Muirhead Collection of Student Prints Illustrates 40-Year Career on the Hill

If judged by the cliché that a picture is worth 1,000 words, Professor Bruce Muirhead has a veritable library stashed away in a collection of folders, boxes and portfolios on the second floor of the List Art Center.  The authors in this library span decades—but most of them are not household names.

This is not, of course, a library in the traditional sense, as it contains no books. Rather, the contents of Muirhead’s library are more than 1000 original intaglio prints from former Hamilton and Kirkland students that span his 40-year career as a professor of art on the Hill.

“It’s really a history of Hamilton,” Muirhead said of the prints. He can reach back four decades to provide anecdotes about some of his first students, and even remembers their names, although he concedes that “their signatures are sometimes hard to figure out.” The prints encompass a cross section of Hamiltonians, from students like Deborah Benson K ’73—the creator of the first print in the collection—to Eugene Tobin, Hamilton’s 18th president, and a subject of one of the prints.

The collection began spontaneously. “There was no plan—no original thought about [collecting the prints],” Muirhead remembered. “I just wanted to take one print that was really good from each student.” Once he began collecting, he felt he had to continue. “There’s no point in doing it half-way,” he said.

Muirhead’s greatest concern is that the collection be preserved after he retires. Although the prints are on acid-free paper that will resist yellowing and aging, the collection is currently stored in less-than-perfect preservation conditions, but Muirhead expressed interest in storing it in the new Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum. Ideally, he said, he’d like to have the collection kept together and exhibited, perhaps at the New York State Historical Society in Cooperstown.

When he selects a print for the collection, Muirhead doesn’t gravitate towards a particular style or motif. What he looks for instead, he said, is a “technically perfect piece. I want [students] to be really committed to an idea and do it right.” He attributes the high quality of his students’ work partly to Hamilton’s open curriculum, which ensures he has devoted students. “Nobody’s breaking their arm to take the course,” Muirhead said.

The variety of artistic styles speaks to the range of artists that have passed through Muirhead’s course: abstractions, landscapes and portraits can be found in equal measure. Yet the students themselves, Muirhead said, have always had a few traits in common. “The students here are inquisitive [and] extremely pleasant,” he said. “Although,” he added with a laugh, “I don’t have to deal with them on a Saturday night!”

Most students have no prior printmaking experience when they enter Muirhead’s course, which makes the incredible detail and quality of the prints even more remarkable. Despite their interest and talent, however, Muirhead observed that many former students are unable to continue making prints after they leave the Hill. Presses are expensive and difficult to transport, which makes the art impractical for many recent graduates. Some students do continue to make prints, and Muirhead has exhibited with them in places as diverse as Australia and Spain.

Most student artists, though, have gone on to become dentists, lawyers or physicists. As a firm believer in the value of a broad liberal arts education, this doesn’t bother Muirhead. “I think you come here not to find a job, but to be educated,” he said. Sometimes, though, the breadth of educational offerings spoils his former students.

“I have people write me and say ‘Oh, professor, I wish I had gone on in art—I never should have been a lawyer!’” Muirhead said.

The prints, then, preserve many artists’ fleeting careers—a moment of creative flourish made possible in part by Muirhead’s instruction.

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