Tragedy among the mundane: Parachute Suite at Andrews Gallery

While artist Elise Schweitzer’s “Parachute Suite” solo exhibition depicts a tragic skydiving crash in a family’s backyard, the exhibit begs viewers to immerse themselves in whatever interpretation they dream up.

Schweitzer’s collection of paintings and drawings, called “Parachute Suite” is currently on display at the College of William and Mary’s Andrews Art Gallery. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week and the exhibit is on display through April 28.

Schweitzer explained the emotional inspiration she found to create “Parachute Suite.”

“Two particular moments gave me the start of this idea. First, around the time that I got married, my mom said something like, ‘You’ve landed!’ My first reaction was, ‘I didn’t know I was flying through the air…’” Schweitzer said in an email. “My mom perceived me as being in a period of major transition before I got married, whereas I felt relatively grounded and stable. Soon after my wedding, a relative became very ill, very suddenly, and like most people have experienced in their lives, our priorities immediately pivoted to taking care of our family.”

Schweitzer holds a BFA from the joint degree program of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as an MFA in painting from Indiana University. She lives in Roanoke, Va. and is an assistant professor of art at Hollins University. Her work has been shown in galleries across the commonwealth, as well as in seven other states and even internationally in Italy.

Nicole Santiago, associate professor of drawing at the College, curated Schweitzer’s exhibit and was the driving force that brought it to the walls of the Andrews Gallery.

“I discovered [Elise] on Facebook, which is where I do a lot of my arts networking,” Santiago said. “After looking through her work online, I knew that I wanted to try and bring her to William and Mary. She’s very articulate and brings her definite ideas to life in what she creates, so I’m really excited to have her pieces on display.”

“Parachute Suite” is a combination of oil paintings on canvas, linen and paper, pastel works and charcoal drawings. The bright orange and white nylon of the grounded parachute pops up in many of the pieces — it represents the vibrant chaos and tangled confusion of the fictional crisis. Schweitzer’s variety of presentation styles in the exhibit ranges from massive wall-covering canvases to much smaller wall hangings.

Some depictions of the parachute billowing to the ground emulate the underwater fluidity of colorful jellyfish. The smudged black lines of the charcoal drawings portray the simplicity of the situation into which the skydiver crashes. Additionally, an ordinary family’s summer afternoon takes a dramatic turn when an unexpected visitor crashes into their lives.  The surreal aspects of “Parachute Suite” are part of the reason why the art department’s faculty were interested in bringing the exhibit to campus.

Eliot Dudik, a visiting assistant professor of photography at the College and the new coordinator of the Andrews Gallery, shared his thoughts on Schweitzer’s powerful execution of her inspirations.

“The show includes a few very large pieces that give the sense of inclusion within the event that is unfolding,” Dudik said. “Elise’s exhibit is laid out with smaller detail pieces, large scale pieces and inspirational drawings that the artist used in preparation for the final paintings.  It is a great example of an artist working through a series from inspiration to resolution.”

Schweitzer wants to portray tragedy integrated with the mundane, and is trying to explore the varying emotional reactions to disaster.

“The central action is a crisis that happens in the middle of a normal afternoon — a skydiver crashing down in the middle of a suburban backyard,” Schweitzer said in an email. “People react differently to sudden catastrophes. We all hope that we’ll be a good responder and rush in to help, but sometimes we’re self-involved or preoccupied. Sometimes we’re more upset that we knocked our beer over into the grass when the man fell out of the sky than we are about the intensity of what’s around us.”

Schweitzer, Santiago and Dudik hope that students at the College will view “Parachute Suite” and develop their own opinions of it.

“You really never know how a work of art is going to hit you until you see it for yourself, in person,” Schweitzer said. “Being there in person is key! There are colors and textures that reproductions cannot begin to match. I think often students assume that if they see a picture of a piece of artwork online, they’ve fully experienced it, but that’s just not the case.”

Schweitzer especially encourages those in the art and art history departments to view the exhibit.

“William and Mary has such a strong studio art program, and a deep interest in figurative artwork,” Schweitzer said. “I hope my paintings give students a sense of how painting and drawing the figure can be part of a contemporary studio practice.”


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