Calibrating Approaches to Art: Elka Lee-Shapiro ’18

April 26, 2019
Phoebe Pan ’20
Elka Lee-Shapiro
Elka Lee-Shapiro ’18 Photo credit: Courtesy of Elka Lee-Shapiro

Through her work with art museums, nonprofits, and youth programs, Elka Lee-Shapiro ’18 is exploring how art intersects with politics and culture.

Where have you been working and what has been your experience there?

I currently have two part-time positions that I really enjoy. First, I work at Mural Arts as the work ready coordinator. Mural Arts is a nonprofit arts organization that focuses on socially engaged public art, and they’re behind a lot of the beautiful murals around Philadelphia. In addition, they have a comprehensive range of educational and restorative justice programs for youth and formerly incarcerated people. Right now, I’m responsible for coordinating the application and enrollment process for their Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) Summer Program.

I’m also at the Delaware Art Museum as the Alfred Appel Jr. Education Intern. There, I predominantly work with early learners, ages two-five, where I develop and lead gallery- and studio-based programs. I love working with early learners in a museum setting because so much of my work is motivated by a mission of increasing access, and museums have a history of being inaccessible for so many different reasons. With a museum like the Delaware Art Museum, which has a local orientation, there’s a lot of potential for it to function as a community and cultural center.

Were you always interested in art history and East Asian studies? Did any of your experiences at Oberlin lead to your current job?

I came into Oberlin actually wanting to major in English. However, during my freshman year, I took The Art of Japanese Prints with Associate Professor of Art History and East Asian Studies Bonnie Cheng, and during my sophomore fall semester, I took Themes of Western Art with Professor of Medieval Art History Erik Inglis. I discovered that art history had the reading, writing, and close analysis that were all involved in studying literature, but with an added visual component, which I really loved. I’m grateful to have maintained relationships with Bonnie and Erik through my time in college. They continue to teach, encourage, and inspire me so much!

Photo of Elka Lee-Shapiro painting a mural
Elka Lee-Shapiro ’18 working on a mural designed by students and teaching artists affiliated with the Mural Arts nonprofit in Philadelphia  
Photo credit: Elka Lee-Shapiro 

You recently gave a talk on your exhibition at the Allen, titled Centripetal/Centrifugal: Calibrating an Asian American Art. What was it like to produce and curate this?

It was a challenging project! I was working at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) during my senior year as a curatorial assistant for Kevin Greenwood, Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art, when he proposed the idea of having me do my own show focused on Asian American abstraction, stemming from the work I had done on the subject during my junior and senior years as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. At the end of the day, it came down to a question of, "What are we working with, and what’s something interesting I can say?" I put a lot of thought and research into how to organize the show under a racial rubric, while still letting the works, their subjects, and the connections between them shine through.

The most rewarding part of the process was seeing the show in real life and being able to share the project with the Oberlin community and the artists involved. I feel incredibly grateful to Kevin, everyone at AMAM, and all the artists for an opportunity to work on a project like this.

What do you love most about the work that you're doing at the moment?

I graduated from Oberlin knowing that I wanted to do something in the arts that aligned with my politics and values. I also knew that I didn’t want to do anything research and writing heavy, or with a 9-5 schedule. Now, I’m working varied positions in the arts where I have a flexible schedule and am doing a mix of administrative and social-oriented work, as well as gallery- and studio-based teaching. While this wasn’t planned, I feel like the past year has been a good exposure to a cross-slice of the various kinds of institutions and positions available in the arts.

Elka hopes to continue doing work that is socially and politically engaged in educational, arts, or legal settings.   

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