Maryland Artist’s Work Is a Guiding Light

The phrase “to see the light” suggests something hidden will be revealed, which is why light bulbs go off over cartoon characters’ heads when ideas occur to them. But there is seeing the light and then there is truly seeing the light, as the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) exhibit, “Sharon Wolpoff: Wherever I Turn I See Light,” demonstrates.

For the Maryland artist—who paints, makes prints and etchings, takes photographs, makes collages and designs jewelry—light’s emergence creates the conditions for artistic expression. A March 13, 2022, event with the artist turned a spotlight on her latest exhibit at UMGC’s gallery at its headquarters in Adelphi, Md, which runs through June 5.

“For many of us, a ray of sunlight or the light from a light bulb is just something that brightens a space. But Wolpoff views light adorning a landscape or peeping through a window differently,” Eric Key, director of the UMGC arts program, wrote in the exhibition catalog. “She sees more than just a well-lit space; she sees how the space is transformed. She perceives the contrast between dark and light and envisions geometric shapes and angles. She also enjoys exploring how light affects color and creates different shades.”

Take Wolpoff’s oil painting “November” (2010), which evokes the urban landscapes of Edward Hopper. An orange-brown telephone pole nearly bisects the canvas horizontally, cutting through both the bright blue sky and the orange, pink, green and off-white and earthy tones below. A smaller streetlight beside the pole echoes its form, and two doors (one pink and one orange) boldly emerge from a nondescript, windowless building on a quiet street.

Most pedestrians might walk by this scene without a second thought. But to the artist, the symphony of light and shadow was irresistible. The diagonal shadows of the pole and streetlight climb up the building, and even though much of the palette is muted, one can tell by the brightness of the lightest colors that this is a sunny day. Just as a Renaissance painting might turn an otherwise typical figure into a saint with the insertion of a halo, Wolpoff has elevated this street scene with its stunning light and shadow.

Whether interior scenes or outdoor landscapes, figures in motion or seated at a table, light is always a protagonist—if not the star of the show—in Wolpoff’s artwork. That is also true in the desert of Tucson, Arizona, one of her favorite locations and a destination she has visited with her mother over the past two decades.

“I would meander through the desert, and this is how the painting got started,” she said of her 2007 work, “Pink Cactus and Agave.”

Wolpoff took many photographs of the sky and the mountains, but two cacti—one pink and one agave (green)—grabbed her attention. She even found them seductive, she told the audience at the UMGC event. Back in the studio, she cut up three photographs she had taken and put them back together as a deconstructed and then reconstructed collage.

She called her technique “structured freedom” because it lets her advance 50 percent of the way before she begins to apply brush to canvas. In effect, she has already mapped out the composition and figured out what is going where. Brush in hand, she then can “relax into the intuitive process of painting,” she said.

“There’s something about the desert, where the perception is that it’s a barren and lifeless place. I found it to be so alive, and it was just a tremendous voracious presence that I wanted to be able to capture,” Wolpoff said.

Here too, of course, her dramatic interplay of light and shadow dances across the landscape.

In an artist statement, Wolpoff called light both part of the composition and a “metaphysical presence.” She explained that the show is called “Wherever I Turn I See Light,” because light “is something we need now more than ever.”

“It’s my intention that this show be offered as a counterpoint to the extraordinary events ongoing in our world today,” she said. “Light is an invitation to encounter the divine spark that exists in all of us.”  

When Key first told UMGC President Gregory W. Fowler about the show, the president slipped in to see it.

“I have been inviting everyone I know. It is absolutely stunning,” Fowler said, adding that an arts program at an institution that is primarily online might be a surprise to many people, but not to him.

“There’s nothing more universal, nothing more global than the arts, and the ability for the arts to speak across cultures,” he said.

At the event, he told Wolpoff, “I can’t think of anything that’s more timely than the work that you’ve been doing.” He also said Wolpoff’s “ability to see special things in places where other people may not necessarily is part of what I believe UMGC’s role is: to help those who[m] others might not always see as special, but to find that special light that’s within them as well.”

