A room with a view

Nov. 1, 2015


MORGANTOWN — As an art education student at West Virginia University, Helen Poffenbarger remembers when she and her peers had to travel to the school’s downtown campus and go to a special room of the Wise Library to see art that was stored there.
That all changed in August when the Art Museum at WVU opened and she was able to stroll through the modern building’s two floors and see several pieces of the school’s 3,000-plus piece art collection.
“It’s fantastic,” said Poffenbarger, a native of Dunbar outside of Charleston who conducted her student teaching at Robert C. Byrd High School and Nutter Fort Primary School.
“You can sit in art history and look at 1,000 slides and not get what you get walking up to that piece of artwork and being in a space that is dedicated to art. There is nothing like seeing it up close, first-hand.”
And WVU’s art collection contains pieces by artists ranging from Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein to Monongalia County’s own Blanche Lazzell, a painter and a printmaker whose work in the museum particularly moved Poffenbarger.
“The Blanche Lazzell section brought tears to my eyes,” Poffenbarger said. “She was a West Virginian and her work got overlooked.”
About a decade in the making, the Art Museum can be visited from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, although groups also can arrange for tours outside of those times.
The 25,000-square foot building will give West Virginia residents as well as visitors the opportunity to see the works in WVU’s permanent collection as well as traveling exhibits.
“There really is a great collection that has been here for years and the work really wasn’t out there for people to see,” said Robert Bridges, the museum’s curator.
Bridges has worked at WVU for about 15 years and was at the school when renovations to Blaney House, the president’s residence, provided an area that could be used as an exhibit space.
“I started curating shows in Blaney House when that wing was finished, probably around 2003, 2004,” Bridges said.
Also, noted Joyce Ice, the director of the museum, a capital campaign was underway by J. Bernard Schultz, then the dean of the College of Creative Arts, and the idea was to open the museum in 2010. Eventually, ground was broken in September 2013 and nearly two years later, the museum opened to the public with a dedication presided over by President E. Gordon Gee.
The current exhibit, “Visual Conversations: Looking and Listening,” features a variety of pieces, including landscapes, portraits and more contemporary works. It will be up until sometime in the spring.
“It was a very difficult process,” Bridges said. “We wanted the first exhibit to be exciting. We wanted to represent some of the real gems in the collection yet not put everything out at once. So it was a real process of looking at the collection and thinking how things relate to one another.”
The museum gives officials the opportunity “to put artists and their time periods in a larger context,” Ice added. “We can examine West Virginia artists and regional artists as well as what’s going on more broadly across the country and across the world in the time period that they worked.”
Lazzell was born on a farm in Monongalia County in 1878. She studied with artist William Merritt Chase and also was a classmate of Georgia O’Keefe’s at the Art Students League of New York.
“Then she later studied with Fernand Leger and he was well-known as a cubist, as well as Albert Gleizes,” Ice said. “She learned cubism in the 1920s and brought it back to the United States and was one of the first artists exploring abstract art in America.”
Among her pieces is a mural that once hung in the courthouse called “Justice Over Monongalia County” that she painted as a Public Works of Art Project, a New Deal program that existed in the mid-1930s.
The museum also features moveable walls that will allow for different configurations of exhibits, Ice noted. Of the 25,000 square feet of space, about 5,400 square feet of that is two galleries and another 3,000 is climate-controlled storage space. There also is a classroom that seats 28 and a large mechanical room for the HVAC equipment to keep the artwork at the proper temperatures.
The museum is attached to the first WVU Erickson Alumni Center, designed by famed architect Michael Graves, which serves as the administrative offices.
As a university-based museum, education is a huge priority, not only for WVU students but for surrounding secondary school students.
Alison Deem of Bridgeport, who has been a supporter of the museum with her husband, Patrick, also serves as a docent, leading students and other visitors on tours. She and other docents began studying for the role last fall.
“The whole idea, and this is interesting to me, is to engage the participant in the museum, not, ‘This is the painting and this is what you need to know,'” Deem said. “It’s more about, ‘What do you think is going on in the artwork? What is it saying to you? If you could have one of these, which would you take home?’, so that people are engaged in looking at the artwork instead of it being a static experience.”
Carolyn Light, an art teacher at Lincoln High School in Shinnston, already has visited and she hopes to take some students before the first semester ends.
Like Poffenbarger, she agrees that nothing beats the experience of seeing art up close and personal.
“We look at artwork all the time on a computer, but when you can see it in person, it has much more of an impact,” Light said. “You get to see textures and it’s always good to see the commentary of the artist, and the docents give some background and ask for students’ interpretation. Then conversation happens around the pieces. It’s more interactive. It makes a huge difference.”
The next exhibit will feature works by Appalachian self-taught artists, Ice said.
Another artwork that will change, but not as frequently, is the two-story wall space that currently is the location of a spray-painted piece called “Present Moment,” done in person by New York City-based identical twin brothers Raoul and Davide Perre, who go by the name How and Nosm.
The pair traveled to Morgantown prior to the opening of the Art Museum at West Virginia University and created a unique work on the wall that, because of sunlight, could not accommodate any of the museum’s permanent pieces.
After a couple of years, museum officials hope that another temporary work will replace the piece.
“It’s not something that’s in the collection and it’s going to go away and only be preserved in photographs,” Bridges said. “There is the added benefit of the space that something will replace it, but it’s something people will only be able to see for that period of time.
“It’s a difficult concept for a lot of museums. We like to collect and preserve and share the work. But it’s something that contemporary spaces do because it always creates a new work, something exciting and brand new for people to see.”