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Collage in Role as Citizen exhibit at Kranzberg Arts Center.

Collage in "Role as Citizen" exhibit at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Art by Rachel Madryga

Kaitlyn Swartz is a painting major at UMSL, but her latest artwork veers dramatically from her favorite medium.

Expanding on the famous “four freedoms” expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Swartz, 24, chose to depict some of the ways women are constrained by domestic and sexual stereotypes.

So she made a Victorian-looking chaise out of cardboard and fabric, held together primarily with hot glue. Behind it, she built a room divider, the type that a woman might use for changing clothes. The chaise, she says, is part “reference to the reclining nude” and the “disappointment of ideals with relationship to men.”

No one can sit on the velvety chaise, of course. Its foundation is mere cardboard. “It’s an industrial spin on the rococo,” Swartz says.

Swartz’s artwork is part of an exhibit by students at the Gallery at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Curated by instructors and artists Michael Behle and Gina Grafos, “Role as Citizen” has its opening reception Friday and is on view through Dec. 29. But the exhibit not only gives public space to some area students, it also joins a countrywide effort to use art as a forum for public discourse.

The progenitor is For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative. Its website says that with “non-partisan nationwide programming, we use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues and core values. We are a hub for artists, arts institutions, and citizens who want to be more engaged in public life.”

Referencing FDR’s famous “freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear,” part of its national effort includes billboards and a photo campaign that reimagines the four freedoms and how they were depicted in Norman Rockwell’s paintings of them.

The students in St. Louis are also responding to a recent Kranzberg exhibit of Oscar Murillo’s art, which included various found objects and challenged some of the students to understand how they counted as artwork. For “Role as Citizen,” they were to use almost any medium other than painting.

As one project, the students wrote words on yard signs and installed them on campus. Behle says there was a “little apprehension” among the students to “putting themselves out there.”

The exhibit has 18 works of art divided between two galleries. In addition to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and Maryville University are participating.

Behle and Grafos say the students seemed to like having an off-campus location to display their work. The Kranzberg Arts Center has one of the only noncommercial galleries in St. Louis that isn’t affiliated with a university and supports new, local artists, says Grafos, who is the curator for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s Dark Room gallery.

“You gotta take care of artists,” she says.

For the exhibit, Shellby Brannam was installing her “first sculpture piece,” she said last week. The 26-year-old art education major at UMSL had set up a broken papier-mache egg decorated with pieces of broken glass. Behind it was to be a sheet tagged with paint. In red were words such as “whore” — words a female victim of harassment or assault might hear, Brannam says.

In black were words the victim might think: “why me,” “embarrassed.” Viewers will be encouraged to write their own thoughts on pieces of paper and leave them in the “egg.”

Grafos says the exhibit addresses not only what freedom means to individuals, but how “the arts can activate conversation.”

What “Role as Citizen” • When Reception 6-9 p.m. Friday, on view through Dec. 29; hours are noon-5 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sunday • Where Gallery at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard; Suite 300, 3526 Washington Avenue (enter from parking lot between KDHX and Jazz St. Louis) • How much Free • More info 314-533-0367, ext. 105