Creating Time Capsules in Resin

November 29, 2017

Students work with a visiting artist to make a permanent art display

“You can do anything you want, really!” says Haitian artist and Visiting International Fellow Edouard Duval-Carrié. An array of wooden frames, plastic flowers, translucent images, and bowls of sequins are scattered across the bright second-floor studio room in Bucksbaum Center for the Arts.

It is the first day of Duval-Carrié’s short course, Visualizing Freedom and Abolition in the New World. Short courses at Grinnell last for less than half a semester, and are often taught by visiting alumni, writers, artists, and scholars. They provide students with the opportunity to learn from someone who will only be on campus for a short time, and to explore a topic they might not otherwise have the time or background to take a full-credit class in.

All that the students in Duval-Carrié’s course know on their first day is that they will be helping to create a permanent display in the college’s new Humanities and Social Sciences Complex (HSSC), which is currently under construction.

Creating a “Collage of Histories”

Block mold filled with resin and historical items
Duval-Carrié has done similar collaborative projects before, most recently at Duke University, and is a frequent collaborator with Fredo Rivera ’06, assistant professor of art history. After Rivera arranged for Duval-Carrié to come to campus in spring 2017, the artist became fascinated with this region and wanted to return to explore it further. Duval-Carrié’s work often focuses on the culture and history of Haiti, providing social and political critiques. With this project, he wanted to expand his usual themes to integrate the history of Iowa and Grinnell College.

The HSSC installation will consist of 35 green-tinted epoxy resin blocks set into a metal grid and lit from behind. Poured in a series of six liquid layers, the resin blocks encase archival images depicting historic scenes from Haiti, Grinnell, and 19th century plantation life. Each layer also contains three-dimensional objects such as keys, plastic figures, beads, and sequins to highlight or complement the images and their meanings. The green tint of the blocks is indicative of Iowa cornfields and represents the intertwined agricultural history of Haiti and the United States. Presented together, the resin blocks become a “collage of histories,” says Duval-Carrié.

An Opportunity for Creative Freedom

“My favorite part about working with Edouard was his free-flowing style,” says Esther Hwang ’19, a sociology major who took the short course as an opportunity to combine activism and art. “He took students' creative input seriously and valued variance in ideas.”

In addition to the five students enrolled in the short course, students from a First-Year Tutorial focusing on the Haitian revolution, six history students interested in the Caribbean, and others joined in to make blocks of their own. None of the students who participated were art majors. Instead, all were drawn in by the subject matter, which Duval-Carrié left intentionally broad to give students creative freedom. “I gave them the theme and the color and the format,” Duval-Carrié explains, “but the rest is theirs.”

An Exploration of Shared History

“I have never participated in a collaborative art project like this before, but I loved it!” says Amelia Geser ’19, an art history major who enrolled in the short course. “Although we received credit and had appointed meeting times it never felt like a class. It felt more like a collaborative project with each person bringing their own specialty, whether it be in Caribbean history, Grinnell history, etc.”

The result is 35 unique blocks, all of which tell distinct stories. One block depicts a map of Iowa’s Underground Railroad. Another portrays J.B. Grinnell, the town’s abolitionist founder. Still another has ledgers and coins from 19th century Haiti. When the blocks are installed in the HSSC, there will be a display written by the student creators, explaining the meaning behind their designs.

“History has a lot to teach us and we tend to forget things,” says Duval-Carrié. He enjoys getting students to explore historical themes through resin because the blocks serve a double purpose: They display potentially forgotten images from history, and they capture how the artist chooses to interpret those images.

“I think it's so great that Grinnell is able to host visiting artists and professors,” says Geser. “My advice to younger students is to always be on the lookout for short courses taught by such interesting and unique people!”

Artist and two students use a blowtorch on a resin block