“Elsewhere,” this year’s Homecoming art exhibit at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) started with a painting and a reflection.
“I was reminiscing about the past and my childhood. I wanted to express my feelings of fondness yet frustration when it comes to the idea of memories of the past,” said Stephanie Toth ’16. Both Toth and her fiance, Lila Marks ’18, are graduates of EMU’s Visual and Communication Arts department, now pursuing master’s degrees in fine arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Toth is a painter and animator; Marks is a documentary photographer. “Elsewhere” is a collaborative exhibit, in which each artist reflects on childhood and youth.
As Toth worked on four-foot by five-foot canvases in vibrant, abstract expressionism, Marks saw similar themes in her straightforward, black and white photographs from a variety of projects over the last few years. Some of her photos in the exhibit were taken for Reach Our Youth Outreach Ministry. As children visited the organization, opening Christmas presents or playing games, Marks captured serene moments between siblings or just a child and their own imagination – “it’s human connection rather than some big event,” Marks explained. “A lot of my childhood was marred by painful experiences … I love these quiet, beautiful moments.”
She feels that her photos and Toth’s paintings are “in conversation with each other … aesthetically really jarringly different, but we’re exploring the same topic.”
“Elsewhere” will be available for viewing online from October 15 to November 6.
Professor Anna Westfall, who runs the Margaret Martin Gehman art gallery on campus, said the couple’s work is emotionally charged.
“The brushstrokes, textures, and colors in Stephanie’s paintings create intense energy juxtaposing Lila’s unmanipulated black and white photographs of children creating narratives that feel particularly relevant today,” Westfall said. “Their exploration of childhood and memory, at a time when our world is under great stress, feels appropriately timed.”
Both artists have been wrestling with questions of how much childhood has changed in recent years, and how much it remains the same. While children today have much more access to information, news, and technology than Marks did growing up in the 1990s, they still have a “pure childhood innocence regardless of what they’re exposed to,” she said.
As she painted, Toth also reflected on the human tendency to yearn for simpler or better times, even as children often can’t wait to grow up and become independent.
Both Toth and Marks want viewers to glean their own meaning from the exhibit, rather than trying to peddle a certain narrative. They naturally participate in one another’s artistic process as they watch each other work – one half of their garage is a painting studio, the other half set up with photography lighting and backdrops.
As Marks put it, “having an artist in the house whose perspective you respect is invaluable.”