WESTMINSTER — Western Maryland College's Decker Center, like most student centers,brims with youthful energy. Students carrying bags of books race through on the way to class, gather for meals and meetings or congregatein its lounges.
For the past month, a startling exhibit has stopped students and visitors in their tracks. Many stared at a fractured image of themselves in two 8-by-8-foot panels of shattered mirrors, which form the background of the "Women's Distorted Body Images" exhibit.
Kelly D. Schoen, who created the exhibit, calls her work a life-size rendition, designed to fit within one room.
"The work revolvesaround three different women, each an example of a certain body type," she said. "In front of mirrored panels, the figures progress from a robust Mother Earth to a near skeletal body. The mirrors distort the body images, and show the pressures society places on women to be acertain type."
She said she hoped viewers would be drawn to theirown reflections as they studied her piece. She said she wants viewers to "see beyond the mirror and accept all parts of themselves, leaving room for flaws."
About 300 people attended the exhibit's opening March 3. Schoen has draped flowers from the reception across the floor in the front of the figures.
"I decided to keep the flowers because they show a loose connection to the loss of traditional beauty," she said.
An art major who plans to graduate in May, the 26-year-old woman used her senior honors piece as a step to her recovery from a 10-year battle with anorexia and bulimia.
"Inspiration came tome through personal experience," she said. "For years, I struggled with the problem of body image vs. health and idealism vs. reality."
As a teen, she said, she felt a conflict between her own expectations of body image and what society considers ideal.
"I felt out of control of my life, alienated from my own body," she said. "I thoughtif I wasn't thin and beautiful, no one would love me."
At one point, her weight plummeted below 90 pounds. She abused laxatives, suffered kidney failure and nearly died. Now, she said she keeps the eating disorders in check and has a healthier outlook.
"You have to admit you have a problem," she said. "Then get help to work through it."
She wanted her work to deal with the body image theme.
"All women have idealized images within them, and devote much of their livessearching for what they are told is perfect," she said. "I wanted tobring the experience of womanhood into my art."
After sculpting the three figures out of chicken-wire armitures, molded out of newspaper, Schoen covered the pieces with gauze and plaster. She left them white and hairless, to give them a "universal" look.
The three figures range from large "Rubenesque" to normal to extremely emaciated models. They are all stark with no definite facial features.
The most graceful, aesthetically pleasing figure is lying down, facing the mirror. Its hand barely touches the "normal" woman in the center of the exhibit. The third woman, with exposed ribs and sunken cheek bones,seems like she is about to race frantically from the scene.
"Lookat the mixed messages women get through the media. We see one commercial that tells us to eat, eat, eat. The next one touts a diet program and urges us to fit into a skimpy bathing suit."
As she worked in the college's studio, she said, she surrounded herself with mirrors, using her own body as a model.
The project involved two months of actual work, but she said she had been cultivating the idea much longer. She submitted a budget of $500 -- underestimating the cost by about $100 -- to the school's creativity grant program and received $300. Friends and family helped finance the rest.
A sketch pad has been placed next to the exhibit for viewers to comment.
"The publicinvitation to comment and judge is as courageous as the work itself," wrote WMC student Dave Neidecker.
Many admitted suffering from similar eating problems. Some men wrote that the piece helped them understand the pressures on women.
"The work will make women rethink how they feel about themselves," wrote Blue Taylor, a sophomore.
"I admire your courage in sharing this part of yourself," wrote student Mike Marceau.
Schoen calls herself a non-traditional student. She lives with her father, Gordon, and grandparents in Silver Run. She has put herself through college, with a "lot of loans and scholarships" and with money earned working as a beauty salon shampoo girl and awaitress. She hopes to continue studying art in a graduate program.
"Eventually, I would like to teach," she said. "Through art, I want to help students become self-motivated and self-confident individuals."
She said she has always been an artist and credits her grandmother, Doris Schoen, with fostering her creative interests.
"When I was a little girl, she would hand me a sketch tablet and take me outside to draw," she said. "Our farm offered lots of material to draw from."
Environmental and women's issues have provided the basis for much of her work.
"My work is more on the expressionistic side, and I am more interested in portraying emotions than making a work picture perfect," she said. "I like to capture the feeling and emotion in art instead of copying. We have cameras for that."
The exhibit closes Tuesday. Schoen doesn't plan to pack it away. She would like to take it on the road, possibly to private galleries in the Baltimorearea.