Honor Code Aids Resolution of Art Rental Debacle


Olivia Scott

College seniors Kate Hanick, Seth Flatt, Aubrey Pongluelert and Nick Olson and College sophomore Simeon Deutsch stand in line moments before Art Rental officially begins. Throngs of students camped out at the Allen Memorial Art Museum Friday night to ensure they got their top picks.

Louise Edwards, Staff Writer

Art Rental occurs every semester, but last Friday night — the night before Art Rental — students and staff witnessed a spectacle that made the experience memorable. The evening began innocuously enough. Outside the back entrance of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, students pitched tents to the melodious strains of guitar music wafting from the courtyard. Some played cards, while others hunched over problem sets, notebooks or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

The night’s excitement, however, was not without classic Oberlin activism and debate. As 9 p.m. approached, some students became irritated at the creators of the rule-bound list that indicated the order in which students would enter the museum to choose pieces of artwork. “They were angry about the fact that this random person just made up all the rules, so their response was to tear down the list,” College senior Laura Messermen said. “The list had 125 names on it, so they lost their spots in line.”

This anarchical act resulted in a long discussion that included votes. The verdict was to recreate the old list to the best of everyone’s ability, with students adhering to the College’s Honor Code. “It was kind of like dining in a co-op,” Messermen said.

Ellen Johnson, OC ’33, worked at the College, first as an art librarian, then as a professor of modern art, and is fondly remembered as the pioneer of Oberlin’s Art Rental program. Throughout her career, Johnson worked to make art accessible and relevant to Oberlin students. “It occurred to me that if students could have works of art in their dormitory rooms, it would not only develop their aesthetic sensibilities but might encourage ordered thinking and discrimination even in other areas of their lives,” Johnson once said.

Students expressed their excitement about this quintessential Oberlin experience. “It was one of those things that I heard about when going on tours, so I thought that it would be a really cool thing to do,” College first-year Sarah Herdrich said.

College first-year Henry DuBeau said he felt similarly. “I came to Art Rental solely for the enjoyment of the experience,” he said. “There’s nothing that I had in mind specifically, but I thought, ‘I’m willing to stay out here for so long to get some cool art to hang in my room.’”

Some upperclassmen, on the other hand, expressed a desire to take part in this Oberlin tradition before they graduated. “For me, it was one of the things that everyone said you had to do at Oberlin, and I had to do it before I left,” Messermen said.

Fall Art Rental is more popular than spring Art Rental, with 357 pieces rented within two and a half hours. This may have contributed to the chaotic list-making process. In February, fewer students brave the cold and more are caught up with academic activities, sometimes leaving as many as 60 pieces unrented.

The consistently popular pieces include big-name works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Alice Neel and Jackson Pollock. Matisse’s “Head, from Visages” depicts a woman looking directly at the viewer, as if she is listening intently. Yet her right hand massages her neck and the other supports the wrist of her right hand. This asymmetrical arrangement makes her look nervous despite her steady gaze. All this emotion is simply communicated through dark curved lines. Picasso’s “Corps Perdu” also uses lines as the main element of artistic expression. Concentric semicircles to the left of the composition represent the sun, while a personified crescent moon rests on a surface to the right. The moon’s uneven eyes pop off of its face in an unsettling manner. The composition speaks to the way we view things. During the day, we see objects clearly and literally, while in the night, images can become more distorted or imaginative.

In contrast to Picasso’s and Matisse’s lines, Marc Chagall’s color lithograph “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman,” based on a tale from the Arabian Nights, is a swirl of blues and greens. Nude humans, mermaids and fish emerge from eddies of ink.

Three Roy Lichtenstein prints are also popular. His comic book-like pop art jumps off the paper in bold colors: a black boot squashing a hand reaching for a pistol, a winged woman with a Roman column and a sinking ship in front of a bright desert sun, a crumbling ancient pillared temple.

Japanese works of art, such as woodcuts by Kawase Hasui and Koson Ohara, also catch students’ eyes with their tranquil and delicate depictions of nature: two swallows conversing on a flowering plant, or a full winter moon hanging in the tree branches above a lake.

However, while these pieces are notoriously popular, others change in popularity from year to year. Lucille Stiger, registrar of the Allen Memorial Art Museum and the person who oversees the Art Rental program, is going on her 36th Art Rental.

“I have to say, we’re awfully surprised at some of the pieces that go out early,” she said. She singled out “Funkel Road” by Lois Rheingold, a silkscreen that depicts a path lined with a collage-like pattern of trees. “A few years ago, we thought about taking this one out because it was either the very last, or one of the last things to be rented or it didn’t rent,” she said. “And here it was now in the top 20.”

Works such as Rheingold’s that aren’t as popular or aren’t being rented sometimes get removed from the Art Rental collection. “They may have been popular back in the ’40s or something, but no one [is] renting them now,” Stiger said. “We also removed all the posters that were in the collection. We’ve only got a few posters in the collection now and they’re signed. [Having posters in the collection] kind of goes against what Ellen [Johnson] wanted the collection to be. She wanted it to be original works of art, and she also wanted it to be by up-and-coming artists, so we’re trying to stress that a little bit more.”

One such item that Stiger described is a pair of Oberlin sweatpants modified by artist Patrick Killoran that can be rented and worn by an Oberlin student. “They are a pair of Oberlin College gray sweatpants that the artist sewed this outer pocket to, and they weren’t very popular,” Killoran said. “There’s kind of a gross factor involved. The students are given instructions that before they return it they’re supposed to wash it, but, you know, we don’t know if that occurs.”

The museum did not rent the sweatpants this semester, but Stiger said that they might be available again at February’s Art Rental for use during the colder weather.

Despite the hectic atmosphere of Art Rental, Stiger and students alike said they found the experience of Art Rental a positive one.

“All I can say is that the students are aware that it is a privilege to be able to take these works of art home with them,” Stiger said. “They are really responsible and great.”

DuBeau also expressed his enthusiasm: “It’s been very interesting, fun to experience and I plan on doing it again.”