John Witty: 2010 Outstanding Graduate in Art

A triple threat in art, art history and German

Like the Baroque masterpieces that circus entrepreneur John Ringling brought home from Europe, collage artist John Calvin Witty will head to Sarasota, Fla.

Sarasota has been popular with circus troupes since the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus established winter quarters there in the early 1900s. Although Witty shares his parents’ fondness for show people, he’s not running off to join the circus after Commencement.

He’ll spend the summer as a curatorial intern at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a 21-gallery palace modeled after the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Crammed with kitschy oddities and masterpieces by Rubens, Velazquez and van Dyck, the museum could be a metaphor for Witty’s already-rich art experiences.

A senior in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, he has studied and worked in some of Europe’s most prestigious art centers, including those that contributed to Ringling’s collection. And he’s a triple threat: He’ll earn a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking with majors in art history and German, both in Arts & Sciences.

Born in Miami to theater-loving parents, Witty focused on art while attending visual and performing arts middle and high schools. He applied to WUSTL because it encouraged studies beyond a single major.

“I loved art history and wanted to pursue it as a career but never felt ready to leave art-making behind,” Witty says. “Washington University was the only place that offered me that opportunity.”

He deferred 2005 admission to spend nine months in Germany on a Rotary exchange. Witty saw a chance to become fluent in German — a valuable skill for art historians — living in small towns near Weimar with host families.

“I didn’t speak a word of German when I arrived, so it was interesting traveling with this one family,” he says. “We went to all these beer festivals during Oktoberfest when what I really wanted was to visit local museums. I finally got to explore some fantastic museums in Munich and Dresden.”

Witty arrived at WUSTL in fall 2006 and spent his sophomore year in the university’s Art History in Florence program. He roomed with an Italian family near Uffizi Gallery, studying drawing and touring museums. He stayed through spring to study Italian Renaissance art, a topic he would later explore with help from William Wallace, PhD, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History and Archaeology.

Wallace, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Michelangelo, mentored Witty in research exploring whether landmark art from Michelangelo’s day inspired his imagery in works such as the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment fresco. Witty defended the research before art history faculty at WUSTL and presented it at an undergraduate symposium in Cleveland.

“He has been a stellar student,” Wallace says. “He is fluent in German, nearly fluent in Italian, and has beginning French. His language facility has greatly enriched and deepened his abilities to do advanced research in art history, just as his hands-on knowledge and experience in art-making has lent a significant dimension to his comprehension of the history of art.”

In summer 2009, Witty interned with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, helping with daily operations and events tied to the Venice Biennale, one of contemporary art’s biggest galas.

All the while, he has pursued his art, churning out impressive collage works reminiscent of Dutch still lifes with a theme he describes as “conflated anachronism.”

Often rendered with white ink on black paper, his large-scale works juxtapose figurative woodcuts, hand-drawn elements and formal portraiture from bygone eras with Technicolor collages of iconic images from 1950s Americana — beetles clipped from National Geographic, bathing beauties from the TIME/Life archive.

“My art is all about the past,” he says. “I’m interested in creating a melancholy, ghostly atmosphere, not without an air of kitsch.”

Still torn between academic art history and the museum world, he’s keeping both options open. After the Ringling, he begins a prestigious one-year paid curatorial internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

After that, he’s looking for an art history graduate program.