Call it a chance to bring their whole selves to work.
When the fourth annual Harvard Staff Art Show celebrated its virtual opening last Wednesday, it introduced a range of work from 242 staffers, most of whom hold positions that showcase talents other than their artistic creativity.
Partnering for the first time with Harvard Human Services, the show features more than 400 pieces, from musical compositions to videos shot by drones, sculptures, textiles, prints, puppetry, and painting, all of which are on view in the online gallery and many of which will be shown at four sites across campus through the spring and into summer.
The hourlong opening, which along with the online gallery is accessible at StaffArtShow.harvard.edu, introduced six artists and allowed participants to interact with over a dozen more in eight online breakout rooms.
Acting as emcee, show committee member and guitarist Daniel Holabaugh (who works as a senior business administrator in Central Administration) described the event’s driving purpose. “Our hope is that this event will inspire all of us to continue creating new art, connect with colleagues across Harvard, and regain appreciation for how the process of making and sharing art can help us come together, grow, laugh, and heal during troubled times.”
The online celebration launched with lyrical reggae-tinged music by guitarist/singer/songwriter Michael Oliveri (a senior media producer at the Graduate School of Education Teaching and Learning Lab) and introduced artists including Ligia Alfonzo (a manager in the Division of Continuing Education Registrar’s office).
Alfonzo’s brightly colored “‘Miss America’ Coyolxauhqui” referenced an Aztec warrior goddess using a medium known as “quilling,” which blended coiled paper and prints. “A reflection of my heritage as a Latin American,” the piece also shows “the determination, strength, and will of women,” said Olfonzo.
Some artists discussed individual pieces in the breakout rooms, while others focused on themes. Speaking in the “Art and Memory” breakout, for example, painter Cherie “C.J.” Miranda (talent acquisition consultant, FAS Human Resources) talked about how art often serves as a memorial or depicts “things that relate to a memory or keep a memory alive.”
In the same session, mixed-media artist Bonnie Campbell (executive assistant, Arts and Humanities Divisional Office) referenced the cathartic capability of art, having spent the last 10 years working on a project “about memory and grief” after losing her brother.
In addition to involvement in the virtual show, 183 artists will also participate in on-campus exhibitions. These will be staggered, with shows at Cambridge’s Smith Campus Center (March 11–26), Allston’s Harvard Ed Portal (March 28–April 16), the Medical Area’s Countway Library (April 8–June 8), and the Law School’s Gutman Library (May 8–June 10).
Additional in-person events include a Makers and Shakers SEAS Makerspace tour and reception (March 12), Performers Night at the Queens Head Pub (April 10), and an opening reception at the Gutman Library Gallery (May 8).
Puppet maker and puppeteer Jonathan Little will have puppets on display at the Smith Center. In many ways, he sees a connection between his art and his job as Central Services Coordinator at University Health Services. “We joke in the puppet world that puppeteers are renaissance people,” he said. “We have to be able to do everything: We write the stories; we perform the stories; we build all the characters. We’re also the actors and our own lighting crew.”
Through puppetry, he continued, “I’ve learned an enormous amount of different skills, from vinyl graphics to working with all the tools you could think of and also IT, and I bring so much of that into my work.”
Puppetry has also allowed Little to expand his horizons. “I’m six-foot-three tall blond guy. I can’t play a lot of roles,” he said. “Being a puppeteer, I can play anything and everything from a toaster to a goat, to a bear to whatever, a monster. It’s all fun and great.”
While he has found that many don’t consider puppetry an art, he demurs. “Puppetry,” he explains, “is a completely blank canvas for whatever kind of story you want to tell.”
For first-time participant, Christopher Johnson (a research scientist at the Wyss Institute), the show marks a return to a lifelong love of painting in the wake of the pandemic, when he got a divorce and came out as a bisexual man.
“All that inspired my painting again,” said Johnson. Pointing out a gold patch in one of the colorful abstracts that will be on display at Countway Library, he said it “represents me shining through all the mess of my life that I went through.”
His Harvard job, he explained, often prompts him to incorporate other materials. “I’m really obsessed with cardboard, because when you tear it apart, there’s all these geometric shapes inside of it to provide cushioning, and it translates into my artwork,” he said. Opening packages at work, “I’ll see a piece and I’ll grab it,” he said. “I’ll put it in my little cupboard of my painting things, and it comes out when it’s needed.”
For printmaker Le Huong Huynh (an administrative coordinator at Houghton Library), art offers a way to express cultural identity. Although she hopes her detailed botanical prints will give people “a sense of peace,” she also wants them to see “something that is related to my culture.” Her biggest piece, which will be on display at the Gutman, is of lotus leaves and flowers, Vietnam’s national flower. “I want to put our culture out there more,” she said.
For Huynh, art and her Harvard experience have been complementary. For example, Huynh came to her art through a Harvard Extension School course. Although the class was focused on books, working with letters, ink, and paper, it also introduced her to woodcut printing. “I just couldn’t stop,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is my medium!’”
In addition, her colleagues at the Houghton have availed themselves of her talent. “I do wood carving; I do lino [linoleum] carving; and the curators here know that. And during one of the exhibitions we had last January, I was able to teach a workshop at Houghton Library for a group of grad students and some staff,” she said, calling the opportunity “really amazing.”
Representational painter Heather Stewart praises the ongoing role the University has played with her art, which will be displayed at the Harvard Ed Portal.
An executive assistant in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Dean’s Office, Stewart is looking forward to working in the new SEAS makerspace, once she finishes the mandatory safety training.
That space, much like the art show, fosters community as well as inspiration, she said. “It’s great to bring people together to talk about art and to express themselves,” said Stewart. “To show that we are more than what we do for work.”
Access to the space will also allow Stewart to explore encaustic, painted with hot wax, “which I could never do at home,” she said. “I have cats.”