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Commonwealth seniors Annie Jones, Tom Greany, and Addie Moore Gerety.

From left to right: Annie Jones ‘22, Tom Greany ’22, and Addie Moore Gerety ’22.

Endless Points of Connection

By Claire Jeantheau 

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." That quote comes to us from John Muir, but it could have been spoken by any of the three Commonwealth seniors who undertook capstone projects this year. Addie Moore Gerety ’22 found that an animation project in multiple art styles reconfigured her perceptions of media and performance. Tom Greany ’22 delved into history, chemistry, and politics to analyze the influences of two Italian postwar writers. And the artistic study of mushrooms brought Annie Jones ’22 to the threshold between the fantastical and the ordinary—and between art and science.

Naturally, all three learned along the way that the research process is never static—any project with such scope is bound to evolve once or twice. Or, according to Tom, "four times before I even really started"... 

Finding Chemistry in Fantasy  

The ceramic plate ripples inward from its black rim, like the surface of a pond or a cauldron. A splotch of neon cerulean floats in an emerald glaze. The colors play out over row after row of rings.

The plate is simultaneously dreamlike and organic. It's a test sample from Annie's capstone, and she has spent the last year shaping intricately decorated ceramic tiles and other works in miniature. "Each tile will have its own image that will flow together with the others to create one cohesive image, and my main focus is mushrooms," Annie says. "My goal is to have each tile have so much going on in it, so much variety and color and texture, that you can look all over the image and find something new."

Why mushrooms? For Annie, the arts have always been "an escape" from the daily routine of high-level academic classes, a place for her to use her hands along with her brain. At Commonwealth, she's explored everything from ceramics to printmaking to photography. When designing her capstone, she was drawn to the fungus for its whimsical connotations—like her art classes, they contrast with the everyday.            

"The mushrooms are a point between fantasy and reality. They have so many properties. They're so distinct. They're found all around. When I'm working with clay, as things go into the kiln, they melt, they warp, and their shapes change. [But] a shape like a mushroom is so distinct that no matter what, it would pretty much be recognizable," Annie explains.            

But the capstone is rooted in chemistry, too. When firing on tiles in the ceramics studio kiln, Annie observed how different combinations of materials react in high heat and experimented with the composition of glazes. She's loved working with ceramics teacher Kyla Toomey, who is also her instructor for this year's Science and Art of Materials class, a course focusing on topics like the atomic configurations behind different colors and the composition of clay.            

Annie began the capstone with materials and tile layouts, she began the capstone with an expansive wall piece in mind; over time, though, she felt that she had strayed away from what she found compelling about ceramics in the first place. "The repetition of making tile after tile after tile was taking a lot of the joy away from it," Annie remembers. "The essential part of ceramics that I truly enjoy is the potter's wheel. So [I've been trying] to bring that back a little bit." Annie's final piece will feature smaller–but still interconnected—tiles, along with multiple mushroom-shaped pots, allowing her to craft the detailed touches she treasures making.        

Annie is uncertain about how her life will change when she begins college at the University of Michigan in the fall. However, she predicts that, just as her ceramic mushroom shapes remain distinct in the kiln, art will maintain a steady presence. "[Ceramics] has its ups and downs," she says. "But it is a beautiful process, learning how materials work, and how you, as a creator, can manipulate them." 

Writing After War

It could be the beginning of a riddle, rather than a line of research: Two works are published in the same year, by authors living in the same city, following one of the most devastating conflicts in world history. Each book is its author's debut. "There was this kind of weird historical coin- cidence," Tom muses. "But it seemed quite important."

The works in question are If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, the author's account of surviving Auschwitz, and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, an allegorical collection of prose poems depicting fictional cities and their governance. Tom finished the former during spring break of his junior year, had the latter recommended by English teacher Sasha Eskelund ’92, and then discovered that both were published in 1947 in Milan.                     

The similarities continued beyond the surface level, Tom realized. Both writers had an eye for historical comparisons in a time of fascist movements. They used comparable narrative frameworks of a journey through suffering, which, Tom believes, shows their "infatuation with Dante—which makes sense, since they're Italian writers." Ultimately, "they're both broadly concerned with issues of how Italian people dealt with the war."                    

