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Gerald Mead's History of the Nichols School, Writ Small

Microcosmic Archive

A year ago, Gerald Mead began collecting artifacts to create a body of work chronicling the 118-year history of the Nichols School by inviting staff, students, and alumni to contribute to the project. Once collected, Mead divided the materials into categories based on themes and content types, and began to work. The result is a series of 50 small collages, on display until May 11 at the school’s Flickinger Performing Arts Center.

No stranger to the local arts community, Mead is known for creating small, intimate, and meticulous works of art. Each of these two-inch-square pieces, framed by old aluminum slide mounts found in the Nichols photography studio, contains fragments variously culled from the school’s history. Words and pictures from school publications, yearbooks, class projects, and various other ephemera are carefully juxtaposed to conjure a rich narrative, one you didn’t have to attend Nichols to feel and understand. On the other hand, anyone who attended Nichols can view this exhibit and find himself awash in nostalgia, each collage a tiny portal, conveying another memory of the awkward exuberance of youth.

In an era when the word “archive” is usually seen on websites, these evocative pieces remind us of what we may be losing in the non-virtual world if we don’t preserve the real artifacts of our real history. The show reveals Mead’s persistent, if not tedious, second calling as an archivist/librarian. “For the most part,” Mead says, “once I had used a fragment of something, I tried not to repeat that material in another collage so that the viewer was always seeing new references as they viewed all 50 collages.” The glut of information in today’s world really affords artists the ability to immerse themselves in it, torque it, converse with it, and convert it into something more emotionally tangible. Gerald Mead’s process and work provides the Nichols community with a vital, perhaps necessary complement, to its history.

Historically, Mead has been productive in using diminutive constraints on a large scale. I’m reminded here of an excellent show in 2008 at the UB’s Anderson Gallery where he made a collage 207 feet long but only half an inch wide. But why? “My intention is to encourage viewers in the act of examining the works at close range in order to discover and decode the multiple meanings and metaphors that each of my artworks contain,” Mead says. “Since viewing art is essentially a personal and individualized experience, the small scale of the work reinforces the intimacy of that activity. I also believe that small works are in some ways more powerful and compelling than large works because, when working small, the artist is forced to distill and condense content to its barest essentials.”

The miniscule size of these pieces works particularly well in light of the subject matter. Like distant memories, they require active scrutiny, evoke deep, dormant emotions, and bring a better understanding of the context of one’s life and how we came to be the people we are.

becky moda

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