Megan Lipke: how a trip to Kenya inspired her artwork Posted on May 17th, 2024 by

Megan Lipke  is a junior Studio Art and History double major with a Music Minor, from Hutchinson, Minnesota. Last spring, Lipke traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, and worked with children through a volunteer organization called the Alfajiri Center. That experience inspired Lipke to create an art piece called Coping.

Tell us about your experience with the art program at Gustavus
I have really enjoyed exploring different art mediums throughout my time in the studio art program, in particular. I also have enjoyed making music within the Fine Arts Program in both choir and band.

What is your favorite art class you’ve taken?
My favorite class I have taken was handbuilt ceramics last fall. I enjoyed that class the most because it was one of my first times working with clay and doing more 3D projects rather than just two dimensional works, so that was really interesting. I was also able to explore more of the sculptural side of things and I’ve been able to incorporate more three-dimensional aspects into my works since taking that class.

What is Junior Seminar?
Junior seminar is a class that prepares art majors for going out into the world and doing art as a professional job. We’re learning how to write resumes, how to display our works in galleries, how to make our works look professional if we’re putting them up in galleries, whether that be mounting them on a board or cutting out a mat to frame them with. We’re also learning how to write an artist bio, which is something that you typically get asked for if you’re displaying working galleries, how to price work, how to list insurance costs for work, and many other skills. We combine all those skills together and present our art at the Junior Exhibition in the Spring which will be coming up soon. The Gallery Exhibition is where we practice all of those things by making art on our own, without prompts, and we learn about being able to make works if there is an exhibition deadline.

What is the Day Course?
The Day Course is taught by Kris Lowe and it’s a course where you learn how to install works in public places, which is a skill you can carry on in the future. Even if you were working a non-art related job, you can still find a building in your community that you think needs a mural, or a local coffee shop that you think could display one of your works. In this class, you learn how to get approval for displaying work, how to figure out size constraints, what kind of materials they want you to use, or what kinds of limitations they have. On top of learning all these skills, you also research artists throughout the course and the opportunity to make your own artwork. The class is structured to have five “Day” themes that you create artwork for. So far we’ve had “the day of color,” “the day of addiction,” “the day of opinions,” and coming up will have “the day of small things” and “the day of Dreams.” With all of these themes you can create whatever you want that you think fits into these days and then you write a didactic for your artwork and display it on campus. You’re graded on the research you’ve done on the project, the project itself, the didactic, the location you choose, and actually getting the approval to put your art somewhere. Next year the course will be called “Beyond Brush Strokes” and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art or wants to learn more about the art world because you’ll be researching previous artists, working on creating your own art, and also learning how you can apply these skills in the future.

Could you tell us about the new art piece you just installed in Beck Hall?
I just installed an artwork on the main floor of Beck Hall, and it’s titled “Coping.” It has to do with the street children in Nairobi, Kenya and their addiction to huffing jet fuel and sniffing glue. My work in particular focuses on the jet fuel because that’s what I experienced while I was on my recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya to visit my older brother. When I was on my trip, I worked with these children through a volunteer organization called the Alfajiri Center. My art piece is trying to raise awareness for the children in Nairobi and for the Alfajiri Center because they’ve been struggling a lot more, specifically since COVID, with a loss of donors. But the Alfajiri Center is doing really great work over there.

What inspired you to make this piece and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m in a class called The Day Course and there are five days that we have to create artwork for. This piece was for the third day which is titled “The Day of Addiction.” I had heard from my older brother and my mom about the street children in Kenya and their addictions, so I kind of had that idea in my head going into this project. I knew that the day of addictions was going to happen right after I returned, so I thought it would be a good idea to do an artwork relating to these children. Once I was actually in Nairobi seeing these children and talking with Anne who runs the Alfajiri center, I was able to really refine my idea and make it a lot more impactful than it originally was intended to be. I was also inspired by Kara Walker who works a lot with silhouette art. She works more with painting black 2D silhouettes on walls and her work deals more with the African American experience here in the U.S. whereas in my piece, the black silhouettes were cut out of foam core and they deal with the Nairobi Street children.

Could you explain what you saw during your trip to Kenya and what you took away from your time there?
When I was there, I was able to actually see and interact with the street children personally. The children are all boys because the girls typically don’t end up on the streets because of other circumstances. It’s usually harder for the girls to run away from home so they usually are stuck in their situations a bit more. The boys on the street that I saw were very happy to see people who were willing to talk to them. They were especially excited to see “mzungus” which is the word for a white people. So the kids would yell “mzungu!” as they ran at you, and then they would come to hang out and talk with you. They liked to practice their English and they were very excited to show me how they use their jet fuel. They were telling me how they get it and how they afford it. What they do is they  go and collect bottles from the landfill to get Shillings and then they buy the jet fuel which is 20 Shillings per bottle. There’s usually an inch or two of jet fuel in the bottles and they have rags which they either tilt or shake the bottle of fuel into to soak the rag. They then crumple the rag in their fist and then breathe through their fists to huff in the jet fuel and get a high. When I asked them why they did this, they explained that it can help curb hunger and one boy in particular told me that it quiets down the thoughts in his head. The boys showed me where they slept which was just on the side of the road laying on top of the bags that they collected bottles in. They all stay together and either lay on the road or lay boards against the walls of buildings to make structures to sleep under. When I was talking with Ann, who runs the Alfajari center, she told us how the children think it’s normal for their friends not to live their whole lives because there’s a lot of death of these children. She also told us about the kinds of home situations that these boys come from. There are sometimes up to four families that will share a one room, one bed accommodation, which means there can be more than 16 people living in a single room. The boys often leave because the situations are too crowded or because of abuse they experience, which has become pretty normalized. Some mothers will just keep having children in order to be pregnant so that they get more money when they are begging, but that just adds to the problem. So the boys are often kicked out of the house to try to provide for themselves. So these kids have a lot of PTSD and trauma from these situations which is why they’re coping by using jet fuel and sniffing glue.

How does Gustavus support you doing two, very different, majors?
I have been able to double major in Art and History by overloading every semester since freshman year. I declared both of my majors during the spring of my sophomore year so I had to completely switch courses from what I was doing before. The only reason I was able to accomplish both of these majors was because of being able to overload. Additionally, the faculty in both the history department and the art department have been very accommodating and understanding of my situation. They have worked with me to find the best courses that would help me to graduate in time and to find courses that would count for both the general education requirements as well as for the major. They have done an amazing job making me feel supported. Without the faculty in these departments, I don’t think that I would be able to have double majored in both Art and History.

What advice would you give future students who are looking to major in art?
Being an art major, you’re able to pre-register for the art courses, which is nice because art courses have smaller class sizes that fill up very quickly. So there’s a benefit to declaring an art major because you can take the art classes that you want instead of having to wait till you’re senior to take the art classes that you want. Additionally, being in art doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional artist or that art has to be your one plan for the future. I myself really enjoy art and I think I’m going to continue doing art throughout my life, but that’s not the only thing that I’m going to end up doing with my life. I think if you’re even considering doing an art major, just declare the major. You can always drop the major if you feel like it’s too much or you can’t do it, but you might as well declare the major and get the pre-registrations benefits and the junior and senior studio space.


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