Student Profiles

Selena McMahan '05

Selena McMahan

Selena McMahan '05

Hometown: New York, New York
Major: Visual and Performing Arts (self-designed)

Why did you come to Bowdoin?
I came to Bowdoin because I wanted a smaller-sized, liberal arts college. Bowdoin was my first choice. I really liked the Theater and Dance Department when I visited, and I felt like people here were much happier and much saner in the way that they managed their social and academic lives. And I really like Maine. I wanted to get away, but not too far from New York.

How did you decide on your major?
There was no major [for which] I really wanted to fulfill all the requirements. I didn't want to [study] Shakespeare and all for the English and Theater major. For the Visual Art major, you have to do two semesters of drawing, two semesters of painting, and some art history, and I wasn't interested in that [either]. I just wanted to [study] the overlap between visual and performing arts and focus more on ideas and on art that serves a purpose. So that's how I came to it.

What has been your favorite class at Bowdoin?
My favorite class of all-time was Observation to Obsession with Nigel Poor, a visiting professor for one semester. She lived at the Coastal Studies Center [Bowdoin's interdisciplinary teaching and research facility on Orr's Island], so our class was at the Coastal Studies Center once a week on Fridays for five hours. The course was about conceptual art and, in a lot of ways, it focused the direction of my major. We did a daily practice, so every student had to do one thing that they repeated every single day. We made reliquaries - traditionally, reliquaries are used to house a body part of a saint, but we made them for different objects that were special to us. [The professor] showed us amazing artists and [the class] had such a great feeling because it was out at the Coastal Studies Center, away from Bowdoin.

A class I took this semester with [Assistant Professor of Women's Studies] Kristen Ghodsee called Anarchy, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism definitely ties for first. It was about how different forms of government treat women. It got us to think about the possibility of living under a different governmental structure than a democracy and why other structures, like a monarchy or a theocracy or communism, appeal to people.

Have you done any independent studies?
I have done three independent studies. I did an independent study my sophomore year with [Professor of Dance] June Vail about different ways of conceiving the body. So I studied Pilates, Alexander Technique, and Contact Improvisation. At the end of the semester I did a final performance called "Skin, Muscle, Bone" to demonstrate the different techniques. It was the idea that Contact Improvisation is [about] skin and sensory reactions, Alexander Technique is [about] your skeletal frame, and Pilates is [about] toning your muscles.

Then my two senior-year independent studies are really what my major leads up to, in the way that I designed it. Fall semester, I did an independent study on activist art. And this semester, narrowing in, I did a project about Brunswick. Both of my independent studies focused on the audience experience of the art and on artists [who] become facilitators rather than just creators of something for someone to look at.

I did the activist art study with [Lecturer in Theater] Gretchen Berg. I looked at all sorts of different activist art, from poster art to actions to exhibits to things that you wouldn't really consider art, but the fact that the artists are considering it art makes it so. My final project of my independent study, after doing political things around the election, was an interactive questionnaire about life at Bowdoin. I came to that [because I wanted] to focus on something more local that I knew about and because I felt like, for me, the crux of activism was getting people to communicate with each other. So I wanted to foster conversations about this community. It was a really big success and it propelled me to do something still local but a little bit bigger this semester.

My independent study this semester is about Brunswick and different ways of perceiving the town through mapping. It has a few different components, some of which are a little bit more interactive than others. People make their own maps and view each other's [maps], and then there's a room where my vision of Brunswick is. It's more my photographic art, but viewing it is more interactive than a typical art exhibit. And then it has an element where people can go out into the town and do chalking. I've always been interested in space, perceiving space, and buildings, and so many of my interests came together in this independent study.

What extracurricular activities do you participate in? Do you have an on campus job?
I work for the Theater and Dance Department, mainly in the costume shop designing and making costumes, but I also work doing stage management, sound board operation, and backstage crew.

