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APSU’s Dickins creating own work, championing others

Michael Dickins
 Michael Dickins is director of galleries at Austin Peay.

For a moment, it sounded as if someone was trapped deep inside the metal barrel. This unnerving feeling grew more intense as gallery visitors walked toward the rusty drum. It looked like a normal barrel, used to collect garbage or – for the more desperate – to build a fire on an icy winter night, but once visitors peered inside, they heard flat, unemotional voices offering up “thoughts and prayers.”

One of the barrel’s clearer voices, belonging to an older woman, announced, “Praying for the Orlando community in the wake of this morning’s unthinkable act of violence.”

Those words were tweeted by West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito after the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting and they, along with tweets from other politicians in the wake of mass shootings, form the powerful core of artist Michael Dickins’ ongoing sound-collage installation, “#thoughtsandprayers.” 

“(This piece) took the form of a steel drum barrel,” Dickins said. “I was thinking of a symbol of garbage. And the barrel is a provider of this warmth the same way Twitter is providing this sense of warmth. But 30 minutes later, there’s a new news story. The warmth has died down.”

Within the Clarksville community, Dickins is known as the innovative director of galleries at Austin Peay State University, where he has the uncanny ability to bring world-class talent to campus. Just last year, APSU’s The New Gallery hosted an exhibition by renowned artist Wendy Red Star and a special lecture by Amy Sherald, the artist behind Michelle Obama’s portrait. But Dickins is also a practicing interdisciplinary artist, and in 2018, his piece “Wailing Wall” received the Nashville Scene’s Best Activist Art award.

 Dickins brought Amy Sherald to APSU to discuss her portrait of Michelle Obama. 

“We often ask questions about the art in a gallery, but Dickins’ work turned questions back on its viewers, and challenged gallery-goers to confront their own stances in these chaotic times,” Joe Nolan wrote in the October 2018 Nashville Scene.

Sound, such as the voices emanating from that metal barrel, is a major component of Dickins’ work, and this interest has led him to reexamine human speech. Particularly, he’s curious about how political rhetoric shapes and manipulates society. That’s what led him to develop “#thoughtsandprayers.”

“My work is a commentary for others to hear, to see, to disregard,” he said. “If someone is moved to do something about it, that’s great, but it’s not a call for action. It’s a call for self-reflection.”

Collaborating with STEM

Dickins is now working to expand “#thoughtsandprayers” by adding warped steel barrels to the piece, and to find those specific materials, he turned to an unlikely partner – Austin Peay’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Throughout the year, as part of that college’s outreach efforts, physics laboratory manager Bryan Gaither wows local students by boiling water inside a 55-gallon steel drum and then plunging that drum in ice. A minute or two later, the drum implodes. Gaither is now donating his ruined barrels to Dickins, in one of many collaborations between the College of STEM and the College of Arts and Letters.

“I think there's a good push here on campus to collaborate between departments and colleges, especially with the leadership of Dr. (Karen) Meisch (dean of the College of STEM) always wanting to bridge those gaps between science and art,” Dickins said.  

In the future, Dickins also plans to collaborate with Dr. Mollie F. Cashner, APSU associate professor of biology, by having an invited artist – Brooklyn-based artist Laura Splan – work with Cashner’s genetics class to create a visualization of a DNA coding sequence. Splan will visit campus in Fall 2020 for a 3-week residency.  

“Science deals a lot with facts, art deals a lot with philosophy,” Dickins said. “I think they should always be combined. To not only ask how, but also why.”

But for now, in addition to his creative work, Dickins is putting the finishing touches on another major exhibition season for the University’s galleries. For information on his work, visit www.michaeldickins.com. In the next few weeks, the University will unveil its 2019-2020 season.

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