Interest in dreams informs student’s Kaish scholarship with art museum

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Sophomore Elizabeth Su is a double major in biomedical engineering and neuroscience and is considering a minor in psychology. After completing her freshman year at Syracuse online from her home in Los Angeles, she arrived in central New York in August, eager to get the full college experience.

Elizabeth Su

When she saw the opportunity of the Kaish scholarship with the art museum, Su decided to apply. “I have always been interested in art. I took a few art history classes and volunteered at an art museum in high school. I saw that they were looking for interdisciplinary research,” says Su.

During her interview, she focused on a subject that has always interested her: dreams. “In my career, I want to find a way to understand dreams and maybe even record them. They are my passion.

Syracuse University Museum of Art director Vanja Malloy knew which direction to steer Su. “For me, as an art historian, Surrealism was obviously the starting point,” Malloy says.

Su took this idea and ran with it. “I started researching the surrealist movement and got really invested in it, especially how people irrationally view themselves,” Su says. “Then I browsed the collection of the Syracuse University Museum of Art and was inspired by a few pieces. There are self-portraits that are not drawn in a traditional style, but not strictly abstract no more. That’s what surrealism is. I started researching how surrealists come to understand self-portraits.

This experience seems to be exactly what Syracuse University alumni and prominent artists Luise ’46, G’51 and Morton ’49 Kaish had in mind when they made a major donation to the University. In addition to creating the Luise and Morton Kaish Gallery Endowment Fund, the donation created the Kaish Fellows program.

The program provides funds to enable undergraduate students from all disciplines to undertake original research on the permanent art collection and to work with museum staff on exhibitions, scholarly publications and public programs. The philanthropic gift to support undergraduate research at Syracuse University is unique because few programs like this are available to undergraduate students at peer-reviewed university museums.

“This is my first real independent research project,” says Su. “I learned to contextualize research questions and findings. I would not have had time to pursue my interests without the Kaish scholarship.

Following his interests led Su to explore the connections between perception and neuroscience. She found examples of artists with altered perception. One condition – prosopagnosia – is the inability to recognize familiar faces (including one’s own) without any visual impairment or visual processing problems.

Another – hemispatial neglect – causes a condition in which affected individuals cannot perceive the left side of their face, without any loss of vision. “When thinking about surrealism, it’s interesting to think about spontaneous irrational thinking or how artists can get into a mindset where they fundamentally perceive things differently or they understand the world through different kinds of logic,” Su says.

Su particularly enjoyed working with artists’ records, bringing context to their work. “It’s really exciting, actually. I see these old newspaper clippings of an artwork that I have right in front of me, with the handwritten letters the artists wrote at Syracuse University, so I’m able to follow what the artist is doing later in life,” Su says. “There are also records that give insight into what the artist was doing when he created the work, such as interviews with family members who sometimes infer inspiration even when the artist does not seem be aware of it.”

Su’s work – and the connections she makes – is exactly what the Kaish Fellows program was meant to evoke in its fellows.

“As the first Kaish Fellow to be chosen, Elizabeth has stepped up and truly embraced the opportunity to work with the artist’s art and materials, and applied her research interests to reveal the fascinating interdisciplinary connections that inform the creation and appreciation of the works of art in the museum’s collection,” says Malloy.

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