Artist Alexandra Bell delivers Convocation address

Multidisciplinary artist Alexandra Bell delivered her Convocation address today, Friday, Feb. 18, at 12:30 p.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The event was livestreamed with limited seating as part of Lawrence’s annual convocation series, which is meant to gather the campus community to learn from an invited speaker. President Laurie Carter led a Q&A session immediately after the Convocation. 

Bell, who holds a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities and a master’s degree in journalism, is best known for her “Counternarratives” series. The exhibit consists of enlarged versions of front pages of the New York Times, which Bell has edited for effect.  

As part of Convocation, four pieces from “Counternarratives” – “A Teenager with Promise,” “Olympic Threat,” “Gang Leader” and “Charlottesville” – will be on display in the Wriston Art Center Gallery until Friday, Mar. 11. The gallery hours are 10 p.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. 

In the “Counternarratives” series, Bell revised article headlines, questioned word choices, left annotations in the margins, erased certain lines, changed photo selections and adjusted the section layout. For example, in “A Teenager with Promise,” Bell edited a story about Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown Jr., which led to Brown’s death. The original front page presents both people’s stories, but Bell transformed it into presenting only Brown Jr.’s large graduation picture and changed the headline to “A Teenager with Promise.” This new headline contrasts the original subtitle of the article, which describes Brown as “A Teenager Grappling with Problems and Promise.”   

By transforming the front pages of the New York Times, Bell investigates and deconstructs narratives, images and information perception in mainstream media. The original front pages and Bell’s rearranged pages are put on view side by side, providing viewers with a direct comparison. Her “Counternarratives” series explores the tension between dominant narratives and marginal experiences, according to Bell’s website.  

Beth Zinsli, an assistant professor of art history, Curator of the Wriston Art Center Gallery and Museum Studies Interdisciplinary Area Program Director, was the individual who originally recommended Bell as the Convocation speaker, and she worked closely with Bell to put this exhibition on view at Lawrence.  Zinsli hopes that attendees will view Bell’s work in the gallery after the Convocation in order to connect her speech to the artworks which inspired it.  

The Public Events Committee solicits nominations for Convocation speakers from community members, students, staff and faculty every Fall Term. The members of the committee review the list, learn about nominees and make the final decision. According to Associate Professor of Chemistry and the Chair of the Public Events Committee Allison Fleshman, the committee received about 40 to 60 suggestions and decided on Bell as the Convocation speaker over a year ago. 

According to Fleshman, the committee is interested in identifying active dialogues that are ongoing at Lawrence and on a national level and then inviting someone who has a good perspective on that dialogue to campus. The members of the committee choose their own top 10 favorite speakers and reduce that list to a top three. Fleshman added that the committee liked the idea of hosting an artist for this year because it has been a while since Lawrence invited an artist as the Convocation speaker.  

“I personally was moved by Bell’s work in recognizing the media coverage that was in front of my eyes,” Fleshman said, “and then to see them after she deconstructed them, it gave me more tools to recognize what anti-racist work is.”  

Fleshman said that inviting Bell is a great opportunity as Lawrence works harder to be an anti-racist institution. She hopes that attendees walk away from the Convocation with methods for identifying biases in the dominant narratives and considering how they might be suppressing narratives that should shine through.  

Likewise, Zinsli hopes attendees gain awareness of Bell and the work she does. She believes that conversation about media is very important now, as people should be thoughtful about the information they get and consider the sources of information.