Ever since she was a child, Irina Alimanestianu has looked at the world from the outside — observing social structures, making sense of “the rules” and doing her best to interpret them as a grade-schooler growing up with Romanian parents in Nyack, New York.
The result became her personal anthropology.
Over the decades that have followed, it has morphed and shifted into a nonverbal language all its own. And last month, Alimanestianu shared that anthropology with over 100 young artists, inviting them into her world of color and shape during a series of workshops in preparation for the annual Student Exhibition, opening Saturday, March 7, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
“I had actually never worked with kids, so I thought it might be a fun idea,” she said during a recent interview. “My work, because it’s about a more intuitive part of our brain, I thought it might be interesting to see what kids do with a project that’s open-ended like that.”
For each of the six sessions, Alimanestianu — an artist in residence whose work is currently on view in “Artists Choose Artists” — would start by drawing the skeleton of an object, such as a mountain range or a tree trunk, across a handful of pieces of paper before distributing them to groups of four or five students.
Then, she instructed the youngsters to use markers, crayons, pencils, glitter paint and watercolors to create shapes, make marks and play with color collaboratively, pushing them past their instinct to claim one section of the paper for themselves.
In the end, each class put the puzzle back together — using the mountain range or tree trunk, for example, as the line that carried throughout — before titling the final composition for the upcoming exhibition.
“We talked about how everything is connected — and how many of these shapes are repeated, whether it’s the wet sand from a wave, or the gases around a galaxy,” Alimanestianu said. “And then there are similarities to how things look inside of our organs, or atoms, or molecules in our bodies. We are all part of the same scientific truths.”
Sensitive to nature, light and the relationship of shapes within space, Alimanestianu considers her most recent work to be a sensory reading of the environment, its past and present, and its vibrational tones, the artist explained. A boulder on a hillside creates ripples in the air that move past it. The shadow of a building weighs down on passersby.
And it is through color and shape that she explores the connections and associations like these — always painting to explore, she said.
“It’s more like the relationship of different shapes and colors together, and what kind of energy that evokes for me, and then I assume for others,” she said. “I am trying to work with a universal, nonverbal language that I feel has evolved in us since we were single-cell organisms.
“It’s a subconscious language that’s in our DNA, which affects how we feel when we enter certain types of architecture, or the forest, or when there are too many people, or not enough,” she continued. “All of those things, I think, are already in our DNA, how we’re responding to it.”
It is this same language that she shared with her students when asking them to work so freely. To her surprise, she was met with little resistance to the process, she reported, as well as thought-provoking ideas.
“I was impressed by some of the questions. I thought they were way more sophisticated than I anticipated,” she said. “One kid asked me, ‘Do you ever feel you’ve gone too far and you’ve made a mistake and you can’t get back?’ And I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That was one of my favorites. That one kind of got to me, because it is about a leap of faith. You start making marks on something and you have to bring some harmony to it — some connection.”
The annual Student Exhibition, featuring work by more than 1,000 student artists from East End schools, will open with a reception on Saturday, March 7, from 1 to 3 p.m. for young artists in pre-K through eighth grade, and 3 to 5 p.m. for high school students. The show will remain on view through April 19. The Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. For more information, call 631-283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.