Student Spotlight: Shelley Brinkley, Art History, BA with a Minor in Art, ‘21
Once a WSU interior design major, Shelley Brinkley returned to our department in 2020 to complete her BA and fulfill her dream of studying art history and becoming an art administrator. Her story is one of personal and professional discovery and persistence.
The Path to Art History and Art Administration
After attending Michigan State, Shelley enrolled at WSU in 2003 to study interior design. Like many students who work full time, she realized that she couldn’t commit to her schoolwork in the ways that she wanted to. In 2013 she returned to WSU but this time to study art history. “I took AH 1120 and was in love with it!” she explains. “I then took Dr. Franklin’s art history class on Baroque Art and I just knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do. She’s tough but being an older student who has experienced things in my life, I can understand why she is tough. She really wants her students to succeed - she wants us to know why this material is important and that there is a reason why we are studying this. I was excited to read and do the work, excited to come to class.” However, Shelley was enrolled for only a year when she had a change in her employment which did not provide her with the flexibility to attend school. She made the difficult decision to again step away from her degree.
In January 2020, Shelley returned to finish the Art History degree that she started. She enrolled in the course 5200 Art Gallery Management, taught by our gallery director Tom Pryzewski. It was through this class that Shelley found the professional path she wants to take, combining her Art History degree and her former training in interior design. “I’m very interested in installation and I loved the gallery management class,” she explains. “I finally found what I want to do! I love the planning and hanging art and seeing it all come together. It connects to my interior design background. Hanging art IS art! It is about creating a space with art.”
Constructing Identity Exhibition
Shelley recently curated the virtual exhibition Constructing Identity, under the direction of University Art Collection Coordinator Grace Serra. Shelley dove into the task of searching through WSU’s vast 6,000+ piece art collection. “It was stressful going through 6,000 pieces,” she described. “You can search and sort using a variety of different terms and I had no idea where to even begin.” She researched collages from artists including Romare Bearden, Mary Jane Bigler, Beverly Fishman, and Kenneth Bowman. “These artists took the technique of collage and formulated their own identities as artists,” Shelley explains. "For example, Romare Bearden made work about the living conditions of African American poverty in the 1970's, even though they were not his own personal living conditions. He identified with his pieces because these were just a few of the daily images he may have seen while growing up.”
In focusing on collage, Shelley wants people to experience the ways that art moves beyond tradition and challenges traditions. “Art isn't always just the traditional painting, photography, sculpture, drawing,” she says. “There's other forms and mediums that you can use to express yourself as an artist. You don't have to be traditional to be an artist, you can do whatever you want. You can create things out of sugar! You can express how you feel, yourself, your point of view, or your experiences.”
Studying Art History Right Now
Like many students today, this past year was not what Shelley expected. She returned to WSU in January 2020. With her daughter enrolled in preschool, she was excited to return to school and finish her degree. Soon after she found herself dealing with COVID, police brutality, riots, and protests and her roles as a wife and a mom. “It’s a lot!” she says, “But I will do whatever I have to do because I am determined to get my degree.” Curating Constructing Identity helped Shelley find some escape from the pandemic, and the political and racial events of the year. “I was curating Constructing Identity and taking five classes right during the start of COVID and the election campaigns. There was a lot going on. I was able to find some sort of peace in looking at these works. They are very powerful.”
She adds that her classes were also a healthy distraction. “In my classes I was studying Van Gogh and Early Renaissance-Italian Art. I love these periods of art and these classes allowed me to escape.” Other courses have done the opposite, providing a mirror to reflect on current events. “When George Floyd was murdered I was taking a contemporary art history course. In that class we talked about different artists that had impactful work about prejudice like Faith Ringgold and Titus Kaphar. They told the story of the African American experience and the tragedies that African Americans face every day, including police brutality.”
As a curator and future arts administrator, Shelley wants to make people excited about museums and give audiences the chance to connect on an emotional level with art. “As a visual person, I can feel the artist’s pain or feel their experiences just by looking at a piece,” she shares. “I want to keep people interested in art and galleries and museums. I want them to come to the museum and see history and know that there is so much more going on in the world- there's so much history and experiences to be had. I want to bring that to people in a space where they can be educated about human history.”
“Art was always my passion as a child,” says Shelley. “My mom would always take me to gallery openings for African American artists like Benny Andrews. She would take me to the DIA, the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute in Chicago.” Her mother and godmother have both been instrumental in her success as a returning student. “My mother, Antoinette Bryant, received a BS and MA in Communication Disorders and Sciences with a focus on Speech Pathology from Wayne State University. My godmother, Dr. Linda Thompson, is the Dean and Professor of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She earned her BSN and MSN at Wayne State University and her doctoral degree in public health at John Hopkins University in Maryland. I am surrounded by fabulous women that are all educated,” says Shelley. “They know my potential and my talents, and they want to see me finish.”
Shelley also thanks her husband Terrance, daughter Maya, and her amazing support system of friends and family for making her return to school possible. In the spare moments that she has, she loves to keep her hands busy making arts and crafts with my daughter, crocheting, constructing paper bouquets and wreaths, and sewing.
To see Shelley’s curatorial work for the exhibition Constructing Identity, visit: https://artcollection.wayne.edu/exhibitions/constructingidentity