Rhode Island College Student Takes Top Prize at Newport Art Museum

Monday, March 18, 2013


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An artist's journey to a stark, powerful, and prizewinning work: Emily Sorlien. Photo: Rhode Island College.

Rhode Island College senior Emily Sorlien took first prize at the Newport Annual Members' Juried Exhibition at the Newport Art Museum. Her work? A modern statement in classical style--a still-life depiction of a dead chicken as a symbolic representation of the contradictory nature of human morality.

Sorlien's 22x44 painting depicts the animal spread eagle and bound by string around its limbs and throat. The work is titled “Deposition” and is part of her departmental honors project at Rhode Island College. It will be on exhibit through May 19. As a member of the Newport Art Museum, Sorlien was allowed to enter the show.

“My work seeks to force the viewer(s) to reconsider their relationship to both the chicken’s body depicted before them, and to their own flesh," Sorlien said in her artist's statment, which accompied the work. "I am interested in the way in which chickens can simultaneously be viewed as animal ‘other’ and as anthropomorphically human. Their bound, flayed and naked bodies serve to remind us of our own flesh. . . . The idea of manipulation, and the connotations of shame, humiliation and bondage that accompany it, play an important role in the work.”

Rural life in RI an inspiration

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"Deposition," Sorlien's 22x44 still-life that took top prize at the Newport Art Museum's Annual Members' Juried Exhibition. Image: Rhode Island College.

Sorlien’s painting was inspired by her early childhood in rural South Kingstown, where her family kept miniature horses, cats, dogs and chickens. The chickens, she said, were mostly pets, and she remembers sitting for hours observing them.

“I had a rooster that I raised from a chick when I was about nine,” she said. “I named him Chanticleer. He knew when the school bus was coming and would come down and wait for me. He’d jump in my arms, and let me pet him. He followed me around everywhere. My bond with him was really strong. He was my best friend.”

Yet eating chicken at the dinner table did not disconcert her. “There was a disconnect for me between having a chicken for a pet and eating chicken,” she said.

But by the time she began her honors project as an art major at Rhode Island College, the connection had been made, and she had become an avid vegetarian.

Choosing her subject

In selecting her project, she decided upon chickens, she said, because, “Chickens have had an integral role to play in my development as both a person and as an artist. I learned to draw by drawing animals, and my beloved pet chickens imparted numerous lessons through their simultaneously fascinating and mundane lives, and through their sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous, often untimely deaths.”

Sorlien’s project would also address the morality of killing chickens.

“Today, thanks to the rise of the factory farm, chicken is now the most widely consumed animal on the planet,” she said, “with over eight billion chickens slaughtered annually for human consumption.”

She said she wants people who eat chicken to think about how their meals were acquired.

Research and discovery

To begin her art project, Sorlien searched the Web for photos of slaughtered chickens to draw. Unfortunately the lighting of the photos was poor. So Sorlien resorted to attending a turkey slaughter down the road from her house, camera in hand.

“This woman raises turkeys from chicks and she slaughters them for Thanksgiving. I asked her if I could photograph the slaughter, and use it as source material,” she said.

After that experience, Sorlien’s focus changed. Her project became less a protest against eating meat and more an exploration of the chicken’s body and how it relates to the human body.

“You see this plucked and naked flesh before you and it appears so human,” she said, “but it’s not, and so there’s this weird familiarity and yet otherness to the image.”

She also became interested in what she called “the spectacle of death," and spent time examining the baroque art of martyred saints. “They’re mostly nude figures being violently murdered, yet there’s this ecstasy in their expressions of finally being with their God,” she said. “There’s also an interesting element of sexuality in the images.” Sorlien would add that element of sexuality to her drawings.

Creating tableaux for painting

In the beginning the source material she used had been killed by others. But later she began buying chickens live from county fairs and killing them herself. She’d pluck them, bind them with string and pose them before photographing them.

“I really felt like I needed to immerse myself in the experience of the death of the animal, and I also wanted to have more control over the way the animal appeared in death. I purposely positioned the body in a way that made it appear human.”

The project became “very personal,” said Sorlien. When she started the project, she was a vegetarian. But she said she saw her own hypocrisy – her ability to care for an animal, kill it and eat it. She is no longer a vegetarian.

Morality and mortality

“We talk about morality in such black-and-white terms, yet we eat chicken that live in horrific conditions,” she said. “The average life of a chicken on a factory farm is six weeks or so. We eat them, yet we’re separated from their reality.”

“Deposition” forces the viewers to think about what they’re eating and if their actions fit in with their moral code, she said. It’s one of two finished still lifes. Sorlien is working on a third. She said she is only at the beginning of her exploration, and she’d like to take the series much further.

In April she will present a lecture of her work as part of her honor’s project at the 2013 Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference in Philadelphia.

Once her project is completed in the spring of 2014, RIC’s Bannister Gallery will exhibit her paintings, as well as the work of other honors students.

“It’ll be nice to have the paintings up at the college,” she said. “My foundations classes at RIC have been very instrumental in helping me push my talent and improve my draftsmanship. I also learned to paint with oils for the first time at RIC. There’s something about oil paint and its ability to depict flesh and become flesh that is stunning.”

Sorlien said she will continue “offering up death to the viewer as a perverse sort of gift, like a cat who brings home a dead bird to its owner . . . A death cloaked in the guise of ‘art’ . . . A beautiful death, so I hope.”


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