Visiting artist series launches with insight from Jea Alford ’11

Ryder Brookes, A&E Reporter

Imagine coming back to Whitman College a decade after you graduate to give prospective students advice about their possible career paths.

This past Monday, Sept. 23, the Art Department and Student Engagement Center (SEC) kicked off their Visiting Alumni Artist Series, a collective bringing Whitman alumni back to campus to display their talents and thought processes to prospective art majors and the Whitman community. The Art Department chose these artists because of the meaningful work they’ve been producing after graduation. 

The series is brand new to Whitman, established by both professors from the Art Department and the staff at the SEC, inviting Jea Alford ‘11 to be the first of three alumni to visit campus this fall semester. The collective chose Alford because of the unique path she chose to pursue after graduating: becoming an educator at Portland State University, owning a small clothing company and creating unique visuals using various mediums.

Alford’s piece, “Clocking Out,” examines the interplay of work and rest. Contributed photos by Jeanier Alford.

When asked about the motivation behind starting this new series, Art Professor Justin Lincoln said he heard his students frequently ask, “What can I do with an art degree?” Professor Lincoln and other faculty found it difficult to answer this question because of the numerous career paths one can pursue after receiving a bachelor’s in art. 

“Answers that we as faculty can give, especially what we did between undergraduate education and teaching, is varied,” Lincoln said. 

The Art Department decided they wanted students to receive a broader look at what Whitman alumni are pursuing post-graduation and the contrasting career trajectories they choose to follow.  After gaining support from the Student Engagement Center, Professor Lincoln and other professors began contacting past alumni who they saw as innovative and highly engaged in the wide breadth of the art field. 

“There are always many ways to find, and sometimes create, jobs that connect with a student’s interests,” SEC director Noah Leavitt said. 

With the SEC’s goal of exposing Whitman students to alternate career paths and the Art Department’s drive to bring alumni to campus, the Visiting Alumni Artists Series was set into motion.

Jea Alford performs “Total Liquidation,” a work centered around businesses and daily rituals. Contributed photos by Jea Alford.

The first guest they invited to campus was Jea Alford, an interdisciplinary artist who uses various mediums of fabric, video and paper. The SEC and the Art Department chose Alford because of her senior thesis about labor and the unhealthy role of the economy she wrote back in 2011. Her work centers around her critique of the economic system in the United States, highlighting the problems of wealth distribution, capitalist ideals and the unhealthy push for productivity. 

Alford elaborated upon how her critiques have influenced the mediums she uses.

“My interest in how we spend our time as a society has led to including time-based media such as performance and video in my practice,” Alford said. 

Growing up in a small town outside of Portland in a working-class family, her move to Whitman College was a major culture shock. The transition from a lower to upper-middle class environment ignited her exploration into the themes of economic inequality. 

The SEC and the Art Department are looking forward to welcoming two other alumni artists in the next couple months. 

Lincoln hopes that students will find the series useful and maintain its momentum.

“I’m really looking forward to learn[ing] more about the differences and similarities in the paths of the three alumni,” he said. “There are so many great candidates.”

Jea Alford’s installation “This Isn’t Working” explores themes including aesthetics and efficiency. Contributed photo by Jeanier Alford