Breaking Down Barriers to Create Public Art
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:28
Photo courtesy of Maria Darrow '15
“She’s got a way of being aware of space and the way people take up space,” said Darrow’s sister, Cassie.

It was a Thursday night, and the room in the Octagon was softly lit with strings of Christmas lights. The long wooden tables, pieced together during the day, were spread at various angles around the room, covered with tablecloths and plates of cheese. A spotlight shone from the second floor balcony into the corner of the room.

When I walked in, students were clustered around various tables, engaged in conversation. Surprised by the transformation of the room in which I usually have an 8 a.m. lecture, I stood by the door with two other first-years, unsure of where to go. We had heard whispers of a “House of Poems,” a monthly event where Amherst students come to recite their favorite poetry. “Bring a poem,” the email read, “and spread the word.”

A girl with curly blond hair and a big silver goblet in hand approached us, smiling, “Welcome! I’m Maria,” she said. She proceeded to introduce us to others at a table, and upon making sure everyone had a drink, she stepped into the spotlight, and recited Sierra Demulder’s poem “Vaginazilla.”

“A response poem to your poem about how buying tampons for your daughter is terrifying, but you do it because you love her,” she began.

Her eyes were closed, and her hands moved in expressive circles. Upon stumbling on a line, she laughed. Her embarrassment was genuine, and her laughter, warm, so we laughed along with her.

An Awareness of Space

Most people who know Maria Darrow talk about her presence, but inevitably struggle to find the right words to express it.
Jeffrey Feldman ’15 described “being struck by her presence” when he met her in North Dormitory their first year at Amherst.

“I distinctively remember looking into the common room and seeing everyone surrounding her. She seemed very present, partly because of her wild hair,” he joked.

Whether through her musical and artistic collaborations — and there are many, both intentional and improvisational: bands, open-mics, films, songs, jams, duets — or just through her everyday interactions with people around her, Darrow has a way of bringing people together, perhaps unintentionally.

Darrow’s sister, Cassie, a first-year at Yale, often visited her, and the two performed duets at Marsh Coffee Haus.
“She’s got a way of being aware of space and the way people take up space,” Cassie Darrow said.

Indeed, while her energy and smile naturally draw others to her, Darrow is most interested in those around her. She listens, instead of speaking, and even during this interview, I found myself answering almost as many questions as I was asking. “What do you think?” she would ask, turning my own questions back on me. “Why?”

Her receptiveness to others is most clearly expressed in her artwork. As a practice of art major, Darrow’s thesis aims to create public art at the college. By painting large murals of female Amherst students onto the walls of four social dorms, Darrow challenges our notions of, and complicity in, the Amherst social scene — reorienting everyone who shares the space.
Feldman recalled a resident of a social dorm asking her, “What does it mean?”

“What do you think it means?” Darrow replied. The student was reluctant to respond. They went back and forth, questioning one another, until he was finally moved to speak his own opinion.

“She’s less interested in talking about her own work, but would rather listen to people and see them react to it, even if their opinions are tangential to her own thinking,” Feldman said.

Her commitment to creating public art — she even painted live during her thesis exhibition — embodies not only her desire to include everyone in her artistic process, but also her intrinsic understanding of space. She inspires us to realize that we, too, share this space with one another.

Taking the Journey

When I asked her to share some of her accomplishments at Amherst with me, Darrow instead began to recount her most memorable experiences here, starting from meeting her FOOT trip leader during orientation. She recalled the many unexpected conversations she has had at Amherst, her time playing Frisbee and her decision to leave the a capella group the Bluestockings so that she could “actually hang out” with friends.

Rather than focusing on her successes, Darrow emphasized her passion for “failing” sculpture. She said Sculpture I was the “hardest class” she took because she has “never been asked to think in this way before.”

“I felt like I was failing all the time,” she admitted.

Her solution? “So I decided to take Sculpture II, and I still felt like I was failing, but was constantly trying to come up with solutions to problems,” she said. “It always feels nearly impossible.”

Darrow is clearly more focused on the process of making art than the final product. On stage, she improvises lyrics and guitar melodies. In her art, she incorporates her process of creation so that the process itself becomes art.

“Her spirit of openness and exploration allows her not to catch the prize, but take the journey,” Feldman said.

Demanding Permission

Darrow described being frustrated with the way that Amherst is “resistant to diversity of thinking, and different forms of expression.”

“We are so obsessed with cleanliness and homogeneity,” she said. “We are great critical thinkers, and can write great academic papers on our social scene, tearing it apart, but we are not good at creating things and inciting change.”

Darrow decided to paint on the walls of the socials despite the fact that she hadn’t received official permission from the college. As a part of her thesis exhibition, she posted a wall of printed email correspondences, photos and articles, documenting the administrative hurdles she has experienced trying to display her art.

At first, Darrow tried to gain administrative approval. Even though she knew the official route would be long, frustrating and strenuous, she thought it would be valuable to establish a way for other students to create public art in the future. She said she wanted to “force them to come up with a solution so it would be a possibility for others,” and document the process.

The process proved to be impossible. And so, “I just went ahead and did it,” she said. With this act, she said she hoped to push against not only the actions of Amherst’s administration, but also a culture of complicity and complacency within the student body.

When Darrow told me that her murals would be taken down in the next few days, I expressed my anger, pointing out that there is considerable support for her art amongst faculty and students.

“I don’t necessarily want people to defend my art,” she replied. “You know, there are so many important things happening in the world.”

Breaking Barriers

It is difficult to pin down Maria Darrow with a label of any sort. She has a knack of finding and opening up communities, and traveling amongst them, while maintaining her own sense of identity.

On campus, she is a part of the Ultimate Frisbee team, but describes herself as preferring to belong on the periphery. She moved off campus her senior year in order to live with friends.

She has embedded herself in the local Amherst community in many ways. She spent her sophomore summer working at Simple Gifts Farm. By making a documentary about The Harp, an Irish pub in town, she got to know Amherst’s music scene.
Darrow resists being defined by any single organization or identity, allowing a rare openness. Feldman referred to this openness as her constantly maintaining an “understanding of herself outside of the various communities.”

Darrow mentioned that she came to realize just how “precious” the Amherst communities were to her after coming back from studying abroad in Paris.

“What a strange gift it is to have all these nerdy people who just really appreciate thinking, and each other,” she said.
She thinks, however, that there are not enough intimate spaces on campus to help us realize this sense of community. She spoke of the need to have more spaces similar to the House of Poems, spaces that are both inclusive and safe.

“People should have spaces not only for events,” she said. “We want as many people as possible to come to the House of Poems, but they have to seek it out and be willing to respect vulnerability, and be vulnerable enough to travel there.”

Into the Void

As we came to the end of our conversation, I realized that I had been so inspired by Darrow’s engagement in the present moment that I had forgotten to ask about her plans for the future.

“In the summer, I am going home to Portland, Maine,” she said. “My sister and I are planning a series of community workshops at our library, working with kids. We want to involve people in the community to share their skills. The workshops will have an underlying feminist theme.”

She said that it would be nice to be home for a while, recalling that some high school students she worked with on a mural through a grant from the Mead Art Museum had told her, “Portland misses you.”

“Well, what about after the summer?” I asked.

Without a pause, she replied, “To enter the void. I want to explore. That’s the plan.”