Courtesy of Cornell University

March 4, 2021

LU | Love Letter to Tjaden Hall: The Practice of Collectivity

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Returning to campus after nearly a year away, the new rhythms of this semester have been marked by my daily pilgrimage to Tjaden Hall. Many days I’ll trek to this corner of the Arts Quad in the morning and stay until evening, only leaving for the occasional cup of coffee or COVID test. What has occurred to me is how surprisingly easy one can stay in the same building for a day, without feeling the need to leave. Perhaps that’s the shelter-in-place training materializing, but perhaps it also speaks to the sub-worlds that exist within Tjaden.

During my freshman spring (then, I was an undeclared engineering student), the first art studio class I took was “Intro to Printmaking.” Unlike all my other classes, where work could be done wherever and whenever I had my laptop, printmaking work was located in Tjaden. Having this dedicated space for work was definitely a reprieve from the rest of Cornell, but as with any shared space, it also began to feel like a community. 

Working in the printmaking studios didn’t simply entail making etchings by yourself, but also exchanging ideas as you set your stuff down; it was walking with others to the Green Dragon after being in studio the whole afternoon, or asking someone to teach you how to burn a screen. Because of how small and intensive they are, studio classes have a way of inscribing communal learning into an art education. 

Beyond the communal aspect of studio classes, however, there’s also a special way in which Tjaden becomes a vessel for chance encounters. During Zoom University, a topic that often resurfaces is how to recreate the serendipitous conversations that would otherwise arise from running into a classmate at the library or walking out of the classroom with a professor. Perhaps this applies to many departments outside of art, but the containment of professors, students, studios, galleries, classrooms and workspaces all in a four floor building heightens the chance of these encounters occurring — in one day, you’re bound to run into and strike up a conversation with someone.

Though I’ve always been fond of this phenomenon, lately I’ve been thinking that it may actually be a critical part of art-making. Despite the romanticization of the artist-individual, I don’t believe that figure actually exists because art so often comes out of artists being in dialogue with the communities they’re members of. I’ve seen this play out in my own practice this semester, even just one month in: As part of Pre-Thesis (the class in which all spring semester junior art students are corralled together), we finally have the privilege of our own studio spaces. 

Due to COVID-induced space restrictions, a friend and I were fortuitously placed in our own room. Our move-in rituals included bringing in the mass amounts of materials we’d accumulated from past semesters, Home Depot, Ithaca ReUse and dumpster diving, taking out enough books from the library to create our own book stacks and more. The processes of living and making started to bleed into each other, and I came to depend on the dialogues we’d have in each part of the process — planning, starting, failing, re-starting, etc. — as a way of seeing perspectives beyond my own. 

Talking to my studio-mate during the week of our first critique — the presentation of “finished work” to the class — I saw the cross-fertilization and exchange of ideas and life materialize before me. I realized that the painting series I’d just finished — which encompassed seemingly disparate subject matter and iconography of Chinese urbanization, the partial return of diaspora through technology, Carlos Bulosan and American Progress — was centered around land and our relations to it, on a personal and cultural level. As I voiced this realization, she looked up and paused her carving; we stared at the topographical landscape she had been creating and laughed in recognition. 

Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected] Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.