In the wide open space of a quiet atrium, art student Gabriel Mellan shows off his heptachord, a seven-sided sculpture made of sheet metal.
What at first looks like a tall, metal structure, turns out to have a hidden side. When you push against certain parts of it, an organ-like sound comes out.
"It’s pressure sensitive," said Mellan, "so some areas don’t make any sound at all, but then some do. And so there’s varying levels of sensitivity, at different heights, so you can lean against it and play it.”
Mellan is one of 84 undergraduates who will receive his degree from the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington's oldest nonfederal art museum, in May. The artists displayed their final projects in a special exhibit at the DC museum, which is also a school.
New stage in life
Mellan's sculpture is part of a special exhibit, called NEXT, created by the students embarking on a new stage in life.
Jason Tucker, a fine art photography major, presents his project for critique by peers and faculty members.
He has several pieces in the exhibit, all of which reflect his gay identity. One of them is a sculpture made up of gold-painted sticks, tied up in a bow.
“I started doing a lot of research into words that have a specific meaning within a gay male context, and so I started with the word ‘faggot,'" he said. "The root of the word comes down to ‘a bundle of sticks.’ So I started with that and wanted to make a self-portrait. So I ended up collecting my exact body weight in sticks...I wanted to take something that I’ve been called before, that was an epithet, and make something beautiful out of it.”
In an adjacent room, dozens of hankerchiefs hang from the ceiling. Back in the Corcoran's spacious atrium, two giant banners hang near the columns. They are made up entirely of recycled materials with references to several iconic symbols of American culture.
Andy Grundberg, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at the college, has seen an increasing number of video projects in recent years.
"Video projections, a full-length feature movie created by two students, and a lot of use of digital media,” he said.
An example of that is a photography project by fine art photography major Kailyn Jackson.
“It is an experimental project," she said. "I ask visitors of the gallery to listen to music through wireless headphones and to express themselves through different colored lights. And, at the end, I’m recording their movements through a photographic image.”
Those photographic images are then displayed on a wall as part of the project.
And then there's art that reflects political issues.
Robert Yi, originally from South Korea, has several paintings in the exhibit, including one of Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea.
“My paintings are called Mask paintings. And it’s the idea that, in society today, no matter where you are, people put on a mask," he said. “That idea is expressed in North Korea because the people of North Korea, the citizens, put on a face...they’re required to act happy.”
Established in 1869, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was one of America’s first museums of art. The Corcoran College of Art and Design was founded as a school of art in 1890 and stands as Washington’s only accredited college of art and design.
Grundberg believes that combination of museum and school under one roof is one of the features that makes the Corcoran unique.
"The NEXT show is a great example of how by being able to have this exhibition in a temporary exhibition gallery of the museum that the students really stepped their work up a notch," he said. "It’s had an incredible impact on the quality of the work that they’ve produced to know that their final work is going to be shown in a museum here in Washington, D.C.”
Catherine Armour, provost and chief academic officer of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, is optimistic about her students’ future and the role of art in education nationwide.
“One of the big trends in education today is an emphasis on science and technology, but I’m very pleased to see more of an emphasis -- and increasing understanding -- on the role of creativity, and understanding that problem-solving, motivation, perseverance; these are really important skills for students of this next generation," she said.