Last Friday, the Duke Student Wellness Center hosted an opening reception of its Wellness Art Gallery, which showcased the artworks of two talented first-year artists, Greta Chen and Shailen Parmar, who are both duArts first-year interns. Chen and Parmar’s art encapsulates their college transition experience, and crowds of their friends came out to support them, celebrating the art exhibition as well as their successful integration into college life.

We all know what the first month of college feels like. The excitement and intimidation of meeting new people, the ice that icebreakers could not break, the disorientation that orientation could not erase, the loneliness in a crowd — the unsettlement that we know only time can settle.

For Chen, it was the people she met who got her through such trials. She is particularly fond of drawing portraits because, just like getting to know people, portraits allow her to explore and peel away the different layers of a person until she sees their essence. Drawing people never gets boring for Chen. Her art series displays portraits of six people who have left an unforgettable mark on her college experience thus far. Describing her artworks, Chen told how their hugs, smiles, laughs, energy and presence in her life made the transition so much easier for her. Her warm-color-based, realistic portraits of them captured their happiness, spirit and exuberance and showed her appreciation for their support.

“They are all portraits of people that I met at Duke and really, really liked, for different reasons,” Chen said. “My college experience, it’s defined a lot by the relationships I make. … People are so interesting, and when I talk to them, I notice new things about them. It’s the same way when I draw them: I also notice new things.” 

For Parmar, it was a bit different. His series focuses on his internal struggle with first coming to college and his later reconciliation. Interested in neuroscience, Parmar used his artistic skills and understanding of anatomy to channel his mental disquiet onto paper. A self-described “emotional” artist, Parmar usually draws inspiration from his sadness. Compared to Chen’s, his art was more surreal, abstract, symbolic and psychological. However, though Parmar’s final reconciliation came from inside, his successful integration into college life still rested on others’ support.

“I did these during Project Arts, and that was when I was just coming to Duke, so I was really intimidated, and I felt, like, very unstable — I didn’t really know anybody and nobody knew who I was. … Like everybody else, I was feeling isolated, so I thought a good way to channel that was through some drawings,” Parmar said. “So then every day during Project Arts I did a new drawing, and then people started seeing the drawings and they [were] like, ‘Wow, I really relate to this,’ ‘I really like what you said here,’ and that was really cool. Throughout Project Arts, people are getting closer and closer.” 

But whether coming from Birmingham, Ala. or Dallas, whether using colored pencils or pen and ink, whether drawing in a realistic or surrealistic sense, Chen and Parmar shared the common first-year experience we all had — trying to suppress the feelings of loneliness and thinking that we were the only ones with these feelings, until we found each other and realized that we were not alone, after all.

Having both started drawing at a young age, Chen and Parmar agreed that drawing is a cathartic process and that it makes them excited and passionate. Now fully integrated into college life, both would like to preserve their love for arts as a hobby and continue to capture moments of human experience in their drawings, though they likely will not study arts. Potentially majoring in economics and public policy, Chen indicated that she wants to keep arts as a personal passion so that she can create freely, but she is also willing to take commissions. Parmar aspires to be a psychiatrist and is considering looking into the intersections between mental health and art therapy.

Justin Sharpe, the coordinator of this event, added that this first-year art show was just the beginning. In the future, the Wellness Center will feature more student artists in the hope to tailor more to the current student body, appreciate the talents around us and encapsulate students’ journey in wellness from adolescence to adulthood.