An education, reflected

Sheble Art Installation
Margaret Sheble and other students make “Reflections of Flagstaff” a reality.

It started with an idea that Margaret Sheble had, one in which she would curate a photo gallery built on local support that could highlight the Flagstaff community. Add the encouragement of faculty like Dr. Jennifer McLerran, grant money, and – above all else – hard work, and that idea is now a full-fledged exhibit in the Beasley Art Gallery at Northern Arizona University, titled “Reflections of Flagstaff.”

Margaret, a senior art history major and University Honors Program student, says that she and her fellow curators created the exhibit for a simple reason - to prove that they could.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that it is possible for student curators to do a project like this without spending tons and tons of money,” Sheble says. “A successful exhibit can be made just by students; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a major museum.”

A community exhibit

Sheble explains she and her peers chose the theme for “Reflections” because they wanted to allow everyone – not just established artists and photographers – to participate, a concept that McLerran approvingly calls “populist.”

“We wanted to get as many people involved as possible,” Sheble says. “We thought that photos would be the easiest way. We have photos that people took just on their camera phone. We thought that would be the way to get the most people involved – more so than painting, writing, or anything like that.”

Jennifer McLerran serves as the coordinator of the Museum Studies program at Northern Arizona University, and she’s been mentoring Sheble and the other students working on “Reflections.” She considers the exhibit to be part of the future of what galleries can do in terms of public, social interaction. 

“There are other galleries and museums that have done similar things, but I don’t know of any exactly like this,” McLerran says.

And Sheble says the whole concept fits in with what being in a tight-knit community like Flagstaff is all about.

“Being a part of Flagstaff, I knew it was very community-based,” Sheble says. “And I thought this would be perfect: for us to try some kind of project where individuals can stop and think about where they live. We asked people to submit stories with their photographs, and we’re hoping that helps create a dialogue.”

The exhibit contains 78 photographs donated by 30 different local photographers. An additional 78 photos from Cline Library’s Special Collections and Archives round out the walls of the gallery, which are white and unadorned beyond the photographs.

“This looks really simple, but that’s one of the tricks of doing something that’s really engaging,” McLerran says.

Guests were encouraged to use markers to write on these walls and share their comments, opinions, and feelings. By the time of the closing reception, the once-white walls around the photographs were covered with a diverse range of handwriting from numerous visitors.

This relationship with the audience, along with the content of the photographs themselves, helped the exhibit serve as a reflection of modern social media. Sheble and her other student curators used this foundation to promote the gallery and facilitate involvement in a grassroots way.

“We took the top eight photos that got the most likes and comments on our Facebook page, and added them into the gallery,” Sheble says. “That definitely helped people participate; it wasn’t just photographers voting on the work of other photographers: it was friends, family, faculty, and colleagues.”

Shooting for change

Sheble says she could have never envisioned herself initiating a project like this one in her freshman year. Now, as she makes plans to attend a prestigious graduate school in Wales, UK, she urges other students to take charge in creating their own success.

“Go ahead and put yourself out there,” Sheble says. “If you have an idea, don’t think, ‘oh, this idea is silly.’ The ‘Reflections’ gallery was just an idea I had, until I realized that I can actually make this happen.”

Sheble’s hard work and dedication made the project a reality, but she credits the university community for their support and encouragement to pursue her ambitions and make her idea a reality.

“I think at other universities, you don’t always want to express yourself, because you’re scared,” Sheble says. “Northern Arizona helped me to feel more confident. I’ve been teaching classes. I’ve been tutoring. I’ve been talking to people. They help you to become brave enough to get your idea out there.”