Layer by Layer

May 28, 2015

Krystle Leung ’15 has been closely involved with the Harvard Art Museums throughout her undergraduate career. In her junior year, she was among a select group of students invited to add text to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Michael Jenkins).

Krystle Leung ’15 remembers one of the first times she saw clear connections between the sciences and the arts. She was a freshman, attending a talk at the Harvard Art Museums about Poussin’s The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth. The audience was encouraged to take turns looking closely at the work and sharing observations.

“At the time, I already knew I wanted to pursue a future in medicine,” said Leung, a Pforzheimer House resident and premed student who is graduating from Harvard this month with a concentration in chemistry, a citation in French, and a secondary in the Ethnicity, Migration, Rights program. “The experience reminded me of the layers of observation [in the medical field]; you can look at a piece of art and peel it back in layers. Every time you look, you see something different, just like every time a patient comes to you, they’ll show you something different, and you learn more about them.”

Leung’s passion for facilitating and sharing observations led her to stay closely connected with the Harvard Art Museums throughout her undergraduate career. Most recently, she worked as a student guide for the museums, offering tours focused on the concepts of revolution and circles.

“The whole process of designing and giving tours was wonderful,” Leung said. “Your tour changes every time you give it. It’s fun to see where a group takes the discussion.”

A regular stop on her tour was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Michael Jenkins), which holds personal significance for Leung. The 1991 work, on view around the Level 3 arcade, uses units composed of words and dates to document both public and private events, some drawn directly from the life of Michael Jenkins. New owners of the work are instructed to add, delete, or rearrange word-date units before installation, and last year, Leung was among a select group of students invited to do just that.

“Needles 2011,” Leung’s addition to the word portrait, refers in part to an autoimmune illness she dealt with during her senior year of high school. Having undergone many blood draws and daily medication doses via needle, “I had a slightly negative experience of needles,” she said, with no irony in her voice. “What helped me cope afterward was revisiting the creative process with needles. I tried to use needles in a more productive, physically creative way. I was knitting, wool felting. I tried to learn crochet.”

“Needles” also represents a reference to Leung’s childhood love for the Peanuts comic strip (Snoopy’s brother Spike lives near Needles, California) and her awareness of how art is subject to a variety of interpretations. “It’s a word that has many layers of meaning,” she said, “and so while it does connect to me personally, it can also mean a lot to different people.”

That open, thoughtful attitude is part of what made Leung so effective in her involvement with the museums, said David Odo, director of student programs and research curator for university collections initiatives. “Krystle was a tremendous asset to the student guide program, both because of the rigor with which she created her tour and because she was a great presence in the group. Also, the combination of art and science in her background gave us a really wonderful way to think about the collections, and in turn how members of the public might experience and understand them.”

Despite her science-focused academic path, Leung seized the opportunity this spring to satisfy her own creative impulses in artist Halsey Rodman’s Prismatic Sculpture class. Among other projects, she built a mobile that was inspired by Calder and that incorporated origami, a longtime love of hers. Though she’ll be starting at Harvard Medical School in the fall, this probably won’t be the last we see of Leung in the galleries. “I’d love to take my med school peers for a tour,” she said.

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