Artist Josephine Halvorson Is Getting Up Close and Personal for Annual University Lecture
CFA professor to speak about the importance of making space for wonder in one’s life
After two-plus years when being in person and up-close with one another was prohibited—dangerous, even, during the COVID-19 pandemic—Josephine Halvorson is celebrating their return.
Halvorson, an artist who knows what it is to spend real time with the ephemera of life, says that being up close and personal with the world around us is an important way to cultivate a sense of wonderment about it. Paying attention, she says, can be a way of caring.
“There are a lot of problems in the world,” says Halvorson, a College of Fine Arts professor of art and chair of the School of Visual Arts graduate studies in painting program. “How can you insist on wondering about life in the face of all that?
“It’s hard to make a case for that today without it being a rejection of action to solve problems in the world. At the same time, I really do feel that paying attention to one another, to the small things in life, to the proximate things in our environment—through observation, through curiosity, through chance encounters and openness, without fear—is a way to cultivate care,” she says.
It’s a theme that Halvorson will explore in the annual University Lecture, aptly titled “Making Space for Wonder: In Person and Up Close,” which she’ll deliver Wednesday, November 9. The (yes, in-person) lecture will be held at the Tsai Performance Center at 7 pm. The event is free, and those who would like to attend should RSVP here.
Established in 1950, the University Lecture honors members of the Boston University faculty engaged in outstanding research. Faculty tapped to deliver the lecture over the years have represented the full spectrum of disciplines at BU and share a common commitment to excellence in scholarly inquiry and discovery.
“This is a really exciting opportunity,” says Halvorson, who joined BU in 2016. “I’m very honored to have the chance to share what it is that I’ve been working on.”
Under her leadership, the University’s graduate painting program has risen to No. 1 in Massachusetts and No. 6 in the country, according to the 2020 U.S. News & World Report rankings, the most recent year fine art programs were ranked.
Halvorson is also the recipient of numerous accolades. Last year, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow—among the most respected awards for those in the social sciences, the natural sciences, the humanities, and the creative arts. In 2019, she was chosen as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., and from 2014 to 2015, she studied in Rome, having the distinction of being the first American to be awarded the Rome Prize from the French Academy at the Villa Medici. She is also a past recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and of a Fulbright fellowship.
She is interested in capturing the small details of the world around her, and her work has been shown in exhibitions around the world. For a recent series, Halvorson examined the ground under her feet—literally. At home in western Massachusetts, she painted patches of the ground around her, producing tight, vibrant compositions of a place in time.
“There’s no patch of ground that isn’t full of geopolitical history or law, even, not to mention geological histories as well,” she says. “So I was interested to start considering what is the patch of ground in front of me, how do you make sense of it? I started incorporating some of the ground itself into the paintings. I made these frames as a kind of repository for evidence of a place. I would take a few pebbles or a handful of earth and bring it back with me, crush it up, and incorporate it into the surface of my painting as a way to add context.”
Much of Halvorson’s previous work has also been contemplative. Working outside over the course of a day, she would paint the things she noticed, wherever she happened to be. “Like a long exposure in photography is how I thought about it,” she says.
The resulting paintings then became something more than the windows, walls, and machinery she represented—they show the intimacy that arises from looking at something for 12 or more hours, from really seeing it.
“I started working this way before I had a smartphone, before I had a cell phone,” Halvorson says. “So what it has meant to cultivate attention, and staying with something, sharing time, space, and place with it has underscored all of my work to this day.”
During her lecture, she will focus on her recent work, which hasn’t yet been exhibited. That work, she says, is a departure from other collaborations and projects in recent years, based in institutions such as the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. And rather than working with oil paints, she’s been working with water-based acrylic gouache paint on a highly absorbent surface.
That means, Halvorson says, that “whatever mark I make, it instantly dries and stays there, kind of like handwriting, it’s indelible. And so for that reason, I’m able to work back into the painting over the course of many days. These new paintings are longer-term investigations into a subject and contemplations of a subject in its environment.”
Halvorson created this body of work during her Guggenheim Fellowship, when she stepped back from teaching and found herself alone for the first time in many years (thanks also to the pandemic).
“I decided to follow my instincts more, to see what it was like to just make things by myself again, one painting to the next to the next,” she says.