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Art Admirers Get to Know Melissa Shook: Inside and Out

An art exhibition showcasing the works of late Professor Emerita Melissa Shook brought together art appreciators from all over the Boston area.

An art exhibition showcasing the works of late Professor Emerita Melissa Shook brought together art appreciators from all over the Boston area.

Presented in a two-part retrospective exhibition at the University Hall Gallery and in the Walter Grossman Memorial Gallery, Melissa Shook: Inside and Out, ran from Sept. 6 until Oct. 29, with an opening reception on Sept. 17. In that time, more than 500 people visited the exhibition, many of whom were former students or colleagues of the late professor.

Gallery Director Sam Toabe, who co-curated the collection alongside Art History Senior Lecturer Carol G.J. Scollans ’84, said this number is a testament to the respect and admiration Shook garnered throughout her esteemed career. Shook joined UMass Boston in 1979, teaching photography in the Art & Art History Department and leaving an indelible mark on the department's pedagogy, as well as generations of students.

“She dedicated over 30 years of her life to teaching at UMass Boston. Because of her commitment, both to the department and the university, it's important to honor her and to see the effect that she had on our department,” said Toabe. “We have really beautiful facilities now, and a lot of that is due to her legacy and her impacting the department. She was so important to generations of faculty and students.”

Shook, who passed away in 2020, was best known for her self-portraits and documentary style photography representing and humanizing marginalized communities. Throughout her career, her practice expanded to include writing, book making, drawing, sculpture, video art, and social practice art through direct action and mutual aid projects.

Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Matthew Teitelbaum and MFA Photography Curator Kristen Gresh attended the exhibit on October 28. Teitelbaum said MFA’s mission of expanding its space is to embrace diverse perspectives, challenge conventional narratives, and celebrate both difference and connection.

“Public collections and related exhibitions should deepen our understanding of legacy and history, respond to its misrepresentation, and chart a path towards a creative future. Art anticipates what is to come, and those of us working in public spaces have an obligation to create dialogue and conversation with works of art that serve to empower us, and provide pleasure, always opening possibility. One way to do this is discover the hidden pathways, the artists who have been placed to the side,” said Teitelbaum.

He added that MFA’s obligation is to find artists with spirit, ideas, voice and commitment to sharing a world that encourages creativity and unlocks our imagination.

“Melissa Shook is such artist: personal and poetic in her observations of relationships and identity within community, her work has fallen from view. And yet, hers is an authentic expression of lived values. For me, that is what art is all about.”

Melissa Shook: Inside and Out was displayed in two parts, with Shook’s more personal work showcased in the University Hall Gallery. Across campus in the Grossman Gallery, art admirers were able to view a large selection of Shook’s series The Streets are for Nobody. Also on display were archival materials that were reproduced from the Healy Library's collection of Shook’s papers, along with handmade books, sculptural objects, and a collection of her film and pinhole cameras.

Shook’s daughter, Kristina, said seeing her mother’s work on display was a “profound and deeply emotional experience.”

“The thoughtful curation highlighted my mother’s wide range of photography, expansive art, and personal ephemera. I will always remember the University Hall Gallery and the Grossmann Gallery exhibition with fondness and heartfelt appreciation for those who made it such a success,” said Kristina, adding that her mother formed long-lasting friendships with both students and colleagues.”

Shook’s exhibit was launched contemporaneously with the establishment of The Melissa Shook Documentary Photography Award, which was made possible with a generous gift from alumna Nancy Lutz ’82 and her husband Wendell. This fund will provide an annual prize to one or more students who have demonstrated exceptional skill or promise in photography, with a preference for documentary photography skills.

While pursuing her bachelor’s in art history from UMass Boston, Lutz enrolled in a photography course that was taught by Melissa Shook.

“In just a few weeks, she instilled in me a lifetime passion for and commitment to the world of images. Even more importantly, we became dear friends. To celebrate Melissa's impact on me and so many others through her generous teaching and unparalleled photographic work, I established this award,” said Lutz.

The award will be presented this year for the first time to Chloe Tomasetta ’21, whose photographic work in 2021 documented busy street scenes in Boston's historic Hay Market during the height of the pandemic.

To contribute to the Melissa Shook Documentary Photography Award, please visit this giving page.

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