Virtual and physical worlds meet in senior art majors’ exhibit at Sweet Briar

Posted on March 31, 2017 by Janika Carey

Four years of hard work by studio art majors Mary Stuart McDevitt, Catherine Virginia Ratliff and Sydney Reeves Williams will soon be on display in Pannell Gallery. The 2017 senior art majors’ show, “Exaggerated Monotype,” opens with a reception at 5 p.m. Friday, April 7, and runs through May 13.

Mary Stuart McDevitt, “Been,” charcoal, 2017 Mary Stuart McDevitt, “Been,” charcoal, 2017

The title, says professor of studio art Laura Pharis, was chosen using the “exquisite corpse” method, a technique by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence — either by following a rule or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed.

It’s also a pretty good metaphor for what visitors can expect to see on the walls of Pannell Gallery.

“The three artists are totally different in style, yet their art somehow works together,” Pharis says. “There will be a lot of depth, texture and atmosphere. Mary McDevitt, for example, has made sixteen large drawings showing stop action in a single movement. There are many different media: collage, etching, photography, painting, drawing, scratchboard, assemblage, from small to large in scale.”

McDevitt, who grew up “moving around in Florida,” is the only one among the group who was not exposed to art at a young age.

“I did not draw or paint in high school,” she says. “Most of my art experience has come from working at Sweet Briar College. I [also] did not come to Sweet Briar wanting to be a studio art major. My family is full of STEM people, and I wanted to be a chemistry major, but realized that I hated lab.”

Instead, McDevitt decided to combine two of her passions: art and video games. The latter played a big part in the pieces she is showing this spring. In particular, she was inspired by “Kingdom Hearts,” a game she has loved since childhood. Each of her drawings represents one word from the game’s opening lines: “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like is any of this for real? Or not?”

Catherine Virginia Ratliff, “Phi,” photograph, 2017 Catherine Virginia Ratliff, “Phi,” photograph, 2017

McDevitt says the series is an interpretation of what that quote would mean if it stood alone. At the same time, each work relies on the other pieces to tell the full story.

Although she considers herself a perfectionist, McDevitt, who will also show scratchboard and collage pieces, says she enjoys taking risks — it’s what draws her to the unforgiving properties of charcoal.

“What is bravery without a dash of recklessness?” she writes in her artist’s statement. “I love to work in charcoals where no line can be erased. It takes a certain amount of bravery to tackle a medium that shows the audience your mistakes. But it doesn’t mean that I need to be careful. Diving head first and experimenting in order to find the best way to express my ideas is why I make my art.”

Catherine Ratliff follows a similar philosophy. Born in Virginia but raised in Kentucky, Ratliff describes herself as “curious,” “authentic” and “tenacious.”

“I know joy when I am creating,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “Courage becomes a reflex, intrigue a catalyst. Photography allows me to share a glimpse through my perspective. Collage and assemblage are vehicles for my thoughts. … Each line and decision becomes part of my introspective process of expansion and understanding.”

Sweet Briar, she says, is a “place where appreciating the arts includes a hands-on approach.” In addition to honing her photography skills this semester, Ratliff is also “delving deeper into collage and assemblage.” Her inspiration, she says, comes from various elements in nature.

Fellow Virginian Sydney Williams, of Richmond, is also moved by her natural environment — including Sweet Briar’s campus and its surrounding area — but there’s more to it.

Sydney Williams, “Crimson Ebb,” oil on canvas, 2017 Sydney Williams, “Crimson Ebb,” oil on canvas, 2017

“My work is a reflection of emotions and experiences,” says Williams, who works primarily in oil. “I’m moved by images that surround my everyday life and the naturally occurring beauty in our world. More often than not, I’m inspired by the medium I choose to manipulate and moved by the wonders of the universe happening around me. I’m intrigued by everything possessing a life and the possibilities of evolution into the next.”

Williams, a business and studio art double major who minors in art history, cites her lifelong love for creating things and her “indecisive tendencies” as crucial factors in her art-making process. There’s a deep interest in various media, but also a “willingness to delve into the unknown,” she says. “Landscapes, abstractions and objects unaccompanied — they all hold significance.”

Williams hopes her paintings will bring visitors a “sense of peace, solace and reassurance.”

Pannell Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (until April 28) and by appointment (April 29-May 11). For more information, email galleries director Karol Lawson at or call (434) 381-6248.