Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Ben Lisle and his students prepared for a visit from renowned artist Theaster Gates during his September residency at Colby, the first under the new Lunder Institute for American Art.

Arts, Creativity and Innovation

Gates is an internationally respected social practice artist, notable for his innovative use of architecture, reclaimed materials, and collections for evocative installations about the urban experience. Prior to his visit, the class read about Gates, his work, and his method, and crafted a plan for his visit. But after Gates left the class—Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development—a new vision for the class, the students, and the professor emerged.

Meeting Gates in person—a founding principle of the institute, to engage artists, faculty, and students deeply into the purpose and possibilities of art—was an altogether different experience from how Gates was reflected from afar. What emerged was about art, but also philosophy about linking creativity and community.

“So much of what he talked about was the ways that you talk to people and develop relationships outside your institutional persona,” said Lisle.

Gates led students to think of themselves, not as representatives of Colby in Waterville, but as residents of their community. That left students and Lisle rethinking the way they might fit into urban environments and feeling like their citizenship had in some ways broadened from that perspective.

“For me,” Lisle said, “that’s the kind of human outcome I hope to see.”

Gates has redefined citizenship as founder and director of the Rebuild Foundation, which focuses on culturally driven development and affordable-space initiatives in under-resourced communities. Also the director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago, he works to design and implement new approaches to urban development.

At Colby he also met with students in economics, African-American studies, sociology, and art. Lisle’s American studies students will be developing actual proposals for urban interventions in Waterville—inspired by Gates’s work.

Community meeting, Waterville South End
Community meeting, Waterville South End

Gates’s inaugural residency brings the vision of the Lunder Institute into focus as a global center for the study and scholarship of American art, and a new legacy for the institute’s benefactors, Peter and Paula Lunder, whose support of the arts and philanthropy with Colby and beyond is legendary. The institute is about turning artwork into scholarship.

The visit from Gates did just that. Early on in the semester, the students had already begun to rethink their relationship to space and community and the ways that those are expressed, seeing the built environment as something that is dynamic and malleable and something you can actually change, as opposed to just being inert and powerless, Lisle said.

“Working with [Gates] helps us continue that kind of thinking and reconfigure the ways we think about ourselves, in Waterville and whatever else we do.”