The president’s experience prior to coming to the university included time at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The hour-long discussion at the event also featured Julia Langley, faculty director of the arts and humanities program at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, which exhibits Wolpoff’s works, and Myrtis Bedolla, chair of the UMGC art advisory board and owner and founding director of Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore.

The conversation at the event touched on everything from how the artist first became obsessed with light in the late 1970s, when she painted light streaming in a window while she waited for a model who was late, to the fact that she holds a law degree. After failing the bar twice, Wolpoff became a professional artist but, 14 years later, she again sat for the bar and passed.

Wolpoff’s works that were supposed to hang for three months at the cancer center ended up staying for two years. The artist recounted meeting an oncologist at the center, who bought one of her pieces. Wolpoff was introduced to the doctor’s family when she went to the buyer’s home to deliver the work. Two months later, the oncologist called Wolpoff one evening. The doctor had to deliver bad news to a family and wanted first to talk to the artist to lift her spirits. She bought a second painting from Wolpoff during that discussion.

“I was so touched by that. I remember being moved to tears to be part of something like that, and also to get a glimpse of what it’s like,” Wolpoff said. “My perception was, ‘Oh this is for the patients coming in, and then through Julia, I started learning it’s for the staff. It’s for the doctors. It’s for everyone.”

Langley, the program’s faculty director, said it is important to have art in a cancer center—a distressing place where nobody wants to be—to make it more user-friendly and to give people things about which to dream. From the start, Wolpoff’s work drew rave reviews.

“People streamed into my office and said, ‘This is the most amazing show. Please don’t take it down. We love it,’” Langley said.

At the end of the program, when it seemed that all that could be said had been said, Fowler elicited yet another revelation (shedding more light) with a seemingly basic question: Had the artist’s way of seeing light changed over time?

“Yes,” Wolpoff said, noting that she grew increasingly aware of the kinds of auras that surround people. “It has expanded.”

UMGC Arts Program Shifts Gears During the Pandemic

In a darkened room, a white-haired man in a sleeveless, striped sweater sits on a wooden swivel chair before a door. The title of Sharon Wolpoff’s 1988 oil painting, “Waiting for the Electrician,” explains the scene. Yet the work is much more. It is a symphony of abstract forms where, in this instance, the shadow cast by the chair alternatively evokes fossilized dinosaur bones, a stringed instrument such as a harp, and a gridded Piet Mondrian painting.

With a year of social distancing, pandemic, and relative isolation behind us, the work of Wolpoff—a Washington, D.C.-born artist—feels like it is channeling the quarantine. A unseen electrician is evidently en route, but anything, say even a global pandemic grinding the world to a near standstill, could happen. Perhaps the man in the sweater awaits Godot, to evoke Samuel Beckett’s famous play about pining in vain for an arrival.

The painting is a gift by the artist to the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Maryland Artist Collection. It is also one of 10 artworks that UMGC has printed and mailed to supporters of its Arts Program as part of the Stay Connected initiative during the COVID-19 shutdown. According to printed materials, the Arts Program “will renew its exhibition program upon the reopening of site operations” and all previously slated exhibitions, including a survey of Wolpoff’s art, will be mounted when it is safe to do so.

In the Stay Connected mailings, each printed work from the UMGC collection is sized for framing, said Eric Key, director of the Arts Program, and accompanied by information about the artist and the art. In the case of Wolpoff’s painting, “it is at the moment when the light appears that artistic creativity strikes. She sees more than just a well-lit space; she sees how the space is transformed.”

Wolpoff also explores the ways light affects color. “For example, what at first appears to be a navy blue might become a lighter blue or sky blue with a ray of light on the surface,” according to the notes about the painting. “This play of light on color inspires her to discover how different shades of one color can change the tenor of a work. It is this union of color and shapes, this fusion, that she demonstrates in her work.”

