Art intern finds meaningful experience, inspiration through sesquicentennial installation
Is Maturano, fourth-year studio art student, hasn’t quite wrapped their mind around a recent experience helping others experience Virginia Tech history.
Maturano recently interned with Floyd County artist Carrie Gault to create four pairs of 10 1/2-foot-tall, 1,800-pound thresholds now installed on the grounds of Solitude. The thresholds are adorned with more than 2,000 hand-crafted, hand-painted clay tiles depicting images that represent more than 250 years of university and regional history.
“I don’t think I fully understand the scope of it,” said Maturano. “I guess for me, it feels kind of sneaky, having planted my little grubby fingers on this big university project."
Gault’s public art installation “Thresholds: Understanding Our Complicated Past and Reconnecting Our Layered Histories” was one of two works commissioned as the result of an international competition held by the Council on Virginia Tech History. Gault’s work and fellow Floyd County artist Charlie Brouwer’s “Think on These Things” were recently installed near Solitude. The pieces were celebrated as an illustration of the council’s work, which began four years ago in preparation of the Virginia Tech Sesquicentennial and included a variety of projects and programming.
“Today is the culmination of a journey that began in 2017, when President [Tim] Sands formed the Council on Virginia Tech History,” Menah Pratt, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, said during a reception for the projects on Dec. 1.
Gault moved to her 38-acre farm in Southwest Virginia about 10 years ago and began a career in public art after 15 years of working in architecture in Charlotte, North Carolina. She said art competitions aren’t normally attractive to her, but the university’s effort to recognize its past in a more authentic and inclusive manner made this one different.
“Because it was Tech, and I really appreciate that they are trying to do something more to recognize their troubled history being on plantation property, it was very intriguing to me,” Gault said.
One of her stipulations, however, was to be connected with a Virginia Tech student from an underrepresented group who could assist her as a paid intern.
“I feel like diversity is our greatest asset,” said Gault. “You don’t have to pick between the best 'and' diversity. There’s a 'both/and' there. And I think because of the topic — because Tech is trying to recognize the non-white folks who have called this place home — it felt important to me to have other voices around me.”
Having a father from Mexico and mother of European descent, Maturano said they felt a personal connection to the project.
“I’m like this mix of colonizer and Indigenous people, and so I feel like part of my history is kind of erased in a way. And when it comes to my own identity, I am unsure,” Maturano said. “I am very far removed from my cultural roots, whitewashed, I guess. And although I am trying to decolonize myself, I cannot ignore how I've participated in and benefited from those systems in the past, as we all do in some way, and how these truths can be right in front of us, yet we can remain so far removed from them for most of our lives.
“On that level, I related to the Virginia Tech story itself and what I find so interesting about this piece,” they said.
Maturano first heard of the internship opportunity via email, but the project’s details weren’t revealed until the interview process.
“Just to be able to work under an artist was exciting because I’ve never gotten that experience before,” they said.
Hearing more about the work, Maturano said they were increasingly drawn to the project because of both the idea of creating an experience and exploring the interwoven histories of the region.
“The nature of [art] installations is they place you within the art instead of placing you outside of the art,” Maturano said. “I feel like just by being on this land, we are unavoidably a part of this story. Just by virtue of being here, we’re a product of all this history … and I feel like that was something very important for me to put in front of people.”
Maturano was one of two interns who assisted with the thresholds. The other was Hannah Walters, a young professional Gault met through her connections in the community. Both were critical to getting the art accomplished during the short timeframe, which began in June.
“There were times when they were helping us weed things or pick up hay or move sheep fencing,” said Gault. “They were super colleagues, and I really, honestly could not have finished on time without either of them.”
From hand rolling and preparing the more than 2,000 tiles to helping lay down a cement floor to work on, Maturano said the experience was invaluable, and the biggest lesson learned was quite simple – art is work.
“Such an installation like this, there’s a lot of labor in it,” Maturano said. “Not that I was surprised … especially for how grand in scale it is. Just getting those things out of the barn took a whole day using a tractor and pulley system. It was intense.”
Gault said she hopes all of the labor pays off in the form of a meaningful experience for the Virginia Tech community.
“I’m not a historian and this is not an historical marker, this is art,” Gault said. “For me, this piece is about imagining the other people that were there and giving them voice. And it is sort of ghostly and hopefully evocative.”
Maturano said they hope the installation also helps others find inspiration to create more public art.
“I hope it can motivate others in a sense,” they said. “I hope that this isn’t just something that’s over now, but that there are more public art works that studio students get to work on in the future.”