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UConn Advance

Art professor receives Guggenheim
By Sherry Fisher
May 9, 1997

A professor of art and art history has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for 1997.

Deborah Muirhead will use the grant to continue her work in painting. She been teaching painting and drawing at the University since 1981.

Guggenheim Fellows are appointed on the basis of unusually distinguished achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.

The 1997 Guggenheim selection committee chose 164 artists, scholars and scientists from among 2,876 applicants for fellowship awards totaling $4.89 million. The list of new fellows includes poets, novelists, playwrights, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, choreographers, physical and biological scientists, and scholars in the humanities.

For more than 10 years, Muirhead's abstract paintings have addressed her past. She has used genealogical research to "discover something of my personal history," ultimately leading her to the Southern plantation where her ancestors worked and a visit with descendants of the slave-owning family of her paternal great-grandparents.

From 1985-1993, "That singular focus of research and the emergent offshoots, such as readings of folklore, literature and history, provided me with a wealth of information which filtered into my work," Muirhead said.

These early works were murky, dark, abstract oil paintings on canvas with forms suggestive of figures. "Images in these paintings evoked figuration, alluding to what some African-American writers refer to as the 'presence of the ancestor,'" she said.

The discovery and subsequent excavation of an 18th-century burial ground - the oldest known colonial cemetery for Africans and African-Americans - in Manhattan in 1991 had a profound effect on Muirhead and her work. The remains of 400 bodies, half of them children, were exhumed.

"The burial ground discovery prompted me to re-evaluate my method of working," Muirhead said. "I wanted to address this historic discovery to inform people of its significance." Although she was still committed to abstraction, Muirhead said she "needed to find a way to invite narrative into my work, to tell stories of lives that had been unrecorded."

Prize winner
Like the Dada artists, Muirhead rearranged randomly selected words to create a narrative. Text fragments from old books and newspapers "accompany rather than illustrate" the image, she said. Combining text and image on small-scale works on paper invites the viewer or reader "to engage and acknowledge untold stories that must be told," she said.

Muirhead has been a visiting artist at such colleges as Boston University, Yale, Trinity College, the Massachusetts College of Art and Universidade Federal in Salvador Bahia, Brazil. She has been nominated for a Joan Mitchell (1996) and a Tiffany Foundation (1995) Fellowship. She has received a New England Foundation Fellowship for the Arts and a Connecticut Commission Individual Artist Grant in 1991.

Her work was awarded prizes in 1986, 1987 and 1988 in the Art of the Northeast Silvermine Exhibition. Muirhead's work has appeared in solo exhibitions at Fairfield University, Promenade Gallery in Hartford and the Liz Harris Gallery in Boston. Her work will be on display at Winston-Salem State University in 1998.

Her group exhibitions include the Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence, R.I.; the Eighth Triennial Exhibition, Fuller Museum, Brockton, Mass.; and the Marilyn Pearl Gallery in New York.

Her work is in the permanent collections at the William Benton Museum of Art, the State of Connecticut Permanent Collection, Chemical Bank in Manhattan and Meditech Corp. in Cambridge, Mass.

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