Art student Camille Mariet, like many art students, felt disconnected from her work in her fourth year of college. She felt like she wasn’t moving forward and didn’t feel like her work was validating — but one professor saw otherwise. Mariet was nominated to apply for the Irwin Scholarship, the most prestigious scholarship in the art department at UC Santa Cruz.

After her nomination, Mariet found a new motivation. She made an entirely new body of work to be reviewed by the selection committee and became one of 12 students to be awarded the annual William Hyde Irwin and Susan Benteen Irwin Scholarship this year.

A visitor admires art in the Sesnon Gallery. All Irwin Scholars’ art is interwoven throughout the three spaces, providing a cohesive experience and challenging gallery norms. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
A visitor admires art in the Sesnon Gallery. All Irwin Scholars’ art is interwoven throughout the three spaces, providing a cohesive experience and challenging gallery norms. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Established in 1986, the scholarship is intended to fund artists showing promise. Irwin scholars receive $2,500 to fund their artwork and the opportunity to participate in the Irwin Scholar Exhibition, a collaborative and highly publicized show spread across the Sesnon Gallery, Sesnon Underground and the Porter Faculty Gallery. The exhibition opened May 31 and will display through June 17.

“I was in [introductory art classes] and they brought up the Irwin Scholarship,” Mariet said. “I went home that day and told my roommate, I’m going to be an Irwin scholar. […] You just have to put yourself out there.”

Mariet’s work centers around feminist concepts to break down shame associated with gender, violence and power. She took over an entire room for an installation piece that projects a film inspired by ’60s and ’70s exploitation of sex with “freaky” aesthetics such as blood and bodily fluids. The room also includes a sculpture of a naked woman facing the screen, streaked in blood.

Faculty nominated 30 art students based on their dedication to academics, use of creativity and ingenuity. These 30 students submitted art portfolios and the faculty then selected the final 12 recipients. Associate professor Dee Hibbert-Jones, organizer of the Irwin Scholarship for the art department, said in an email faculty were particularly looking for artists exploring innovative concepts and techniques in their art.

“Each artist is chosen because of their dedication to their own creative processes, their unique and innovative voice,” Hibbert-Jones said. “As a collective, the Irwin scholars become representative of the unique artistic and collaborative movements happening at UC Santa Cruz right now.”

Fourth-year Irwin scholar Nima Shariat is building a personal and familial narrative with his art. Shariat interviewed his grandparents, who were political refugees, to combine their perspective with his own experiences as a first-generation Iranian American. The audio from these interviews is incorporated into a multimedia installation piece that occupies an entire room in the gallery.

While traditional art galleries separate art by artist, medium or time period, this exhibit mixes the 12 artists’ work across the three galleries. One person’s piece is connected to the piece beside it, across from it and to the room as a whole. Shariat is on the committee for installation and looked forward to making connections between his work and his peers.

“Usually when you walk into a museum space it’s like here is German modernism, here is another form of medium,” Shariat said. “It’s really nice to see how these different practices and mediums and everyone’s backgrounds are engaging with one another.”

After nominations, students began working with Sesnon Gallery curator Shelby Graham and, more closely, with Sesnon Gallery manager Mark Shunney. Shunney organized the scholars into committees for exhibition production and brand marketing.

In the professional art world, artists supply the pieces and the gallery takes care of production, installation, public relations, social media and publicizing. Irwin scholars take on all of these roles with guidance from Shunney.

“[We] give them a real immersion into what it takes to create a professional exhibition,” Shunney said. “They can walk away from this degree and feel like they have a basis around what it takes and what the different people are doing for them if they get gallery representation.”

Students are given the opportunity to build these skills by forming committees and allocating responsibilities to display their art. The artists marketed and curated the show themselves.

“It’s rare to be able to have this experience where students are able to run all of this,” said Shariat. “We are building up this event, this is our exhibition not just our work.”

Sesnon Gallery Hours:

 Tuesday – Saturday noon to 5 p.m. 

Wednesdays noon to 8 p.m.