Ari Finkelstein, one of the Irwin Scholars, sets up his art installation in the Sesnon Gallery. Photo by Sarah Manley.

For 26 years, 12 talented Irwin scholars — selected from a faculty-nominated pool of over 30 — have been awarded $2,500 and encouraged to make art. After all these years, the Irwin Scholarship is still ground zero for finding inspired new talent at UC Santa Cruz.

“This is a chance for UCSC students to see their peers who are launching their art career. For some, it might be their first show at a professional gallery. From here on, we help them get future shows,” said Sesnon Gallery director Shelby Graham. “It’s great for UCSC students from all disciplines, from the sciences to the arts, to see what students are doing.”

The Sesnon Gallery’s largest annual show, the Irwin Scholarship Award Exhibition, is made possible by the William Hyde and Susan Benteen Irwin Scholarship. The scholarships are given to students who demonstrate exceptional promise in a particular medium, ranging from interdisciplinary works to figure painting, new media and found-object installations.

Kristen Gautier-Downes, a fourth-year art major, channeled the traumatic experience of losing her Santa Barbara home to wildfire four years ago into her environmentally focused fiber-paste and butcher-paper installation.

“I’m interested in that personal experience as a way of examining environmental degradation and human impact on the environment: oil spills, our reliance on oil, our comfort in using oil although it has this toxic element to it, too,” Gautier-Downes said.

The installation depicts the moment of an oil-spill explosion.

“It’s this fiery experience, so it has kind of undulating clouds rising from it. You’re looking at the explosion and the timeline,” Gautier-Downes said. “It’s supposed to be kind of shocking — it’s supposed to make you think about it.”

Fourth-year arts major Ari Finkelstein said his work reflects a more traditional western method.

“I’m responding to something that’s directly in front of me,” he said of his pieces to be shown at the gallery.

Finkelstein’s works to be exhibited will showcase still-lifes as well as figure-painting.

“My concern when I’m painting a still-life is really the characteristics of light and dark and the way that I handle the paint,” he said.

By using the traditional medium of oil paints, Finkelstein hopes to find his role in the art.

“It puts my work in conversation with traditional figure painters,” he said.

This year’s exhibition is hosting a variety of unique works that embody vastly different artistic interpretation. While Finkelstein and Gautier-Downes use more classic media, fourth-year art major and City on a Hill Press contributing illustrator Louise Leong built a sculpture from the ground up, requiring hours of woodwork and metal-welding.

“I’m building a skee-ball machine,” she said, describing the arcade area installation she has constructed for the exhibition.

Following a similar theme to Leong’s past showcased prints, this “game room” aims to be more than static art.

“There’s a narrative of mischief and play,” Leong said. “I really like this expression of gameplay and I like having an audience interact with art rather than just looking at it — that’s really fun to me.”

More than simply an opportunity for students to get their work in the public sphere, the Irwin Scholarship builds production and management skills.

“What’s really great is that it’s given me more experience to put together a show and all the little things that go into it, like putting together press releases and getting together all of [the] written materials,” Leong said.

This year, Sesnon Gallery director Graham and the Irwin Scholarship organizers have tried to make the exhibition production a more engaging process for the award recipients.

“[For] this show, we asked the students to get involved. They made the postcard, they made the catalogue, they’re designing the wall texts — you’ll see every decision is a group decision,” Graham said. “I think this group has been really, really cohesive.”

Overall, Graham said the intent is to bring in students from all different corners of the UCSC campus.

“We would really like to see more students from Stevenson or Cowell or Merrill, from the other side of campus, to come over and see what’s happening at Porter College,” Graham said. “It’s a good time to see what’s happening in the art department.”

Opening reception on May 23 from 5–7 p.m., exhibit runs through June 17.