Nine other printed works from UMGC’s collection scheduled to be mailed over the next few months are: a circa 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. cauldron—perhaps part of funerary set—by an unknown Chinese artist; Selma Oppenheimer’s 1960 painting “Girl in Yellow Hat;” an untitled Alma Thomas 1969 watercolor painting; Paul Reed’s 1971 acrylic painting on paper, “Gilport One,” from a series called Gilport; a silver gelatin print of William Anderson’s 1978 photo “Woman with Pipe;” McArthur Binion’s circa 1978-79 crayon-on-aluminum work “152 W. 25th Street;” Nelson Stevens’ 1983 mixed media work “Stevie Wonder;” Andy Warhol’s 1983 screen print “African Elephant” from his Endangered Species series; and Curlee Raven Holton’s 2017 oil painting titled “Dream Bait.”

The notes accompanying the images are rich with detail. Among other things, recipients are informed that Warhol was born Andrew Warhola and that a movement called AfriCOBRA stands for “the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” Photographer Anderson, who was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1932, said of his artistic approach, “I believe there is beauty in all life … I look for people whose faces tell a story.” Anderson died in 2019.

Biographical information offered through the Stay Connected initiative points out that Thomas’ career was marked by several historic firsts. She had her first solo exhibition at age 68 and was the first African American woman with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also the first African American woman whose work was acquired by the permanent collection of the White House Historical Association and displayed at the White House.

When Key closed UMGC’s art galleries on March 15, 2020, he thought it would be a short-term measure. As it became clear that the pandemic would necessitate longer closures, he had to take measures to reschedule exhibitions.

“We were curating our own shows, so it was easier for us to communicate with artists and owners and let them know what was going on,” he said. “As much as we would have liked to stay on schedule, of course they all understood.

”We were very clear that we were not canceling. We were postponing,” he said.

After polling community members, Key decided that printed materials, rather than virtual artist talks, were the best way to stay connected for now.

“Our arts patrons were really getting burned out with those meetings, and they didn’t really feel a connection to the artwork. We decided not to do Zoom meetings,” he explained. “We decided to do print media instead.”

Stay Connected is the reminder to the UMGC community that the Arts Program is not closed for good. In showcasing many past exhibitions, artists’ talks and works from the UMGC collection, it also shows the breadth of the 35-year-old program.

“We also wanted the public to stay tuned—kind of like a teaser—to see the works up front and close when the program reopens,” Key explained.

The Arts Program had just completed the 4th Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition on March 1, 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions began. The facilities department and the security team ensured the safety of the juried artworks, displayed in the program’s rotating gallery, until they could be returned to the artists. Key said he was able to go in for a day or two to take the works down. Artists came to the building’s loading dock and retrieved their pieces,

“If the building is on lockdown, it’s on lockdown. You can’t get in nor out,” Key said.

The permanent collection remains hanging on the gallery walls. Conservators are not present in person but the collection has been safeguarded by 24-hour security during the pandemic.

Exhibitions are not the only thing disrupted by COVID-19. The pandemic also affected plans for a return art trip to Cuba for the Cuban Biennale. A 2019 trip generated enough interest that the 2020 trip was on track to sell out before the pandemic hit.

Key said he looks forward to when he can resume planning arts education trips.

With the pandemic, Key and the Arts Program directors had to pivot their focus. They have been hard at work on the longer-term project of digitizing the university’s nearly 3,000 works of art. That has meant planning photo shoots of some works and finding existing professional shots of others then uploading images into collection software while ensuring that the text describing each work is accurate.

With help from IT technicians, Key and his colleagues have been learning new computer software programs. When the building reopens, they will confirm the sizes, media, and key characteristics they must know in order to virtually present the works—and their artists—to the general public.

Until then, Key recommended that people who are exploring art online pay attention to the virtual events produced by the Smithsonian Institution, local Maryland galleries, and David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at University of Maryland. He said Driscoll’s legacy, in particular, stands out for him.

He also encouraged art lovers to hang onto emails about exhibitions. “Keep them as a reference. Then go to the institutions to see the actual works when those organizations reopen,” he said. “Seeing the emails will only pique your interest in seeing the work in person.”   

