. Applicants submitted a proposal as well as examples of previous work and a faculty recommendation.

The time and space to share and discuss one another’s work at PechaKucha night provided a valuable outlet for the grant recipients to formally conclude their projects, and also served as potential fodder for future artistic endeavors.

“The opportunity to talk about it and give it a story or narrative can be really illuminating, not just to anyone who might be listening to it, but actually to the person trying to put together the talk,” Kolster said. “We start to understand and learn more about our relationship to and our ideas about them. And, more and more ideas for further work can be generated out of that process as a result.”

Grant recipients also enjoyed the ability to connect with the audience and their peers through their work. 

“It’s important for artists to talk about their work because it gives it some sort of purpose,” Zheng said. “Art is very personal sometimes and if you can’t relate it to issues of identity or social, environmental or cultural, or anything we need to talk about as a society, there is no purpose. It creates a disconnect between the artist and the viewer, and art is supposed to bridge that disconnect.”

Hy Khong ’16 is the photo editor for the Orient.