Q&A: Paul Shambroom

Art professor discusses campus climate after the recent election

Artist, photographer, and art department professor Paul Shambroom is no stranger to artistic interpretations of power structures within the United States after having worked on multiple photo series surrounding themes of town meetings, homeland security, and nuclear weapons. In the wake of the recent election, The Wake sat down with Shambroom to discuss campus climate from an artist who has worked closely with middle America’s perspective.

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

The Wake: Tell us about what the climate of the art department has been like throughout all of the election campaigns.

Paul Shambroom: A lot of how we teach, or at least how I teach and relate to students, is that art is kind of an expression of what’s going on inside people. It’s not just an expression, but sort of a questioning in a way that helps us make our way through the world. I can’t say that I’ve felt a change in the work that people were doing, at least not in my classes. Our students have always been pretty engaged, I would say, and there’s kind of always been a fair amount of activism and political engagement expressed through their work, and that has continued. I don’t really know that it changed exactly. As long as I’ve been here, it’s always been a pretty important component of subject matter that students have been dealing with in their work.

The Wake: Do you think that’s just in being at a University, or do you think our campus is specifically politically aware?

PS: I think political activism is inherent in art making these days, especially now. I think it’s partially because of the faculty and the work that we do in our own research. We are role models for our students, but they are independent, free thinkers and politically engaged without our prodding. People who go through the world concerned about what’s going on in the political realm are going to express that through their artwork. That’s kind of what we’ve seen as things have come into sharper relief. Certainly during the campaign and with the result of the election we’ve seen a reflection of that, especially with people that are a part of communities that might feel threatened or under attack, which was a part of the campaign, and is a reality.

The Wake: You mentioned that you hadn’t discussed the election with any of your classes post-election. If you had more of an opportunity to do so, how would you have addressed it?

PS: I think if I had my morning class, which is an in introductory level photography class with a lot of younger students in it, we would have had a discussion. I can only speculate on what that would have been. I probably would have played it by ear and tried to assess the needs of the students in the class; those who needed to talk out loud and be a part of a group. One reason I’m a little hesitant to speak on behalf of the department is because I don’t know that I would have approached it the way other teachers did. I know a lot of my colleagues told me, “Oh yeah, that’s all we talked about all day, and we took the first hour of class.” It’s really important, for me, to respect all viewpoints. Even though I would want people to feel safe if they feel scared or hurting, it’s also important to me to not get into a shaming situation for people who may have supported the other candidate.

The Wake: I know you have done work documenting life post 9/11 as well as work about growing up during the Cold War. Do you think there is a similar sense of panic now in our country, compared to those times?

PS: You know, I’ve lived through a lot of presidents that seemed horrible, to me. I mean, we don’t need to pretend, I can be partisan in speaking. I was a kid when Nixon was elected, and Reagan, so there have been a lot of presidents where, at the time, it would seem like the political tide was very much on the other side from where my values were, and we survived. This seems different, somehow, I think. I think the level of discourse, if that’s even what it is, is a lot different. I feel the country is a lot more polarized than it’s ever been in my lifetime.

I think we’ll be seeing some more provocative artwork. I think there is a sense of impotence and frustration that artists are feeling.