Campus & Community

Computer science professor finishes BFA after 14 years

A self-portrait made up of words taken from New York Times articles is part of computer science professor Scott Leutenegger's installation in the 2015 BFA exhibit. Image courtesy of Scott Leutenegger

A self-portrait made up of words taken from New York Times articles is part of computer science professor Scott Leutenegger’s installation in the 2015 BFA exhibit. Image courtesy of Scott Leutenegger

Every year, the School of Art and Art History’s annual BFA show spotlights the work of graduating seniors who have spent the past three to five years working on their craft. This year’s BFA exhibit — “Threshold,” running May 14–June 6 — also features work by an artist who has taken a considerably longer time to finish his degree.

Scott Leutenegger, a computer science professor at DU since 1994, will have work in “Threshold,” alongside graduating seniors Conor Dowdle, Brianna Hayes, Heather Kegel, Maeve Leslie, Brian Napier, Julianne Sirotek and Matthew Swisher.

“In 2001 I decided to take a drawing class,” Leutenegger says. “I don’t know why, other than the fact that I hadn’t drawn since I was 10 years old and I figured it would be interesting to do and I liked it. At the end of the course, one of my fellow students said, I believe the quote was, ‘Man, when I saw what you drew at the beginning of the class, I figured there was no way you’d ever learn how to draw, dude.’ That sort of epitomized many things over the past 14 years — there are some really talented fellow students, and sometimes I think I’m not as good as them.”

But Leutenegger persisted, taking advantage of DU’s tuition benefit for faculty and staff to pursue a BFA in studio art. He took classes in drawing, painting and photography — eventually using technology to enhance his work.

“Most of my art making in the past 14 years, I refused to use anything computational,” he says. “I didn’t program, I wouldn’t use Photoshop — [technology is] my day job. I wanted to do pure studio art. But when I got into photography, I then got into manipulating images — writing my own programs to manipulate at a bit level to make changes. So I was slowly bringing computation into my art making.”

Leutenegger delved into computation even more to create the installation that represents his contribution to the BFA show, using his computer science background to create a program that looked at all the stories on the New York Times website on a particular day and analyzed all occurrences of the word “he” and all occurrences of the word “she.”

“There are twice as many occurrences of the word ‘he’ as there are of the word ‘she,’” says Leutenegger, whose contribution to the exhibit uses cotton threads and stamped fabric panels to illustrate the divide. “My argument is that one measure of the way that our society values people and things is how often they occur in the media. This piece is basically a tactile data visualization of that website and this disparity and gender bias in the media.”

To further emphasize his point, Leutenneger went back to the results to look at the occurrences of the words “his” and “her,” and the words that followed the possessives.

“I looked for where those two sets are disjoint,” he explains. “I found those words that follow ‘his’ that are not in the set that follow ‘her,’ and vice versa. The words that follow ‘his’ are things like ‘office,’ ‘life,’ ‘job,’ etc., while ‘hers’ are things like ‘and,’ ‘with,’ ‘in,’ ‘role,’ ‘through.’ They are segues into things that are either a relationship with an object or a relationship with another person, whereas ‘his’ are just regular possessions or things that define you.”

To illustrate these differences, Leutenegger created two large portraits — one of him and one of his wife — using the respective gender-associated words to form the images.

“Gender bias and women not being equal is a theme that has bothered me much of my life,” he says. “This was just a way of commenting on it through art, making and revealing something I don’t think most people would be aware of, which is this invisible gender bias in the media. When you look at a website, you see one page; you have to look at the entirety of a news source to really see the bias, and computation is a way of doing that.”

Leutenegger says he is pleased with his work in the show, as well as in the way he has developed as an artist over the past 14 years. He has been in other shows during that time, some held in Denver galleries as part of classes he was taking. And he plans to continue making art after the BFA show has ended. But the most significant thing about studying art at DU, he says, was the understanding he developed for the students he teaches in computer science.

“I finished my PhD in 1990; that’s 25 years ago,” he says. “If I had not been a student during [the past 15 years], I would be so far removed from it — you forget. Whereas when I’m taking classes with them and I’m listening to them talk, and being given deadlines and assignments — you develop a lot of empathy for your students.”

“Threshold,” the 2015 DU BFA exhibition, runs May 14–June 6 in the Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building; hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays. An opening reception with light refreshments runs from 5 to 7 p.m. May 14. Visit the Myhren Gallery website for more information.

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