Emily Corazon Nelson Expands the Definition of Art

May 13, 2010 — When Emily Corazon Nelson thinks about art, she considers the big picture – not a large-format canvas, but how art relates to the individual, and to society.

A Distinguished Studies Major in the College of Arts & Sciences' studio art program, the fourth-year student embraces a broad definition of art that employs it as a tool for social engagement.

Part of her philosophy is to "redefine art as something everyone can relate to," she said. She wants to break down the divide between artist and art consumer, to make art a more democratic process. Debunking the figure of the artist as a genius looking down on society and breaking down the ideas of "alienation and elitism" are at the heart of her artistic practice. "It's a platform for discussion and for making connections," she said.

Last summer, armed with an Undergraduate Art Award from U.Va.'s Center for Undergraduate Excellence and the support of family and friends, Nelson put her philosophy into practice. She and boyfriend Graham Evans, a 2009 graduate, outfitted a bus powered by recycled vegetable oil that would be their home for a month-long trip through West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and again back in Charlottesville. They equipped the bus with a rooftop garden, where they grew organic food to cook and share with those they met along the way.

Food provided the artistic medium for this huge undertaking, which they called "Nourish(meant)." The premise was to exchange food for conversation about what nourishment meant to those they encountered on their journey.

"One 5-year-old said nourishment meant being nice," Nelson said. Others talked about family, community and connection.

"I've always loved food. It's a big part of my family culture," Nelson said. "My mother is from the Philippines and food is at the heart of the culture there."

Nelson also chose to focus on food because it is universal, she said. "Everyone has a relation to food. It's a unifying idea."

The cooking-oil powered bus and the organic roof garden also led to conversations about sustainability, food production and environmental ethics surrounding food systems.

In addition to the time-honored idea of food and conversation promoting exchange of ideas and the possibility of change, Nelson embraced new media. The "Nourish(meant)" website  chronicles the project's journey with photos, a blog and audio files of conversations along the way. More than 600 fans connected to the project on Facebook. "Half of them are people I don't even know," Nelson said.

The website also contains information and links to other sites about growing food, transportation, sustainable agriculture and "gentle graffiti."

Nelson began formulating her ideas about a different approach to art and the power of art outside museums and galleries during a semester at U.Va.'s study-abroad program in Valencia, Spain.

"Valencia is the European capital for street art," Nelson said. There, socially engaged artists appropriate walls built around vacant lots in the older section of the city to convey images and messages. While there, she participated in the Valencian street art collective XLF.

As an undergraduate, "you are still learning technique and studio skills" and it's hard to do installation work, Nelson said. She commended her professors for exposing her to new ideas and new ways to look at the world and art.

Nelson said she has been inspired by the work of those who are expanding the definition of art, such as German artist Joseph Beuys, whose work encompasses installation, sculpture and performance art, and artist and art critic Suzi Gablik, who writes about culture and art and talks about the possibility that art could be a force of change in society.

She has watched her professors and mentors expand their ideas about art with their own works. Printmaker and studio art chair Dean Dass regularly collaborates with a group of artists each year on a print portfolio. Sculpture professor Bill Bennett challenges the idea of what sculpture is with works that are often installation and interactive sculptures.

"Emily Corazon Nelson, responding to the ecological concerns, fears and opportunities of her time, expanded the boundaries and definition of art," Bennett said.

"As always, our best students like Emily, attuned to the present and the future, make art on the edge. That pushes our enterprise forward, leading the way for her faculty and peers."

Ruffin Hall, which houses all of studio art under one roof, opened in Nelson's third year. Conceived of as a village of workshops devoted to the teaching of art, it has played a pivotal role in the cross-fertilization of her ideas about art. "I am glad I was here at such a momentous time," she said. The emergence of the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds and having everyone together in the new building has allowed the disciplines within studio art to not only share space, but also ideas and approaches, she added.

Dass said Nelson is just one of a remarkable class of graduating studio artists.

"These students will change the world," he said. "This has been perhaps the most important class I have ever seen. The way they have fed off each other and worked collaboratively builds this new model, often called 'relational aesthetics.' So it has not even felt like teaching this year – it has felt like being part of a movement."

Nelson has shared her love of art with others during her time at the University. As a student docent at the U.Va. Art Museum she led tours and, for the last two years, ran the museum's Early Visions program, a one-on-one mentorship program between students and the Boys and Girls Club. She also was president of the Art Students Society.

Nelson is excited about next year. She is returning to the University and the McIntire Department of Art as part of the Fifth-Year Aunspaugh Fellows program that provides aspiring professional artists with time for intense studio production in exchange for service to the department.

In addition to pursing her own projects and building a portfolio, Nelson, whose academic focus as an undergraduate was printmaking, is excited about assisting in the new performance and installation art class, as well as cinematography and digital video classes.

"Here at U.Va., we are encouraged to think outside the box," Nelson said.

— By Jane Ford