If University of Pennsylvania senior Loren Kole could give her younger freshman year self some advice, it would be this: Don’t get hung up on what you think you should be doing.
Like most of her Ivy League contemporaries, Kole is a high achiever in and out of the classroom.
As a freshman, she thought she had to double-major or be on a pre-med, pre-law or pre-grad school track to measure up to her peers. Kole bounced from biology to philosophy to history of medicine then gender studies in pursuit of a major or two, all while sketching and printmaking in her free time.
Eventually she found a way to combine her passion for art with her love of learning as a visual studies major in the College of the School of Arts and Sciences. The program brings together Kole’s interest in behavioral psychology, history of medicine and her artistic practice as a printmaker.
Kole first fell in love with relief printmaking during her junior year of high school in Chicago, home to a vibrant craft art community.
“I couldn’t shake the need to produce art, and learned to lean into that inclination,” she says. “I still read everything I can get my hands on, and hope that my desire to always be expanding my knowledge comes across in my work.”
Handicraft practices and ritual deeply inform her work, as does her commitment to urban renewal, social justice issues and gender politics. Kole uses traditional means of printing (woodcut, linoleum cut, etching, letterpress and silkscreen) to create works of art that are as intricate as the processes themselves.
In addition to her course work, Kole is gearing up for her fourth Alternate Spring Break trip, and finishing her term as co-chair of the Civic House Associates Coalition.
Civic House is a hub for student driven community service initiatives at Penn. Kole spends most of her free time there when not in studio. She says that her older brother also found a sense of community there when he was at Penn earning an undergraduate and medical degree.
“My parents instilled in my siblings and me a commitment to give back to the community,” she says. “I believe that in order to be good citizens, we have an obligation to help those who need a hand.”
During her spring semester breaks from Penn, Kole has done volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity at project sites in Colorado and Virginia. The Habitat houses in Colorado are built with mud bricks for insulation. “Working” in that medium fascinated Kole. She will return to Lexington, Va., for Alternate Spring Break volunteer work with Habitat next year.
Kole’s commitment to civic engagement and social responsibility has extended to the Philadelphia community too. In her sophomore year, she co-founded a homeless shelter in Center City called the Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, the nation’s second student-run homeless shelter.
Established in 2011 as a collaboration between students at Penn, Villanova, Drexel and Swarthmore, in one year SREHUP grew from one shelter to three, eventually providing temporary housing to more than 60 people at a time. Students operate the shelter from November-April, partnering with Project H.O.M.E. and Foyer of Philadelphia.
Looking back, Kole wonders how she spent two to three nights a week pulling overnight shifts at a shelter with a full course load.
She says, “It may sound cliché, but I think the only way I got through it was seeing the impact that a safe space to lie down at night had on the men who I worked with every week.”
Kole has learned a lot about herself through public service work and in studio classes honing her craft.
She recalls an exchange with a professor that transformed how she views the world.
It was sophomore year. Kole had worked on an intricate image for hours for a PennDesign class. At the weekly critique, Sharka Hyland, her professor, asked why she’d selected one of the components. Kole answered, “I wanted things to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible.”
The professor paused and thought for a second then said, “Yes, but the world has enough things that are just beautiful. Strive for a meaning behind it.” That comment changed the way Kole approached her work entirely.
Fast forward to summer 2013. A rising senior, Kole received Non-Profit Internship funding from Penn to work for the Slought Foundation in West Philadelphia, “a cultural organization that engages disparate publics to further dialogue.” She helped to coordinate the install of artist Knut Åsdam’s public works on campus and at Slought. She also spent part of the summer learning new silkscreen printing techniques in an apprenticeship program at Screwball Press in Chicago.
Now, in her last year at Penn, Kole is researching graduate programs in the United States and abroad. While she eventually wants to earn an M.F.A., she is considering taking time after her graduation in May, to develop her work through an arts-based job in New York or Chicago.