Ariana Garcia-Cassani ’21 was a member of the Museum Club and the student engagement intern with the Museum’s education department from 2018 to 2021.

After my internship supervisor at the Museum, Annmarie Ventura, saw the London-based artist Sharon Walters on an Instagram Live with the Tate Museum, she thought that Sharon would be a wonderful partner for a collaboration with the Museum Club at the Johnson. We agreed that Sharon’s joyful style, encouraging happiness while also calming anxieties, would be a perfect match for the Club’s dedication to creating student programming that promotes wellness and better mental health through art.

Sharon responded to my introductory email within a day, expressing her delight at being contacted and her desire to work together. Our team met virtually with Sharon multiple times to conceptualize and plan our event, where Sharon would demonstrate her paper-cutting collage process and share how making is an act of self-care for her.

In preparation, I began researching some of the artists in the Johnson’s collection that we wanted to highlight alongside Sharon’s work, like Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, and Faith Ringgold, among others. I was completely pulled into this research—along with learning from these women, trying to understand their lives and experiences, they also inspired me to laugh and cry and even to make my own beginner’s attempt at collage.

On April 24, Sharon Walters joined our group of Cornell students on Zoom and led a collage-making workshop. She showed her completed and uncompleted works, gave an honest and detailed explanation of her making process, and encouraged participants to explore the medium in their own way. Clearly, this event was multifaceted, yet Sharon seamlessly shifted from activities and topics to create a relaxed yet energetic environment within a virtual space.

Sharon began by chatting with participants, addressing students by their on-screen names. She showed us some of her works, including a new piece, a float-mounted white papercut, that she had purposely not shared on social media to save as a surprise for us. Within this piece, she pointed out a small flaw and explained that she had to redo the whole thing. Experiencing her honesty about having to try a project again was a wonderful way to grasp that even a professional artist makes mistakes and might choose to start over.

When Sharon transitioned into making, she continued her soothing narration while she began a new piece with us. She cuts into her pieces slowly, making sure to completely separate each section so that her lines are clean. Sharon was able to really make artmaking feel more accessible and attainable for her participants. She talked about how she sometimes works in front of her TV, something that allows her mind to relax more. She even gave participants advice on the best tools to use, particularly if they want to have a portable workstation.

Sharon also talked about the accessibility of collage as a medium. She is a mom and when she started her kids were relatively young. She did not have the time or space to set up paints and a canvas, but the ability to take and print images was accessible to her. Sharon also explained that these images do not need to be taken in fancy places in only specific “good” lighting, but instead encouraged participants to look for beauty in our everyday lives—for example, she purposely walks past plants after her runs and takes many images, and even the gravel on her street looked like diamonds when photographed at close range.

After talking about her process, Sharon answered more questions about her work in general. When asked when she knows when a piece is finished, she explained that she knows a work is done when she feels relief—she is able to exhale. This often means that she often keeps working on a piece for months, leaving them to “breathe” and coming back to them after some time apart. This is not a rushed space—she gives herself space to pause and reflect on her work.

One of the final thoughts that Sharon shared with the workshop participants was especially wonderful. She had been asked why she enjoys collaging rather than using other mediums. In response she mentioned how the delicacy of the paper on which the images exist, and the visual power of the images are a meditation on the strength and fragility of the people she depicts.

On that reminder of shared humanity and empowerment, she very graciously thanked the participants for their engagement. We all felt that an hour and a half was not enough time together. Sharon said she planned to blast some music and dance around to process her happiness, which felt like a wonderful way of fully feeling our experience.

A collage by Emma DiGiovanni ’21

Though this event was created as an opportunity for students to practice self-care and find time to make, I would argue that it was self-care for us as planners, too. Meeting Sharon Walters and talking with her was a wonderful experience. Learning about the other artists in the Museum was life-fulfilling. Talking to students about the event and witnessing their excitement was truly affirming. It was a pleasure to be a part of this event, and I hope that the Johnson Museum will be able to host others like it in the future.