Key said virtual exhibitions where viewers click on arrows that help them “walk” through galleries have not provided him with the closeness to art he seeks. He tried a virtual walk-through with Hauser & Wirth gallery’s Amy Sherald exhibit. Sherald famously painted former first lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.

“I was more interested to get to the pieces so I could see them, but even looking at a piece, I felt a distance from it. I didn’t feel a closeness to it,” Key said. “As much as I respect the intent of the gallery to show the work, I couldn’t see the brushstrokes. I couldn’t see the details that I would look at in person.”

It is impossible for Key to predict when the UMGC galleries will reopen. Once the university deems it safe to do so, the Arts Program will begin planning its postponed exhibition as well as future shows and programs.

“Personally, and as the director of the program, I was obviously very disappointed that people didn’t have access to the art,” Key said. People who frequent art galleries, including members of the UMGC arts community, have told Key they missed that access.

Even people who are not regular gallery visitors said they missed having contact with art.

“On a larger scale, we take art for granted, but it really does serve a higher meaning and a higher calling in the community,” Key said. “We’ve always known that art had its place. This just validates that it does.”

New UMGC Curator’s Path Took Him from Nursing to Museums

When he started studying nursing at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, Treston Sanders figured he would be joining an occupation that was the family business for a great many of his relatives. Every woman on his mother’s side—including his maternal great-great-grandmother—was or had been a nurse. “It made sense,” he said.

Until it did not.Continue Reading

Upcoming UMGC Exhibit Will Explore Light’s Effect on the World Around Us

The exhibition Sharon Wolpoff: Wherever I Turn I See Light and its opening reception have been postponed until further notice.

UMGC Galleries and Exhibitions Temporarily Closed

To protect the health of the University of Maryland Global Campus community and visitors, the Arts Program galleries and exhibitions are temporarily closed to support the university’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus disease. Updates will be posted on the UMGC Arts Program webpage as they become available.

 Realist painter Sharon Wolpoff experiments with illumination to accentuate her oil paintings, giving them a geometrical quality.  In the upcoming University of Maryland Global Campus Arts program exhibition “Wherever I Turn I see Light,” viewers can explore for themselves the effect of light on the world around us and gain a better understanding of the artist who has traveled the world to take advantage of the sun’s magnificent rays in the execution of her work.Continue Reading

UMGC Exhibit Features Joseph Sheppard Works on African American Experience

Galleries and Exhibitions Temporarily Closed

To protect the health of the University of Maryland Global Campus community and visitors, the Arts Program galleries and exhibitions are temporarily closed to support the university’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus disease. Updates will be posted on the UMGC Arts Program webpage as they become available.

The University of Maryland Global Campus Arts Program celebrates the extraordinary work of renowned artist Joseph Sheppard and his efforts to capture scenes of everyday life and culture with its latest exhibition, “Joseph Sheppard: An African American Experience.”

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Cuba and Art: The Shaman and the Boxer

Last April, the University of Maryland Global Campus Arts Program organized a trip to Havana, Cuba, for that country’s 13th art biennial—the XIII Bienal de La Habana. This, the second of three stories that reflect on that experience, is a companion piece to the in-depth feature article and photo spread, “Art. Freedom. Cuba,” in the just-published Winter 2020 issue of Achiever Magazine.

The Chinese-made tour bus cruised along Cuba’s A-1 motorway, the Autopista Nacional, a toll-free multi-lane divided national highway. The road, built in sections during the 1980s, is supposed to traverse the distance between Havana and Guantanamo, about 570 miles to the southeast.

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Maryland Transportation Department Unveils Design Concept for Adelphi Road-UMGC Purple Line Station

Soon after construction on the station is complete, a work of art by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee will be installed at the new Adelphi Road-UMGC-UMD Purple Line stop. The artists, co-founding partners of the Houston-based studio, RE: site, told University of Maryland Global Campus that while their data-based design has evolved during the lengthy submission and review process for the Purple Line Art-in-Transit Program, their concept has mostly remained the same.