And I am an active member of the Democratic Socialists on campus. The way it functions at Bowdoin, Democratic Socialists is a leftist activism group. It doesn't focus so exclusively on the principles of democratic socialism, but the [group's] work ties into the ideology of democratic socialism. So [the group focuses on] labor issues, worker's rights issues, and equality issues. This year, we worked a lot for the election because that was such a big issue, we worked against the tax cut proposal in Maine, we did a campaign on Equal Rights Amendment in Maine, and we did a teach-in on Che Guevara.

I'm also a member of Sustainable Bowdoin. Sustainable Bowdoin does different projects to make Bowdoin more sustainable and more "green." So it's split up into different committees. I was on the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Committee, so we focused on getting the college to buy green tag energy, green cleaning products, and green clothes in the bookstore.

My parents and my grandparents had never lectured me on the principles of democratic socialism or anything like that, but I had grown up with those kind of values. I felt that at Bowdoin, through working with these two groups, I was able to define better my values, and [doing so] gave me an opportunity to put my values and my thinking into practice. So I've really felt that doing a campaign for something I believe in or trying to get Bowdoin to buy something that agrees with [sustainable] principles was a really great opportunity. Being able to work for those kind of things here, where it's pretty safe, gives you a good jump start go out into the rest of the world and work for those things where it's a little scarier and you might face even more [opposition].

Have you studied abroad during your time at Bowdoin?
I did. I studied abroad in the Czech Republic with the School for International Training's Arts and Social Change program. Particularly in the Czech Republic, arts have played a really important role in the revolutions that have happened there, so there's a lot of evidence that you can look at - you read a book or a play that had a really big impact on that country and got people to change their mind-frame or fight the government. For my independent study, I wrote a paper on five contemporary arts organizations in the Czech Republic that are all focusing on making international connections.

What is your best Bowdoin memory?
I really have enjoyed the contra dances that have taken place [Morrell] Gym and in the [Outdoor Leadership Center], and Chunx in the Pub [in Smith Union]. Chunx is a dance party that Sarah Moran ['05] and Andy Segerdahl ['05] started where anyone could bring music and deejay, everyone could just dance and have a good time, and it wasn't so much centered around alcohol. It was really nice because people ended up dancing crazy and it had a really nice, welcoming feeling.

I also worked on a play, Eyes of Persia, sophomore year, and I have really great memories of working with that group of people and, again, dancing at a concert in the Pub with all of them.

What are your plans after graduation?
I have a Watson Fellowship to travel to Africa, Asia, and South and Central America to do humanitarian clowning. I will be teaming up with Clowns Without Borders, with clowns that travel and do work with doctors, and with one group that's based in Guatemala that does a big festival and does work with local kids based on clowning. I have to stay out of the U.S. for the whole year!

I grew up going to a lot of street theater festivals with my parents in France, and I always liked the clowns. In Europe, the clowning tradition is fairly different [from the U.S. tradition]. Here, clowns tend to be more kitschy, circus clowns, and the kind of clowning that I'm interested in, and most of the clowning that I've seen, isn't that kind of garish, scary clowning. It's more of a human interaction. So I grew up knowing about and really enjoying seeing [clowns], and then when I started doing a lot of dance and theater and art, the kind of dance and theater that I gravitated to gradually moved more and more towards clowning. When I actually started taking a couple of workshops in clowning, I [thought] "Oh, yeah, of course, this is all the aspects of performance art that I've connected to, but they're compressed into one form."

What advice would you give to a first year about the Bowdoin experience?
My advice for a beginning first year student would be to work aggressively to find interest groups on campus that you fit into and to make friends through clubs or any kind of extracurricular where you have something in common with people.

Also, if there are aspects about Bowdoin that [you're] not content with, [work to] change them. I think that there is a lot of opportunity at Bowdoin for change and the administration is really welcome to student opinion. That's something that I've discovered more and more. Now that I'm a senior, I feel like I have closer ties to the administration, but I wish I had fostered that earlier, as a freshman.

Story posted on June 30, 2005

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