'I learned to think about art differently': How art while abroad impacted UNC students
UNC junior Josh Massey said studying abroad exposed him to art he otherwise wouldn't have seen, like these French ceramics he saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Photo courtesy of Josh Massey.
Many students decide to study abroad during their time at UNC to take unique courses or experience what it’s like to live in a different country for part of their college career.
For these three UNC students, engaging with different art forms while abroad proved to be one of the most enriching and impactful experiences.
Street art at the base of the Alps
Kieran Patel, a junior majoring in biology and English, spent six weeks of her summer in Grenoble, France with the UNC Biology in Grenoble program. Patel took an introduction to immunology course and a French language course during her time abroad, but she said that engaging with Grenoble’s street art was one of the highlights of her experience.
While Patel was in Grenoble, a large street art festival was happening, which is where she started to notice how the city embraced graffiti.
"I got the impression that graffiti and street murals were both fairly common in the city, and not really looked down upon,” Patel said. “The festival created an environment that fostered more artists to come out and either be commissioned to paint murals on the science buildings, or just tags and things like that."
Grenoble is at the base of the Alps, and Patel said there were a lot of abandoned battlements in the cliffs surrounding the city that people could no longer enter because of asbestos. Street artists transformed the outside of the battlements into art and exterior museums.
Patel said she thought using abandoned buildings and sides of walls as canvases is an interesting way of creating public art.
"The coolest thing I took away from it was the idea that street art is taking back a part of the public domain and making it into something beautiful," Patel said.
Patel said street art was an engaging way to learn more about the culture in the French region she was studying abroad in because she could interact with the art and look at the artist to see more of what it was about.
She said observing all the street art in Grenoble gave her a new perspective on just how powerful and beautiful it could be — something she hadn’t been exposed to while traveling in the United States and at UNC.
“There are a lot of murals and wall art on Franklin Street," Patel said. "But beyond that, in North Carolina, where I've grown up, where am I going to see street art? So it wasn't really something that I actively thought about, and I'd never experienced the social power of art that's so public until going to France."
Murals and modern art across Europe
Tyler Brown, a senior double majoring in geography and history, studied abroad at King’s College London in spring 2019. In addition to taking courses at King’s, Brown spent a lot of time exploring Europe.
Brown traveled to Scotland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Denmark, Germany and Ireland in his time abroad. He said that traveling and living abroad gave him more opportunities to see and interact with different kinds of art compared to being at UNC.
“Overall, I felt like art was much more accessible abroad since I literally could not go a day without seeing some type of art,” Brown said. “Since I visited more modern art museums while abroad, the art I saw was more experimental and boundary-pushing than what I would see at the Ackland, for example. Overall, I would say it definitely changed my perspective of what art is and the importance of art.”
Brown said his favorite encounter with art abroad was visiting the East Side Gallery in Berlin, where he saw preserved standing segments of the Berlin Wall that were covered in large murals.
“Many of the murals deal with German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it has become a way for the city’s residents to advocate for peace and understanding,” Brown said. “I think the most powerful mural on the wall was one that had 136 roses painted on it, one for each of the people who died trying to cross the wall.”
Interning in the London art archives
Josh Massey, a junior majoring in English and comparative literature, studied abroad in London with the Honors Carolina program in spring 2019. Massey spent 100 days in London and took multiple courses at Winston House, Honors Carolina’s hub for UNC study abroad programs and research initiatives across Europe.
While abroad, Massey also interned with Whitechapel Gallery in the archives, where he said he got to experience the contemporary art museum’s space firsthand.
Another perk of interning with the gallery was getting a gallery pass that granted him free access to all London museums and exhibitions. Massey said he took advantage of this opportunity to see many different art forms while abroad.
“I felt compelled to see all the art I could, and as a result, I opened my mind to modern and contemporary art that I was skeptical about,” Massey said. “All in all, I was completely immersed in art for the entirety of my time abroad, in some form or another.”
Massey said he also enjoyed the “crazy quilt of art” that the city offers, including music, theatre, visual art and literature. He said living, learning and working in London gave him the chance to look at and enjoy art in person, rather than in a book.
“I’ve definitely come to appreciate art more — especially the decorative arts — which I had ignored before I came to London,” Massey said. “Once I set foot in the Victoria and Albert Museum, that all changed. I walked through a menagerie of things — from salt cellars to decorative vases and ironworks — and began to look at the base object as a work of art, expanding my horizon from traditional painting and sculpture to something bigger and more expansive.”
Back at UNC, Massey serves as a student guide at the Ackland. Massey said he plans to incorporate his art experiences abroad into the tours he gives, and he even hopes to include art in one of his senior honors theses moving forward.
“I learned to think about art differently, and my new ways of thinking about art have encouraged me to think about everything differently,” Massey said.