Allbritton has connections to the national capital region. She was a senior graphic designer at Gallagher & Associates in Washington from 2006 to 2010. Years ago, well before the Purple Line project materialized, she and Lee had been selected to work on a project for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Red Line. But that Metro project was scrapped.

Their involvement in the Purple Line project began six years ago when they responded in 2014—along with more than 700 others—to the Maryland Transportation Department’s call for art. They were among the 80 artists chosen to submit design concept proposals by a selection committee that included members of the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) and the Purple Line team; art professionals, representatives from the arts councils in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and other communities across Maryland, representatives from the University of Maryland, and community members along the 16.2 mile project corridor.

The multi-stage selection process included opportunities for community members to attend public meetings where they could meet some of the artists and view and comment on their proposals, and designs were uploaded to a public website for further comment. The committee made its final selections in  May 2017..

 An Idea Takes Root                                                                                            

To begin concept development, the RE site duo took data they received from UMGC on the university’s student demographics, including headcounts by location in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Allbritton and Lee then used that information to craft a data visualization.

Detail showing the relationship between panels, sprouts and leaves scaled according to the student headcount by location, and the primary and secondary network of “roots” that connects students, UMGC locations and loosely defines continents

The concept behind the resulting graphic, titled “Germination: Global Campus + Growing Minds,” is literal and figurative—on one level an artistic presentation of the university’s size and scope, on another, an “organic” representation of UMGC’s import. The design consists of a series of glass panels covered with circles and dots depicting the volume of students at a given UMGC location.

But the focus of each panel is one “sprout” that connects UMGC locations through a primary “root” visualization. A secondary network of lines resembling thinner, fibrous roots connects UMGC student locations and loosely defines continents. There are also metal “leaf” structures, which are scaled relative to the headcount of students connected in each geographic location, according to the Re: site proposal. The organic whole of sprouts, circles, roots and leaves “reinforce the global community theme of the design,” the artists told UMGC.

Allbritton and Lee said their design is mostly finalized. They are working on the next phase—producing the files for future fabrication.

The Metro Authority created the purple line Art-In-Transit program to “make public art an integral part of the transit project,” according to literature provided to UMGC by Gary Witherspoon, a MDOT spokesperson. A wide variety of art is being incorporated into the features of Purple Line stations, too—fencing, canopies, windscreens, wayfinding, and platforms. The overall effect is designed  to “enrich the aesthetics of the light rail system and support neighborhood identities.”

As described in the literature, the typical cost of the artwork is between $100,000 and just over $400,000, “The concepts were finalized at the end of 2018, although some are still being refined. We think that what we came up with reflects the best-of-the-best artists.”

About the cover image: This approximated visualization was composed for conceptual purposes only and accurate data is being developed for the final design. It is shown here by permission of the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration.

 

 

 

 

 

UMGC Exhibit Culled from ‘Extremely Strong’ Entries Shows More Art than Expected

Two men—one with a rainbow button pinned to his denim shirt—stand in an unusual pose, set before a blindingly bright background. The man on the right rests his chin on his left fist, almost a dead ringer for Rodin’s “Thinker,” although his fist rests on the other man’s left shoulder. The latter, who wears his long hair in a beaded braid, dangles his left arm at his side, while his right cradles his black bag. The two are clearly a couple, although their posture suggests the kind of informality and unsmiling expression that rarely is the stuff of posed selfies these days.Continue Reading

Cuba and Art: Giraffes and Ladders and Books, Oh My!

As 2019 draws to a close, the Global Media Center takes a look back at an extraordinary trip to Havana, Cuba, organized by the UMGC Arts Program. The 17 art lovers who traveled there in April for the county’s 13th art biennial—the XIII Bienal de La Habana—soon learned Cuban art offers a good bit of the unexpected. This is the first of three stories that reflect on that experience and preview the in-depth feature article and photo spread, “Art. Freedom. Cuba.” in the upcoming Winter 2020 issue of Achiever Magazine.

It appears that little in Cuba is “as usual.” Take, for instance, the name of the well-known arts festival that the island nation hosts—the Havana art biennial. It’s a misnomer.Continue Reading