He leans against the ladder, his “Just Love” tattoo peaking out from beneath the edge of his right sleeve as his eyes search the ceiling, seemingly looking for the perfect words. 

“It’s a really good experience to have,” University of Montana sophomore and visual arts major Thomas Manzanarez said. “To have her influence, kind of all that she knows, to lead us is a nice thing.”

“Her” is Colorado artist and professor Sarah Rockett. During her stay at UM, from Feb. 6 to March 5, Rockett will give a lecture, present her artwork and lead both undergraduate and graduate students in a “collaborative drawing installation.” 

Rockett is UM’s 10th visiting artist of the school year. 

“[Visiting artists] give an alternative to our students, other than just the faculty. It’s always great to see what artists are doing that live all over the nation,”  said Cathryn Mallory, director of the Gallery of Visual Arts. “It just brings a different perspective and a different sense of professionalism. And the visiting artist gets to interact with a student in a different way than faculty, you know there’s not grades involved or classes so to speak. It’s a real practical reality of the arts professional world.”  

Mallory is the head of the visiting artist program, and combed through Rockett’s proposal before setting up her visit to UM. Unlike other visiting artists, though, Rockett’s own artwork is displayed in an exhibition in the Gallery of Visual Arts, and she’s working with nine specially selected students on a spacial, three-dimensional drawing. 

Tucked in the brightly lit student gallery in the Fine Arts Building, soft music consistently filling in the silence, the nine students chat about what comes next. They pick up and discard old scraps of fabric, they tape down black electrical tape. Manzanarez stands on a rung of the paint-chipped ladder, fixing the coiled wires and twine and brown paper. 

Their “spacial drawing” stretches across the entirety of the gallery — from ceiling to floor, and wall to wall. Their use of space, the 3D abstract idea and the overarching theme of “otherness” all comes from their collaboration with the visiting artist. 

“Being in this room, we talked about how much natural light we have coming through and how frothy and light we felt about it,” graduate student Beth Huhtala said. “Working with [Rockett’s] theme and the structure of this gallery space, we wanted to make this type of journey that collided together, where you’re moving from this really calm relaxing state of light and moving into a more anxiety tight, knitted feeling and then back again.” 

Rockett’s own work challenges this idea of anxiety, particularly when it comes to human interaction. Her exhibition “Panic” will be on display in the Gallery of Visual Arts through the duration of her stay. 

“I see that as sort of an ambiguous space, where we don’t really totally understand why we interact with people the way that we do, or why we might be afraid of them, like a stranger crossing on the other side of the street late at night — that kind of thing,” Rockett said. “So we are kind of projecting our own phobias on to other people, so that’s one of the reasons with these images that I took textures, and forms from horror movies.” 

To express her themes in abstract ways, Rockett relies heavily on unconventional materials - wire, latex and hot glue.

 The tables pushed together in the student gallery contain the same materials: a collection that looks less like traditional artist instruments and more like carpentry tools. Screws and drill bits lay scattered amongst wire cutters, and cut up garbage bags, hammers and tarps are littered throughout the small room. 

“I love that [Rockett] is an artist working fully in installation,” Huhtala said. “And that she’s not afraid to use materials that people would consider cheap, or challenging and really let materials do what they do best.”

Rockett hasn’t always been interested in using more eccentric materials in abstract, non-traditional ways. At one point she focused on realistic figure drawings. 

“I’ve come a long way,” Rockett said. “I started getting interested in more of the formal qualities of art making, beyond just what the work is about, and trying to figure out different ways that I could take design elements like line, and shape and texture and color and reinvent them in new ways. So that’s where I’ve gone from working two-dimensionally into a three-dimensional space.” 

Manzanarez himself still focuses on 2-dimensional drawing, as do most of the nine students participating in the “collaborative drawing installation.” While as individuals they are unsure of where their art will take them, and if they will continue with Rockett’s specific style, they are firm in the idea that art will forever be with them. 

“I think for many artists you don’t really have a plan of action,” Manzanarez said. “Art is just something that is always there and that’s what I enjoy about it. I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but I know that I’ll always have it.”