New multimedia exhibits at Pitzer Galleries see the past through today’s lens

Britt Ransom’s “Arise and Seek” and Maya Gurantz’s “The Plague Archives” put creative innovartion on thrilling display this pas weekend. (Chase Wade • The Student Life)

Innovation was on thrilling display this past weekend as two exhibits opened at the Pitzer Art Galleries: Britt Ransom’s “Arise and Seek,” located in Nichols Gallery Hall, and Maya Gurantz’s “The Plague Archives” in the Lenzner Family Art Gallery. Both exhibits connect past to present, drawing on photographs, family mementos, videos and historical documents to explore urgent issues that range from systems of oppression and the ongoing fight for civil rights to changing ideas about medicine and disease.

Ransom, who is a professor of art in sculpture, installation and site work at Carnegie Mellon University, uses digital fabrication processes to tell the story of her great-grandparents, Reverdy C. Ransom and Emma Sarah Connor, who were early civil rights activists. Involved with organizations like the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), these ancestors worked alongside activists including the journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the renowned intellectual W.E.B. Dubois. 

“Arise and Seek” was inspired by an unusual portrait of Connor called a multigraph, where mirrors are used to capture a subject’s likeness from multiple angles.

“We’re thinking about someone having a conversation with themselves,” Ransom said. “For me, this image was really symbolic in thinking about how we are all still having these conversations about race 100 years later.” 

Mirrors, she explained, can be used “to explore sites then, now, and in the future.” 

This technique is seen throughout her exhibit, where mirrored pictures and wallpapers from her family’s past create unique patterns on the wall. In one section, Ransom uses such reflections to visually combine a 3D replica of her great-grandparents’ house and the fortress of John Brown, the 19th century abolitionist, located at Harper’s Ferry in what is present-day West Virginia. The interactive sculpture underscores her family’s connection to Brown through her great-grandfather’s speech “In The Spirit of John Brown,” another major inspiration for the exhibit.  

Gurantz, a co-host of the podcast “The Sauce” and occasional writer for the Los Angeles Times and This American Life, grapples with the past in her art, using her connection to the recent COVID-19 pandemic to spark an exploration of disease and epidemic. 

“This started as an Instagram hashtag,” Gurantz said. “It was just something to get through every day of quarantine.” 

But her work grew over time into a detailed record of plague stories, divided into six sections: narrative, maps, pustules, the breast, public service announcements, and charms or amulets.

Gurantz uses many mediums to tell her story, starting with a video of Julie Andrews serenading the listener with “Just a Spoonful of Sugar” at the entrance and ending with a room full of colorful posters, pictures and advertisements, such as one for “The Bleach Man” who protected people from AIDS infected needles.

Students and faculty who attended the event got a unique glimpse into the artists’ methods of creation. The afternoon began with a talk by Ransom, who personally took attendees through her exhibit, answering questions about scale, site and tactility as she went. Gurantz took a more unconventional approach, beginning with an explanation of her work that seeks to eradicate the notion of COVID-19 as unprecedented and ending with an elaborate dance number where she embodied vaccinations, illnesses and at one point plucked lice out of her hair. 

“She got up and was blowing in someone’s face. She talked about breath and how it can feel dangerous even though it shouldn’t feel dangerous. But to me, it felt a little dangerous. It’s this interesting thing where she’s asking you to put a lot of trust in her while she takes us on this journey.”

Jonah Ifcher PZ '24

These presentations allowed students to engage with the artwork on a new level. Jonah Ifcher PZ ’24 described his favorite moment of Gurantz’s performance. 

“She got up and was blowing in someone’s face,” he said. “She talked about breath and how it can feel dangerous even though it shouldn’t feel dangerous. But to me, it felt a little dangerous. It’s this interesting thing where she’s asking you to put a lot of trust in her while she takes us on this journey.”

Mike Buchman PZ ’26 discussed how interesting it was seeing the Nichols Gallery Hall totally transform from the last show, catering to the new exhibit.

“Last semester there were two fish tanks in the middle of the gallery,” Buchman said. “[But now], this huge open space in the middle of the room draws audiences to the pieces on the perimeter,” he said.

These kinds of student reactions and interactions are exactly what Ciara Ennis, director and curator of Pitzer College Art Galleries, hopes for. 

“I really wanted to build a program that looked outwards, looked out to the art world by creating really extraordinary shows that would bring in artists, curators and critics from Los Angeles, one of the top art centers in the world,” she said. “I’m hoping [students] will be able to use this as inspiration from a formal and conceptual point of view.”

Ransom is also excited about their exhibits being used as a teaching tool and a site of inspiration. 

“If you follow your obsessions, that’s it, it will show you,” Gurantz said. “Don’t worry about what it’s going to be.”


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