An artist’s work grows out of immersion in another culture.
Shadows fall through the windows of Jeanet Dreskin’s lower level studio. In the evenings, they stretch long enough to blur some of the paint drippings that decorate the entire floor, swirling around and even under tables supporting pounds of paper and seashell collections.
When she’s working, she’s in the zone, entirely focused and absorbed. Sometimes she paints in broad strokes; other times it’s the finesse of a finely sharpened pencil to follow the thin lines of muscle in a medical drawing.
Although many alumni have contributed to building the identity of Clemson University, there are standouts, people who have provided financial support to grow the University in exciting ways. The Dr. E. Arthur and Jeanet S. Dreskin Travel Fellowship Endowment was originally established as a fellowship in 1994 to support graduate students participating in Clemson’s overseas study abroad programs.
Through the opportunities she’s afforded visual art students with her fellowship — which she recently funded to become an endowment — Dreskin has played a large role in shaping generations of University artists and, like every painting, print or picture that springs out of the influence of the trips taken by students on the endowment, there’s a story to tell.
Dreskin knew from her own extensive travel that immersion in another culture was paramount to expanding an artist’s perspective and challenging personal boundaries; travel seemed to give her world new colors and her paints new hues. The art that grew out of these experiences would come to be exhibited in various galleries throughout Europe and the United States, including the collection at the Smithsonian and a feature in the White House.
By the time she came to Clemson as its first Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student in ’71, Dreskin had seen the looming Egyptian pyramids and felt the sultry, heavy heat of India in between various trips through Europe, China, Russia and the Caribbean. Each place she’d visited had guided her hand in different ways, challenged and exposed her to new ideas and new ways of expressing them. This is the essence of what she wanted to share with future generations of students. And she wanted to communicate that support and understanding for years to come.
After years of extensive world traveling together, the Dreskins finally settled in the Greenville area in 1950 to raise their family of four.
The Dreskin home was, and always had been, filled with activity. Even after the two eldest boys were off at university — studying medicine like their father — the couple still had two daughters in high school. With her husband putting in long hours at the hospital where he worked as chief pathologist or in his position as a visiting professor at Clemson, Dreskin felt perfectly situated between peanut butter and paintbrushes, working in her home studio and teaching at the Greenville Museum School of Art.
Degrees from Newcomb College and Johns Hopkins University hung between canvases, all with her name curled across them. She’d been there, done that — and done it well.
Now was the time to focus on art and family. There was a schedule; there was a routine. And there were norms for college students, particularly women; and those norms felt more like rules. Dreskin didn’t fit the norm; she didn’t follow the rules. But then again, rules are meant to be broken.
She and friends were sitting out on their sailboat in Hartwell Lake when she meandered onto a topic that had concerned her. Dreskin — who had been teaching classes at the museum art school in Greenville — was preparing to teach graduate students, which required she earn an MFA. Family friend Harlan McClure, head of Clemson’s then College of Architecture, brightened at this information and started talking excitedly about how Clemson was considering initiating its very first MFA program.
“Wouldn’t you like to come and be our first student?” he offered. “All you need to do is take your GREs.”
The idea was tempting.
“I said, ‘You know, that that would be fine,’ and my husband, Art — his name was Art and so art; it makes it easy to remember,” Dreskin recalls, chuckling to herself. “So Art said, ‘Well, just look into it.’”
“Think about it,” McClure said.
Well, she thought. And she thought. She rejected the idea, and then she thought about it some more. It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t crystal clear; she would be the first student to ever even go through the program, the guinea pig. But it felt right.
“Clemson had a wonderful department of architecture, they also had photography, sculpture, printmaking and painting. They just had a wonderful art department already there, going full swing,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to do etchings, silk screens, collagraphs and monotypes.”
It was decided. Dreskin would go on to get her MFA, and she would be the first.
Mornings were a rush. It was fix breakfast, get herself ready, pack the car with all of the paints and canvases, brushes and pencils she thought she might need and then commute to Clemson to unpack it all in preparation for a full-day’s work.
“In the architecture college, there were some studios; printmaking is where it is now. There were drawing studios, and there was ceramics. But there were no painting studios,” Dreskin remembers. “I did my painting in my studio then brought them home every day.”
The work was long and hard.
“I was little bit older, and I was setting a standard. And Dr. McClure let me know I was setting a standard.”
For her thesis, Dreskin had to create 35-millimeter slides of each of her 30 photos alongside 30 more pieces of paintings, drawings, etches, lithographs and silk screens.
“I think that they quickly let me know this. They consistently reminded me that I was setting the bar, and that they would require more of me than they might require of students in the future. I didn’t decide. I didn’t even worry about it; I just did it.”
“I don’t remember how I looked when I was 49 except I remember wearing blue-jeans,” she laughs. “Trying to fit in? I was obviously much older.”
But it didn’t matter. Like everyone else in Clemson, Dreskin was there because she loved doing what she did, and the University was where it became possible. What she did as the University’s first MFA student was more than just create art; she created the groundwork for the program today, ground that students like Adrienne Lichliter walk on as they guide themselves through their own studies. Although the rough edges might have been sanded off, there is still that same strength of talent among the program’s professors that had eventually persuaded Dreskin to enroll. There’s also the same penchant for paint-strewn concrete studio floors.
The patterns of stains are different between the two painters, but there is the same focus concentrated behind Lichliter’s furrowed brow as on Dreskin’s.
“For me, what art is is you go through the day, and you see something, and you respond to it,” Lichliter offers. “A lot of people don’t have the time or interest to delve into it. But for me as an artist, I ask myself, ‘Why?’ You pull deeper and deeper into your own interests and what speaks to you. When something impresses me, I have an obligation, as an artist, to look into that, and I have an opportunity to look into that. Fully understanding what people go through on a daily basis but overlook or don’t think about is a really enriching experience for me. Those experiences are life and what I chose to make out of them.”
Lichliter’s master’s thesis explores her attraction to certain textures and found moments in the world that don’t necessarily have statements along with them. It is very unlike proposing a reaction but more about exploring things or feelings that already exist and have their own certain spontaneity of life already about them because of the way they occurred. Pinning language to her work took some time, but having the experience of putting herself into that challenge while in Italy helped her cultivate a better understand for her thesis and brought it together. She realized this partnership between her hands and the textures she was pulling off of other objects that she didn’t control.
Receiving Dreskin’s fellowship made a semester in Genoa — with its plethora of new spaces and relationships to explore — possible for Lichliter and gave her the inspiration she needed to complete key transitional pieces.
“I’m a huge advocate of study abroad,” Lichliter says. “There’s no way I could have done all of the things we did [in Italy] if I’d been on my own. It’s always eye-opening in the sense of getting a sense of the world we live in and the cultures that surround us, even understanding your own culture. Being somewhere else, you realize everything unique about living in the United States and the South.”
These thoughts are exactly what the Dreskins envisioned when they set up the fellowship to support art students, because everything an artist does is a reflection of where he or she has been.
On the top shelf of Jeanet Dreskin’s bedroom closet, there is a box that holds dozens of letters. Among them are messy Crayon drawings by grandkids and letters from family members. But there are also notes and cards from her extended Clemson Family, the students who felt their lives were changed with the help of the fellowship she and Art started years ago.
How endowments work
An endowment is meant to provide a perpetual source of income for scholarships, faculty and University programs for generations of Clemson students. When an endowment is established, the principal gift (or corpus), is invested long-term and a portion of the annual earnings are paid out to support the designated purpose for which the endowment was established. The goal is to ensure that the principal maintains its purchasing power over time to support future generations.