Citizen critics interpret Davidson College art

It started out as an idea to use Davidson College's extensive art collection as a way to stimulate thinking in students in different fields.

About 100 students with exceptional writing skills were nominated a year ago by the faculty at the liberal arts college 20 miles north of Charlotte. They were randomly assigned a work from the college's 3,200-piece collection. They were told to spend time with it, get to know it, then write an essay on what it meant to them.

It ended up as a 275-page hardcover book, "Davidson Collects: 100 Writers Respond to Art," both a catalog of some of the college's prominent pieces and a snapshot of student intellect applied to an unexpected challenge.

"We wanted to see what would happen by giving students an opportunity to act as nonexpert viewers - to act as citizen critics," says Van Hillard, director of Davidson's writing program who collaborated in the project.

Here are four students who participated, the piece they were assigned and excerpts from their essays.

Jessie Blount, class of 2013

Background: Blount is an anthropology and environmental studies major from Atlanta who kicks back by writing haiku.

Her assignment: "Cuba Quarry," a 2008 work photograph by Wilmington artist Logan Mock-Bunting.

What she learned: "I realized art was not this high, lofty thing. It's human. You can connect with it."

Essay excerpt: "Mock-Bunting's photograph manages to capture, without alteration, a binary quintessence. The limestone cutter's body is hard, yet the stone he seeks is soft. His skin is brown and dusted from white limestone. Mock-Bunting's juxtapositions play out on the worker's face and chest, and suggest that what we may think is weak is, in fact, strong. And that blue eyes, upon closer inspection, are really several different colors and non-colors at once."

Sam Plumer, class of 2012

Background: Plumer is a psychology major from New York City.

His assignment: "Vieille Courtisane a la Fenêtre," a 1937 aquatint by French artist Georges Rouault.

What he learned: "I was amazed by the connection I was able to make with the psyche - a connection between art and psychology."

Essay excerpt:

Jaime DyBuncio, class of 2013

Background: DyBuncio is an economics major from Los Angeles spending a semester abroad in Latin America.

His assignment: "Portrait of a Young Girl," an 1898 watercolor by American artist John Singer Sargent.

What he learned: "After spending a significant amount of time with the piece, I developed my own interpretation of Sargent's portrait, and though it will be impossible to tell if it matches Sargent's true meaning, the piece now has an added meaning to me."

Essay excerpt: "This is a portrait of a young girl, but things are not as they seem. Something sinister and disturbing surrounds the watercolor. ... The idea of a young girl brings to mind sacredness, purity and exuberance. Yet this watercolor evokes exactly the opposite. A defeated individual wears the elegant dress that occupies the center of this portrait. ... I am told that what I am looking at is a young girl, but what I see is a sapped individual with little excitement for the life to come."

Charlie Ford, class of 2012

Background: Ford is a neuroscience major from St. Petersburg, Fla.

His assignment: "Phil Spitbite," a 1995 etching of classical music composer Philip Glass by American artist Chuck Close.

What he learned: "I'm a musician - I lucked out getting a portrait of a famous composer. It was a way to get removed from science and write in a creative way."

Essay excerpt: "The etching feels as though it has thoughts - thoughts you cannot quite read, thoughts slightly beyond you, thoughts in some way greater than both you and the artwork. That feeling is at once unnerving, awe-inspiring and even compelling, but as your eyes once more adjust to the image, you can detect its gridded texture and watch it trap the artist in time at this moment of vision."