Mellby Lecture engages sacred places through art

The Spring 2017 Mellby Lecture was delivered by Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Fine Arts Mary Griep. Professors and students came to Viking Theater on Tuesday, April 11, to hear Griep talk about her “Anastylosis” project. The talk was called “Descent Into Detail” and covered the 18-year project, as well as some of Griep’s thoughts on subjects ranging from drawing to education.

Griep has taught at St. Olaf since 1988. Before coming to campus, she was a practicing artist domestically and internationally. She has also had residencies in Austria, the Dominican Republic and Thailand. In the introduction to the talk, Professor of Religion Deane Lagerquist mentioned that Griep had also formerly worked framing pictures and described the ways this profession applies to the classroom.

“It certainly involves more than skill with hand tools,” Lagerquist said. “It also requires the ability to see what is important in an image, and then to select the matte and the frame that will enhance the artist’s work. I am sure you will recognize that Mary transferred her hands-on framing experience to the metaphorical framing and then re-framing that is so crucial to helping students learn, and to helping colleagues gain new insight.”

In the fall, Griep exhibited the 12-piece “Anastlyosis” collection in Flaten Art Museum. Each painstaking drawing depicts a sacred place from the 11th or 12th century. The buildings shown are located around the world, from France’s Chartres Cathedral to the Buddhist temple of Thatbyinnyu in Myanmar. The project explores how to depict on a flat surface the experience of visiting a sacred building by deconstructing the space to show light hitting the floor, the passage of time on a building and juxtaposing interiors with exteriors. Later works even show the passage of time, like a drawing of the Mayan temple El Castillo and a picture of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice after floods brought on by climate change.

Griep’s talk was primarily structured around a summary of the 12 pieces in “Anastylosis,” from the way each piece originated to an analysis of the development of her thoughts about space, motion and the impossibility of truly capturing a building. To do this, Griep cited influential French architect Le Corbusier, who pushed for a concept of a landmark that goes beyond a “postcard view” to a view that encompasses details like the inside, the paint, shadows and lighting.

“Tonight I will talk about how I have approached the project as a method of discovery using Le Corbusier’s understanding of architecture, which requires movement in space and time, focus and observational skills,” Griep said.

The lecture also covered other areas of wisdom gleaned from 29 years of teaching, such as the ethics of attempting to represent a sacred space and the eye necessary for drawing. It was moments like these that stood out, allowing Griep to showcase her expertise in education, art and the meaning of a sacred space.

“Most people who teach drawing contend that drawing is a skill that does not depend on hand-eye coordination, but rather on teaching your brain to really see,” Griep said. “If you can write your name with a pencil, you have enough hand-eye coordination to draw. To begin, you just need to spend time looking. Thirty years of teaching drawing have taught me you can’t draw what you can’t perceive or notice. Drawing is slow, more looking than drawing. What’s needed is what’s termed ‘a good eye,’ which, when it comes down to it, is discerning and selective focus. Much of what I try to teach is that focus.”

Time was set aside for questions at the end of the talk. Griep said that her next work for “Anastylosis” will take her to Sicily, and she remarked that the greatest challenge with her work is not having a studio big enough to see each piece put together. This means she sometimes has to redo parts after seeing a piece installed. She also commented on the state of sacred spaces today, considering the destruction of cultural landmarks and the move away from the construction of ornate spaces.

“We don’t build big grand public spaces the way we used to. We used to do big capitol buildings that draw on all these things, and we tend not to build the same kind of spaces, I think. I think that’s an issue – is sacred architecture always old?”

Griep will retire at the end of this summer, rendering this Mellby tribute not only a thoughtful examination of an involved project and human nature, but also a poignant tribute to an active member of the St. Olaf community.