How art students are utilizing the studio spaces at the McEachern Art Center

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Image: Ivy Marie Clarke

Third-year student Amanda Herrold in her studio.

A place to view and create art: that’s the intent of Mercer’s downtown McEachern Art Center, affectionately referred to as the MAC.

The MAC’s gallery opened to the public in early 2019 with support from Teresa McEachern and the Griffith Family Foundation of Macon. It is directed by Ben Dunn, a painter and art professor at Mercer University.

The MAC’s mission, according to its website, is to enrich the art scene in Macon by displaying contemporary art from around the country in the downstairs galleries and hosting art students in the upstairs classrooms and studio spaces.

By all accounts, the MAC is succeeding in its intent.

The MAC’s first gallery exhibition, “Foundations,” took place during the spring of 2019 and represented the works of Mercer’s art faculty. Since then, the MAC has featured a variety of emerging artists, including Ryna Frankel, Charvis Harrell and, most recently, five recent MFA graduates who displayed their artwork as part of a show titled “TAUT.”

The studios were completed in 2020, so this has been students’ first use of the space for a full academic year.

Previously, Mercer’s art studios were located at the downtown Contemporary Arts Exchange, where all of Mercer’s current fine art faculty once created as students themselves. When the building was sold to an apartment developer in 2018, Mercer’s art department had to find a new creative outlet for students. They landed on the MAC: a non-commercial, independent, artistic space located right in the middle of downtown Macon on Second Street.

“Being downtown is big,” Dunn said. “It exposes Mercer students to the community, helping them engage the town, while saving a little space for creativity in the midst of the real estate in the area.”

Triangular studio spaces in the McEachern Art Center. (Image: Ivy Marie Clarke)

The current MAC studios are sectioned off with floor-to-ceiling length mobile wooden dividers. To accommodate the larger number of graphic design and fine arts students in the current junior and senior classes, Dunn arranged the dividers into triangles to make the most use of the floor space. Art students are permitted and encouraged to tack, paint and decorate the walls within their personal studios as they see fit.

“Studio spaces are delivered to enrolled, declared majors,” Dunn said. “Preference goes to seniors and juniors in the (Bachelor of Fine Arts program), but there is plenty of room at this time.”

However, because Mercer’s art department is so tight-knit, Dunn also accepts atypical requests. Currently, there is at least one first-year art student working in the studio.

Moreover, Dunn is also passionate about a multidisciplinary approach to creativity. He encourages not only visual artists but also people skilled in the art of language to take advantage of the space offered at the MAC.

“This is a beautiful old building where painters, poets and scholars can engage one another in social and intellectual meetings,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s own studio is also located on the second floor of the MAC, so he works alongside and is easily accessible to the art students while they create.

Third-year student Faith Reagin creating art in her studio. (Image: Ivy Marie Clarke)

Two of those students are third-year students Amanda Herrold and Faith Reagin, both pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Mercer.

Herrold hails from Macon, so she said she appreciated the nearness of Mercer to home. She has also had the opportunity to follow both her interests in religion and art.

“Everybody is so wonderful, and they genuinely care,” she said. “I would recommend Mercer for anybody at this point, especially artists, and also people going into religious studies.”

In her artwork, Herrold is interested in figurative, representational artwork — artwork that depicts people and their personal journeys. Recently, she has been exploring more abstract, color-focused subject matter, which often finds her on the floor splattering, smearing and carving paint onto pages and pages of sketchbook paper. Her studio affords her the space to be expansive and messy in her creative process.

“Set-up is really important to being able to actually produce work and get it out and get it done,” Herrold said. “The amount of work I’ve been able to produce is up so much, and I think it’s directly correlated to the fact that I have a space to dedicate purely to the artistic endeavors.”

Dunn seconds Herrold’s sentiment, describing an artist’s studio space as “sacred.”

“We need spaces to take the creative work seriously, and where we can let our guard down to hear the demands of our work. This isn’t that different than folks going to a beautiful church, I assume,” Dunn said.

Another benefit to having a community studio space that is separate from both home and Mercer’s main campus is the chance for artists to work in close proximity to each other. Peeking into the unique studios that fill the MAC’s second floor, you’ll find a diverse array of mediums and motifs: graphite drawings, digital art, sculptures, spray painted canvases; people, shapes, cartoons, landscapes.

“You know, we may not understand exactly what the intricacies of all of our thought processes are and everything going on behind the work, but we understand that we’re artists trying to make art, and so the environment is of a mutual understanding and a mutual — I guess, it’s a nurturing environment,” Herrold said.

Herrold and Reagin are “studio buddies,” meaning their studios are neighboring each other, and they both laud the ability to engage in prompt, constructive dialogue.

“It’s nice to have somebody else also in that creative space. You know, we have our own space, but we’re also there together, and that’s also really nice because we can bounce ideas off each other and give feedback immediately on our work,” Reagin said.

Reagin’s specialty is in drawing, and her material of choice is graphite, though she is also skilled in ink, charcoal, paint and pastels. A motif she finds herself returning to frequently is hands.

“In one of my classes here at the lovely, lovely Mercer, I had a professor that made me draw in my sketchbook — it was Yvonne (Gabriel) — every day,” Reagin said. “I either read somewhere or heard somebody say, ‘Hands, when they’re wrong — anybody can see when they’re really wrong because they’re something we look at literally every day.’ When I got good enough in my head of drawing hands, then it was a cool accomplishment to me. Now, it’s fun to make hands look super weird and gnarly.”

Reagin attests to the multitudinous benefits she reaps by having a studio space at the MAC, finding it to be a greater help than she’d originally anticipated.

“I was like, ‘I can make art wherever,’ but that is not the case, and it’s just so much nicer to have a space dedicated to making art,” Reagin said. “It’s freeing in a way because that’s your space, and you can do whatever you want with it.”

“Art is my future,” concluded Reagin, a statement that rings true for herself, Herrold and many of the other Mercer artists working within the MAC studios.

“I hope that students leave the MAC prepared to make a persistent demand for space for art in their own life, and serve their communities by helping others access these spaces,” Dunn said.

Indeed, in their own ways, Herrold and Reagin demonstrate their commitment to carrying on the MAC’s legacy. Reagin dreams of creating a future for herself as a full-time artist, and Herrold plans to pass on her artistic knowledge to younger generations.