Wintersession workshop helps students see their world in black and white

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Enlivening an Adams House space during the relative calm of Wintersession, Stephen Coit ’71, M.B.A. ’77, and William Shen ’22, HMS ’26, co-taught a two-day portraiture workshop.

“We have a pop-up studio here. We show up. We turned it into a world. We’re world creators,” said Coit. “I think COVID has changed the culture of students for a while. I’m happy to say in this class I see a return to commitment and passion … The students in this class are staying late. And they’re trying to get it right. They’re deeply committed to succeeding.”

Co-teacher Steve Coit’s 28 portraits hanging across campus, including Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck in Annenberg Hall, Archie Epps in University Hall, and Rosa Rios in Winthrop House.

Coit and Shen, whose own portraits grace the halls of Harvard (Coit has 28 across the University, Shen has two in Adams House, and both counts continue to grow) shared lessons in art-making that very quickly translated to life lessons.

The students, a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, all of whom are engaged in studies outside of studio arts, absorbed lessons in perception and the importance of making mistakes.

“It is about venturing out and recovering,” Coit said. With sticks of charcoal and blackened erasers in hand, eight students crafted portraits of people they hold dear.

“The essence of drawing is not drawing what you believe to be there, but what is seen,” he said. “They’re all wrestling with banishing preconceived notions. And that is the key to drawing, is banishing preconceived notions.”

Translating color images to black and white allowed the students to explore questions about perception. “There’s actually a lot of optical illusions that are in play that we don’t really think about everyday … to paint not what you think you see, but we what you actually see,” Shen shares. “In nature, there are no perfect lines. So in art, that’s the same thing. And we can actually take advantage of the way that our brain perceives the world by intentionally making some of the lines rougher.

“All of them understood pretty quickly, that you have to venture out, make mistakes, and fix them … And it’s a great life lesson.”

Sharing a student sentiment from the class, Coit said, “This course teaches you how you wish you had an eraser in your life. Because in this course, you use an eraser equally with charcoal to create what you want. And wouldn’t it be nice if you had a day-to-day eraser that worked in the same way?”

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