Upper school launches new visual arts endowment with first artist-in-residence


Michelle Liu

Upper school’s first artist-in-residence Britta Clausnitzer advises students via Zoom on the Jan. 11 art workshop. Students had the opportunity to create painted paper masks at two workshops held by Art Club which they wore during the “Tiger on the Loose” performance on Jan. 19.

by Anika Maji and Catherine Wong

Wearing brightly-colored decorative masks fashioned out of paper shapes, a cohort of students strides out of the art building. As they make their way across campus, stopping occasionally to pose for pictures as a group, upbeat music floats through the air from a small speaker held by the upper school’s first artist-in-residence, Britta Clausnitzer, whose works are currently displayed in the Rothschild Performing Arts Center (RPAC) to kick off the newly-created Dickinson Visual Arts Endowment.

Director of the Office of Communication Pam Dickinson established the Dickinson Visual Arts Endowment, announced by the school on Dec. 9, to support the visual arts department. Students who attended the two art workshops held on Jan. 7 and Jan. 11 in the art room as part of the endowment’s launch had the opportunity to create painted paper masks with the guidance of Clausnitzer, who offered them advice via Zoom. On Jan. 19, students participated in a performance called “Tiger on the Loose” in which they donned their masks and walked from the art room to the Nichols auditorium, where Clausnitzer gave a talk about her artwork and creative process.

“I think it’s great to have someone come from outside of Harker to talk with us about her own experience,” sophomore Sania Gupta, who attended the workshops, said. “And [I liked] seeing her art and how her ideas are incorporated in her own art and what she’s teaching us.” 

During the workshops, Clausnitzer encouraged students to create art with intention, advice that senior Arkita Jain, who also attended the workshops, appreciated. After initially sketching 10 shapes, Arkita realized a preference for a wavy, organic shape and focused on cutting out that same type of shape afterwards.  

“I really liked how Britta told us to channel our energy,” Arkita said. “So when I was drawing my initial 10 pieces, I was really thinking about myself, and I asked people what they thought represented me.”

The separation of human life from nature is always a theme for me, and trying to merge figures and creatures with nature, but juxtaposed by very surreal elements.”

— Britta Clausnitzer, upper school’s first artist-in-residence

After the “Tiger on the Loose” performance, the students settled into their seats as the lights dimmed and a painting was projected onto the screen. Titled “Pack,” the artwork depicts multiple wolves seemingly bursting from a central figure, a woman, surrounded by a riot of colors. 

Britta asked the audience their impressions of the painting and divulged some of the inspirations behind it, such as humanity’s relationship with nature. She also talked about using “collective imagery,” connections to events or objects that people make when looking at a certain image, such as the “Renaissance pose,” exemplified by certain sculptures from that period.

“So if we have two big blocks in a painting, what will everybody think?” Clausnitzer said during her talk. “You know, we have two large, square blocks — then we have 9/11. When we have a woman standing with a dress, over some air coming up, what’s that? Collective imagery. Marilyn Monroe.”

She then displayed three other paintings, some of which are available to view in the “Tigerfeast” exhibit of her works in the RPAC, and similarly explained the inspirations behind them, which ranged from horror movies to Théodore Géricault’s oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa.” To conclude her talk, she played a compilation video of herself creating paintings live.

“I go all over the canvas, and patches and patterns appear,” Clausnitzer said. “Some come from my imagination, but a lot of imagination is always a pool of things I see, and a lot of what I see comes from nature. The separation of human life from nature is always a theme for me, and trying to merge figures and creatures with nature, but juxtaposed by very surreal elements.”

Selina Chen (10), who attended the workshops and participated in the “Tiger on the Loose” performance, considers the artist-in-residency program a fun and interactive way to educate students about art, especially because of the possibility of bringing in artists with a variety of backgrounds and styles.

“Even if they aren’t pursuing a career in art, everybody could learn a lot from programs like this, whether it’s the stories that inspired the works of art or the style or medium,” Selina said. “I think there’s a lot of potential in learning new things about art.” 

After Clausnitzer’s talk, the upper school held a public reception launching her residency from 4 to 5:30 p.m. outside the RPAC on Jan. 19. Visitors milled about tall tables draped in black tablecloth and viewed paper booklets with Clausnitzer’s work as they enjoyed food and beverages. Clausnitzer was also there in-person to converse with the visitors.

Art Club officer Gloria Zhu (12) appreciated seeing the paintings displayed in the “Tigerfeast” exhibit in the RPAC and learning about how Clausnitzer incorporated performance elements into her artwork, something Gloria had previously had no experience in. She also enjoyed learning about Clausnitzer’s artistic process.

“She really makes heavy use of layers, spontaneous brushstrokes, and allusions to various other types of various other pieces of media and her artwork, and I think it was really inspiring to see a successful artist’s process,” Gloria said.

Aside from the references to mainstream culture and art history that appear in her work, a characteristic feature of Clausnitzer’s pieces are what she calls a “certain atmosphere,” a timeless, ambiguous setting for the characters in her paintings that makes it impossible for the viewer to pinpoint their location to somewhere specific. Her works emphasize lines and layers and play with the idea of different interpretations of nature and aspects that attendees of her Jan. 19 talk described as “strange” and “otherworldly.”

“[The painting “Pack”] is also about the artificiality of our perception, how it is transposed,” Clausnitzer said. “We see nature all the time, we see leaves and everything and we take a photo of something we like, and already it is transferred into something else. So a lot of my paintings go about these layers. Layers of reality, layers of vision, layers of impressions.”

Students and faculty can view the “Tigerfeast” exhibit displaying Clausnitzer’s works in the downstairs RPAC until April 29.