Erin Gass’s senior I.S. project represented both a weaving together of her varied interests as a scholar, and a culmination of her intellectual journey at Wooster. A Spanish major and Latin American studies minor, Gass figures that over her four years at Wooster she probably took three-quarters of the required major courses in art history and political science as well. “I just kept taking classes and finding awesome professors,” she says.
During a semester studying in Ecuador, Gass noticed something striking about the way indigenous peoples were portrayed in advertising, popular culture and the media: without fail, they were situated firmly in the past, presented as a backward part of the country’s history, never in a modern setting. This despite the fact that “you see lots of indigenous people, in their traditional dress, in all the cities.”
Intrigued, Gass returned to Ecuador the summer after her junior year. Supported by a Kendall Rives grant from the college, she spent two and a half months scouring dozens of museums, libraries, bookstores, and other sources in multiple cities, looking for an image, film, or painting of an indigenous person in their traditional dress, in a modern, urban setting. She found plenty of “indigenist art” that portrayed them in a stereotypical and harshly negative light – backward, almost barbaric, the men often passed out drunk, the women surrounded by a horde of children – but nothing modern or positive. Then one day, not long before she was scheduled to return to the U.S., she came across a book “that was everything I’d been looking for.”
In it, she discovered the work of Enrique Estuardo Alvarez, a contemporary artist in Quito who paints everyday people, including many indigenous people, in Ecuador’s cities. Elated, Gass made contact with Alvarez, explained her interest, and met with him. She returned to Quito for two weeks over winter break during her senior year to interview him in greater depth, visit his studio, and see his latest works in progress. She also met and interviewed the most prominent art critic in Ecauador.
The interviews provided insight for her senior I.S. project that could not have been obtained anywhere else. Alvarez had done a series of 32 paintings of indigenous women’s faces and had them made into billboards that were placed along a highway for a month. “He told me he got a ton of responses to those billboards,” Gass said. “Half was positive – ‘That one looks just like my aunt, or my mom’ – but the other half was people saying ‘How dare you! Get them off there.’”
In analyzing Alvarez’ work, and the reactions to it, for her capstone paper (written in Spanish, of course), Gass drew on the theory of Walter Mignolo, who has written about how the value system in a colonial society creates a de facto hierarchy of races or ethnicities that continues to influence how people still see one another in those now post-colonial societies today.
“For Erin, her I.S. was an opportunity to produce interdisciplinary research in Spanish and fine arts, to travel abroad and carry out extensive field research, and to share her passion with international artists and scholars,” said her advisor and mentor, Hernan Medina-Jimenez, assistant professor of Spanish.
Immediately after graduation, Gass began an internship with the Immigrant Worker Project in Canton, which helps agricultural workers from Latin America with legal work and translation needs. “I am working over 50 hours a week,” she says, “but every day I am helping people and speaking Spanish, so I really enjoy it.”