Davidson art majors talk process, inspiration, and campus culture

Lucas Weals-

No Applause by Rebecca Pempek ’20

Paper and Plaster by Maura Tangum ’20

A Giant Torn in Clouds by Rebecca Pempek ’20

This week I sat down with two art majors, Maura Tangum ‘20 and Rebecca Pempek ‘20, to talk about their influences, their creative processes, and the role that art plays in their lives here at Davidson. Their responses, printed below, are lightly edited for length and clarity.


Q. Would you say you have a primary medium? What do you think attracted you to the kind of art you’re making now?

A. My primary medium has shifted a lot over the last couple of years, from graphite to plaster to paper. I have always been most drawn to fabric, or any flexible material which I can manipulate to form a “fabric.” This is because I’ve always been interested in fashion design, which I am pursuing right now through sculpture. Whenever I find a flexible material—whether it be a leaf, a piece of netting, an orange peel, or a swatch of literal fabric—I have a habit of holding it up to my own body, to visualize how I could make it wearable.

Recently, I’ve become interested in found fabrics with a tangible history—such an old lace tablecloths, bedsheets, mattress covers, and quilts. I’m interested in how fabrics like this can be reimagined and repurposed while visibly maintaining their unique histories. I spent this past June cutting up literally all the old pillowcases and linens I could find my house. I was drawn to their histories—many of them were worn and tattered in places and looked ancient and well-loved. I didn’t like the fact that they had been sitting in the linen closet, collecting dust for years, so I created some patterns and made them into clothes. It was pretty much that scene in The Sound of Music when Julie Andrews tears apart a bunch of curtains to make janky outfits for all the Von Trapp kids. The things I made were kind of odd—though original —and for the first time ever I had total creative freedom over what I was wearing and what I could create for myself. It was really exciting.

Q. What would you describe as the biggest non-artistic influences on your art?

A. One huge non-artistic influence for me has always been the fashions of old films, particularly costumes designed by Edith Head during the 40’s and 50’s and costumes featured in Alfred Hitchcock films. When watching any film I’m prone to spending more time analyzing what the extras are wearing than actually following the film’s plot. I grew up primarily watching films from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, and the costumes featured in these films have always stuck with me—I try to make much of the fashion-related sculpture I create harken back to times when people “dressed up” more regularly and donned more dramatic silhouettes. I’m also very inspired by antiques and anything possessing a history or interesting past life. I love looking for odd materials in unusual places. I’m also inspired by clothing worn by my favorite musicians, especially the clothing worn by the members of the contemporary girl-band HAIM. One of the HAIM members went out wearing a literal shag carpet once—it was made into a jacket. I thought that was so weird but cool. This inspired me to make a tank top out of this old woven, Aztec-pattern placemat I found in a thrift store this summer. I wore it to my first concert!

Q. I’m interested in your artistic trajectory—how you place your work in context of your past projects and your hopes for the future. Could you elaborate on that?

A. I’m always having this tug-of-war between pure fashion and sculpture, so I think my future work will fall somewhere in between those two concepts. I want to make more wearable pieces from recycled fabrics as well. I think there’s a huge market for sustainable fashion right now, which I would be so down to pursue in the future. Last year, I got really involved in process—i.e. how materials are manipulated to produce a desired effect. I started experimenting a lot without really thinking things through beforehand and I loved the results.This kind of experimentation isn’t something I (and other students) get to do as much in other academic contexts here at Davidson. Because of this, I find it really refreshing.

It’s therapy.


Q. I understand you have a show coming up. What are some influences on the new work? How do you feel it differs from your previous projects?

A. The show is called A Disfigure Study, and it will run from November 1st through Mid-December, Opening November 3rd, at P.S. Art / Silver Circle Gallery in Putnam, Connecticut.

I have spent years trying to perfect the human form. Sketch after sketch rendering a slightly more perfect, more sharp figure, leaving each preceding notion of the form shrouded in the light of a new one. Unsatisfied with the quest for perfection and hungry for a new practice, I began to embrace the distortions. In the distance between internalizing an image and putting it onto canvas, there are different points of distortion, yielding a greater distance from the truth. As an image filters from the brain, to the hand, and onto the canvas, it undergoes a series of alterations, ultimately generating a sort of distinct beauty. If the opposite of destruction is creation, and destruction is a form of creation, and the opposite of distortion is perfection, then distortion must be a form of perfection.   

This show features five (maybe six or seven if I finish in time) of my paintings, as well as a collection of sketchbook print-collages. This was the first time I worked with oil paints and the first time working on such large surfaces (6’ x 5’). In grappling with this new medium, I attempted to make same rigid and intricate marks found in my sketchbook. I was frustrated with this practice and soon discovered the potential for layering, scraping, and playing with paint thinness/thickness. These works are all based on the stream-of-consciousness, meaning that I paint as I go, layering marks that represent thoughts onto the canvas.

Q. Coming from a more literary background, I love the idea of steam-of-consciousness in painting. Would you cite any particular literary influences on your work?

A. I read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man back in high school. The kunstlerroman details the qualms of Stephen Daedalus (thought to be a projection of Joyce himself) as he pursues a life of art. Stephen’s character resonated with me so much, especially at such an impressionable age. The thought of pursuing art as a career rather than an activity was and is actually quite terrifying, and the novel details that fear in its entirety.

Aside from Joyce, I’d mention [American artist] Kent Williams, [poet and critic] T.S. Elliot, and [Austrian painter] Egon Schiele.

Q. Davidson is definitely known more for its academics than for its art. Do you find your art nourished by the atmosphere and people here, or is it more like a haven or escape?

A. The atmosphere and people at Davidson most definitely influence my work. If you see me sitting around campus with my sketchbook, I am most likely creating collages inspired by the people walking by and the energy in particular environments. That said, I turn to the painting studio to escape when particular atmospheres or interactions become too overwhelming.

Q. How about the influence of other academics on your art? Do you find yourself working out problems or interests from other disciplines in your work?

A. Regardless of what course of study I pursue; I continuously seek connections to the art world. I cannot create without challenging myself in other subjects. After struggling to wrap my head around conceptions of self, or certain biological or statistical analysis, I will turn to either my sketchbook or a canvas to sort out my thoughts. I have always taken inspiration from other areas of study, as my first solo show, Order in Disorder, looked at biological concepts through art. Art has been and continues to be a way for me to conceptualize the everyday.