A man stands to the left wearing a black and white checkered shirt. He assists a woman wearing a dark coat to place metal poles into the ground.

The art of emotion

A new, interactive campus art installation is asking everyone to be honest about how they are really feeling and then select a disc color that corresponds to that emotion.
By: Kristen Doerschner
Art installation depicts emotional landscape of campus

Artist John Peña wants everyone on the Penn State Beaver campus to show how they’re feeling each day.

A new campus art installation is asking everyone to be honest about how they are really feeling in that moment and then select a disc color that corresponds to that emotion. The discs and stands were placed in the center of campus Monday. Ultimately the discs will form a visual depiction of the emotional landscape of the campus.

The concept is the brainchild of Peña, a Pittsburgh-based artist who is working with the students, faculty and staff as part of Penn State’s Campus Arts Initiative.

The Campus Arts Initiative, a project of Penn State’s Strategic Planning Seed Grant program, is a cross-disciplinary project that aims to create site-specific visual art to engage communities in the spaces where they live and work every day.

Early in the fall semester surveys were distributed asking participants to select which colors they associate with various emotions. Angela Fishman’s statistics class compiled the surveys to determine collectively which emotions to correspond with the colors.

Peña creates works of sculpture and public art that explore human relationships and interactions, both with the natural world and with each other.

“I make artworks that take place in public spaces and encourage audience participation and engagement,” Peña said. “That means that I typically partner with a local community-based organization or group to learn more about a group’s goals and hopes for possible artwork. Then I meet people, learn about a neighborhood’s history and the specific cultural context of a place and space.”

Peña said his goal at Penn State Beaver is to collaborate with the campus community to encourage participants to share their emotions.

“The art installation has already been a highly productive collaboration across faculty, staff and students. It promises to continue to illustrate the power of the arts in bringing people together to talk about topics that can be difficult to find commonalities across diverse populations,” Director of Academic Affairs Carey McDougall said.

Anyone can participate and share at any time. The installation will allow each of us to visualize the emotional landscape of the campus each day.

“I think there is definitely a disconnect between our internal lives and how others perceive us. … We are social animals and as such we look to others as a way of grounding and knowing ourselves. We’ve created a world which values ‘appearance’ above all else. This is evident in everything from advertising to politics,” Peña said.

Our carefully constructed appearances can have a downside that must be recognized.

“The trouble with only seeing a curated appearance is that it can be very misleading and lead to feelings of profound isolation,” Peña said. “We all like to say we aren’t lonely, but if you just take a look at the systems we have built to distract ourselves from our own loneliness, it becomes quite apparent.”

Peña said we each have “complex interior lives” and sharing how we are really feeling gives us the chance to connect and feel less alone.

“It’s profound stuff,” he said.

McDougall said there has been an increase of mental health challenges among college students, and the campus is committed to supporting students on an individual basis. She said the art project will allow “every community member to voice their emotions through a thought-provoking visual display with little or no vulnerability in being honest.”

“By the end of the (spring) semester, it is my hope we are all better at sharing our emotional states so that we connect with each other even more meaningfully,” McDougall said.

There will be a celebration of the project in the center of campus at 12:15 p.m. Jan. 21. Hot chocolate and other warming treats will be served.

Colors correspond with emotions

A survey of Penn State Beaver students, faculty and staff determined what colors would be associated with what emotions for the campus art project. Here are the final selections.

Yellow: Happy

Orange: Excited/Surprised

Purple: Fearful

Light blue: Calm

Darker blue: Sad

Red: Angry

Green: Anxious

Gray: Ambivalent