To Tom's surprise, there was little research addressing the connections between the two. So he embarked on writing a scholarly paper of approximately fifty pages comparing the influences on each writer's narrative purposes and what, exactly, those purposes were. "It would be easy just to say that the difference in intent was because Primo Levi was a Holocaust survivor, and Italo Calvino wasn't, or because Primo Levi was Jewish and was the voice of Auschwitz," Tom explains. "But I think it's a bit more complicated than that, partly because there are a number of documents written by Levi himself that suggests that his inspiration for writing wasn't actually his survival experiences—that there were [other things] in him that spurred him to write."        

Each writer's motives, Tom hopes to show, come from a complex web of intellectual interests. He argues that Levi, a chemist, took a scientific and analytical approach to communicating his personal history; Calvino, affected by political movements, constructed fictional histories in Invisible Cities to process the changes happening around him. At one point, the winding route of research took Tom to Italy to examine primary sources at various archives: "It was pretty intimidating...but I got some useful notes there."                

Levi's and Calvino's works address long-resonant themes of conflict and history. But Tom sensed a new necessity in his capstone work after Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022. Another similarity in both authors' accounts came to the forefront: their insights on how to process living through and acting during a war. "The basic dynamics of power are being repeated again, and again, and again. It's sad," Tom reflects. "There's a sense that people aren't being equipped with the basic tools to figure out what they need to do and why. In that sense, it's been really nice to have the opportunity to get to the bottom of something and understand how it relates to current affairs."

Animating the Everyday

Addie was watching a documentary—Man with a Movie Camera, by pioneering Russian director Dziga Vertov—in her History of Film class at Commonwealth. Clips of daily life of citizens in the then–Soviet Union flashed across the screen. She was struck by how Vertov's subjects interacted with the camera, a revolutionary device at the time of the film's production in the 1920s. "It's pre-iPhone, obviously, but also pre-transportable camera," Addie recalls. "[Vertov's] got a tripod in the back of a car that he's standing behind to film it all. And people don't really know how to behave in front of the camera...so what ends up happening is a lot of the people he films just act super natural. They don't notice the camera or alter their behavior."

The film made her wonder: how attentive are we to the motions of our own bodies through our everyday experiences? A capstone was taking shape. Addie would create her own film that (to borrow her description of Vertov's work) would act as an "exploration of the mundane."

Addie's short multimedia film follows a character modeled after Addie herself, rendered in paintings and drawings. The character's actions harken Vertov's film, with its subjects "just sitting around having lunch at the beach...or on couches in their home," but based on quotidian acts from Addie's own life: putting on socks, brushing teeth, eating an orange.

Addie, a longtime visual artist, enriched her education at Commonwealth with classes like Drawing and Painting and Life Drawing; the capstone, however, marked her first foray into animation. (One unexpected inspiration? Experimenting with TikTok during the pandemic: "There's a stop-motion filter on there that makes it very, very easy to animate. I spent a lot of time in quarantine using that filter on drawings I had made.")                    

After beginning the project by coloring individual frames in Photoshop—a process that reminded her of the earliest Disney animators' work—Addie transitioned to using editing apps like ProCreate on her iPad. The resulting film blends hand-drawn and digitally edited art, and Addie credits mentors like art teacher Caleb Colpitts and Director of Facilities and Information Technology Adam Hinterlang for helping her determine how to combine her media.    

The meticulous editing process has given Addie time to contemplate the questions underpinning her work. What does it mean to grow up in a society with unprecedented access to filming—to say nothing of digital filters and editing? How does that affect the way we perceive our bodies and the actions—even the simplest ones—that they perform?

"I've always been told by our teachers that 'you need to draw what you think you see,'" Addie remarks. As she recalls scenes in her head and wonders how to animate them, "there's two versions" of perception, she says, that play out. "There's a movie montage of getting ready in the morning—splashing water on your face and running out the door. And then there's the monotony of those kinds of simple moments." Unlike Vertov's subjects, captured on film when the camera was a novelty, Addie must grapple with what changes between imagination, reality, and the screen.  
 

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Claire Jeantheau is the Communications Coordinator at Commonwealth. This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.