Trevor Martin '92 / Thai food, morticians, and fish tanks: learning about art by showing it
When Trevor Martin ’92 was in the fourth grade, a teacher called him out in front of his classmates because he colored the bars on his graph wrong. Who would have thought that student would grow up to be the director of exhibitions at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?
Martin would never have guessed it himself. When he came to Transylvania from Taylorsville, Ky., in 1987, he planned to major in English. He had no visual art leaning until he began noticing some of the student and faculty artists on campus, and they intrigued him.
“I never, ever envisioned being an artist,” Martin said. “But I was really inspired by the people I kept bumping into. I was interested to see how their minds work.”
He began taking sculpture courses, and he declared studio art as his major to go along with English literature and a Spanish minor. He began working at the Morlan Gallery and in the theater, and when it came time to graduate, he took a leap and went to SAIC for graduate school, still hesitant about whether he wanted to make it a career path. After receiving his MFA in performance art in 1998, he took an entry-level job at the SAIC gallery.
“I really wasn’t sure about going on to grad school in art, but I needed to find out,” he said. “Years later, I’m still finding out.”
As exhibitions director, Martin and his team organize exhibits in the gallery. They have student shows each spring, exhibiting approximately 250 BFA and 150 MFA shows each year. In the summers, they have design shows from architecture, fashion, and designed objects students. They also get exhibits from guest curators and faculty members, and they occasionally have commissioned pieces to show.
As a result, Martin sees a wide variety of pieces each year, and he’s learned more about the expression of art through that experience. He’s had some very unusual exhibits, like one from Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, a runner who had film crews document him running a distance equivalent to the diameter of the earth as a memorial to refugees who are constantly running. In Chicago, he had several people run through downtown while being filmed by the Art Institute. One exhibit by Rirkrit Tiravanija involved the artist preparing Thai food for the viewers. Another featured a documentary about morticians in Chicago and New York City.
“I find so much of contemporary art touches on materials and ideas that I wouldn’t have anticipated years ago,” he said. “And it’s not just paintings. It’s the tank of goldfish we have in the gallery right now. It’s running through the city streets. I’m running into all these interesting questions about the limits and definitions and suppositions about what art is. It’s an interesting meeting place between minds living in the world, approaching the world, and conceiving the world.”
One bonus to Martin’s job is that he gets the opportunity to practice his own performance art. He met Kym Olsen in 1995 and collaborated with her for several years on projects, including a film called A Heretic’s Primer on Love and Exertion. Currently, he is working on a Halloween performance lecture with another artist, Laura Oppenheimer, called “The Trickster,” which is a study on the trickster character in literary and mythological history.
He is also an instructor at SAIC, where he teaches classes in the performance art department; film/video/new media; and art history, theory, and criticism. In 2004, he was recognized with the Faculty Member of the Year award, which was selected by the student body. And he continues to work alongside those artists like the ones who intrigued him in college.
“It’s really interesting,” he said. “That’s one thing about the job—every day is different, and you’re surrounded by students and colleagues. I’m still interested in how their minds work.”
Martin lives in Chicago and remains very involved with the group of approximately 80 alumni who make up the Transylvania alumni chapter there. In fact, he credits Transylvania with helping him develop many of the skills that allowed him to be successful in his field.
He mentioned several professors, including Jack Girard (art), Dan Selter (art), Ann Kilkelly (English), and Cara Richards (anthropology and sociology) who had a major influence on his thinking and worldview. He learned about professional development and organization through working with art professor Nancy Wolsk in the Morlan Gallery and Devon Query ’75 and Sue Garrison ’75 in the Mitchell Fine Arts Center.
“I always think back on Transy that I learned quite a bit in the classroom, but I also learned a lot outside the classroom,” he said. “I laugh with my Transy friends—it’s like we grew up together. That’s a really formative time. What’s interesting is that Transy really was this threshold for me into a wider understanding of the world.”