PLNU Art Department and the Balance Between Art and Activism

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.” -Georgia O’Keeffe

Just because Point Loma Nazarene University is tucked away on a small peninsula does not mean that the art department cannot push boundaries that extend beyond the “Loma Bubble.” On campus, art professors and students work together to navigate the complexities of art and go against societal norms. When words may fail, art steps in.

Professor of art and design, Lael Corbin, has been a part of PLNU’s art department for 16 years. Being the co-director of the art gallery on campus, he handles the student shows and exhibits. Surrounded by so many student artists who want to express themselves and their ideology can be a tricky situation for an artist and professor, said Corbin.

“It’s an interesting place to be, where I have the eyes of the public and the trust of the university, but also still I want to fight for my student’s work and they have good work and I want to help them navigate those issues more,” said Corbin.

Difficult topics are brought up often in these art classes. Topics including sexuality, violence, substances and relationship to the church are occasionally brought to Corbin, who said that the university doesn’t have any say on what can or cannot be shown in the art exhibit, but he keeps in mind that it is open for the public.

“Any gallery anywhere is going to have what that gallery can show and can’t show,” Corbin said. “If this is the topic you want to tackle, if this is an aesthetic you want to tackle, what’s the smartest way to go about it for this audience?”

David Adey, an art and design professor at PLNU, said he, too, has never censored a student’s artwork on campus in the 20 years he’s been teaching. Adey said with Keller Gallery being a public space, that is what may cause certain pieces of art to be pulled from the gallery, but it is a rare occasion. 

In terms of whether PLNU has any restrictions on what the art students can or cannot create, Adey said that as long as it is not illegal and doesn’t have the potential to be dangerous to anyone, he allows the artist to move forward with their idea.

“It’s not unusual for artists to be non-conformists, agitators, disruptors, etc.” said Adey. “For many of us, including myself, that’s a big part of why we chose this life.”

With art being primarily a form of expression and creativity, pushing boundaries is often a large part of the process, said Adey.

Fifth-year Natalie Hurray is a visual arts major with a concentration in photography. This November, Hurray’s work will be on display in the Keller Gallery, where she said she hopes to exemplify how beautiful and interesting the human body is, without over-sexualization. Dealing with photographs of the body can create an atmosphere of uncomfortability for some, but Hurray said that it is important to show because a body is just a body.

“After discussions with the faculty of the department, it was clear that what was important to them was that I made the work I needed to make,” said Hurray.

Hurray said that if it stirs up emotions then the artist is signaling the right responses.

“No matter where you are, as an artist you have to recognize that if you want the audience to care about your work as much as you do, you have to meet them where they’re at,” said Hurray.

Milla Nelson, a second-year visual arts major, has grown up making art. Raised by two artists, she is familiar with the art of expression. Being an individual who’s comfortable pushing boundaries, her art is no different.

“In spring of 2022, I created a zine [magazine] that detailed my experience with two more typically provocative piercings, and was able to be really raw and personal in my writing and visuals. I received nothing but positive feedback with that project,” Nelson said. “Within the walls of Keller, I feel completely free and safe to express myself, within reason.”

Nelson said she has not experienced any sort of censorship from the university or the art department. She recognizes some of the concepts she focuses on, such as sexuality, her personal experience with religion and her emotions and thoughts, might be viewed as offensive to some groups. 

“To me, art is about toeing the line, evoking emotion and provoking thought. I plan to continue doing all of the above, while keeping it reasonable enough,” said Nelson.

Written By: Madelyn Walthall