Tess Wei ’17 is an aspiring student artist. She can always be seen walking around campus at a calm pace, with no rush or hurry. It appears that she is constantly in search of things that are beautiful as well as soothing to capture and preserve through her art. Although I had never interacted with her — except that for always bumping into her in List Gallery during receptions for new artists — I have wanted to know her better as an artist for a long time.
This summer, Wei went on a six-week trip to the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland with Professor of Art Randall Exon and two other Swatties. I was extremely pleased to be able to interact with her for this profile and interview her about this uncommon and amazing learning experience. In person, Wei is really comfortable to be around and start a conversation with. Her sincere passion for art, evident as she spoke, walked me through the beautiful art journey she embarked on.
Li Tian: What inspired you to be an artist?
Tess Wei: I came to Swat undecided and didn’t take an art class until the second semester freshman year. And I think one of the reasons I chose to pursue art is that when I am doing the work for the classes, it doesn’t really feel like work. I look forward to doing it and time just disappears — I cannot really tell how long I am working for. I don’t know… time just freezes, or stands still, or goes by quickly. I think that doing an assignment but being in love with it was something that indicates to me, “hey, this is something that I should be doing.”
LT: Is there any person in particular that gave you that inspiration?
TW: The first art class that I had was with Logan [Grider]. He understands what different students are trying to explore and caters his suggestions to them. That type of understanding and thoughtfulness have made me so intrigued by the art department and everybody else who I have met in the department has been equally inspiring. One of them is Professor Randall Exon, and he is the professor who I went to Ireland with this summer.
LT: That’s awesome! So you have been experimenting with art for about two years so far. Do you have a preferred medium?
TW: I planned out my senior show with painting, specifically oil painting. Right now I am doing independent study with Randal. I work exclusively with a palette knife. I don’t use a brush. I use palette knife for a few reasons. One [is that] I can get certain textures that cannot be achieved with a brush. Another is that I can make very specific and crisp edges. So having an edge relationship, I am kind of exploring the linearity in my work. And the reason I like oil is that it dries so slowly that I can constantly be scraping parts off or mixing, not having to rush or worry about the drying.
LT: We learned that you had an awesome summer exploring art in Ireland. Can you talk a little more about that? How did you get the opportunity?
TW: I had never had Randall as a professor before, but last spring when I was in the hallway of the art department, I overheard him talking about Ireland. So when he ended up talking to the other student, I went in and introduced myself. “Hello, basically I don’t really know you, but what you were talking about…I want to do that with my summer!” So he guided me to apply for the humanities grant to fund my trip to Ireland.
LT: That was so exciting! What exactly did you do there?
TW: I was there with two other students, Steve [Sekula ‘17] and Emma [Kate-Shaw ‘16]. We got our own studio space in the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland. It was absolutely beautiful. It is a small town, with only three pubs and lots of cows. I had never imagined myself traveling to Ireland. We participated in a two-week landscape painting master class, which was co-taught by Randall and another professor named Jeffrey Reed. Apart from three of us, there were several more adults in the class who are artists and people whose passion is painting. I was never in a position that I could make friends directly with adults … [I]n Ireland, we were just all friends. I am still in touch with some of them. To have this dissolving of age boundary is something that I had never had the opportunity to experience before. And for four weeks after that, just the three of us had our own independent study. It was really nice to just [take] what I had learned for the first two weeks and continue to apply that. It was completely on our own time — we made our own schedule. We could do whatever we wanted to do. I got a ton of work done, including landscape, interior spaces, structures, and studies of Irish butter. It was also nice because there were some artists with fellowships for those four weeks. So we got to meet them and sometimes hang out with them. And there was not any sense of any type of hierarchy or aloofness. Instead, everybody was interested in what others are exploring. And it was really nice to get a taste of constantly painting. Really, really amazing time.
LT: You mentioned that you studied Irish butter. What is so special about that?
TW: At almost every meal, we were served with brown bread with Irish butter, and I was really intrigued by how light shone through the butter and casted shades on the table. So I spent some time just studying the butter!
LT: That sounds like so much fun. Did you guys ever take a road trip to paint outside?
TW: Mostly for the two weeks, we would take a drive somewhere and paint on site. We did a lot of “en plein air” painting, the French term for painting outside. And for the four weeks, we worked mainly around the studio. But the best way to describe that experience was magical. It was magical.
TW: No, I am serious. If I could accurately convey what I felt there, it was magical. My sense of time was lost, and the connection that I had was so filled with love. The personal relationships that I made really made my painting aspect so much richer as well. All of them worked together and it was not that my paintings were separate from the relationship that I enjoyed. And Ireland itself is a beautiful place. It is kind of shocking that someplace could be so beautiful that it almost doesn’t seem real at first. The large expanses of fields, all the different shades of green and so many cows with such minimal buildings that are not encroaching on the landscape but are part of it. You could just really feel the age of the age — it is very peaceful. It slows you down in a perfect way. It was one of the best experiences [of] my life and might be the best forever.
LT: Was there a specifically memorable experience during the trip?
TW: Looking back at the body of work that I produced, not even just in the quantity but different studies that I did, there was a trajectory of a growth. During the two weeks, the whole class would have dinner together. It was one of my favorite parts to be able to break bread and enjoy each other’s company in a very sincere way. I don’t think that there is not one specific event that stands out because there was not just one highlight. They are all highlights. So the peak doesn’t seem so much as a peak when they are all peaks. I want to go back to Ireland. I am missing it already.