MFA students tell stories through art, Taylor Hall show


First-year MFA candidate Benjamin Lee Sperry contributed a work called “Mailings” to the candidates’ art show. The work evolved from Sperry’s daily practice of turning envelopes and postcards into works of art.

Against the walls of Taylor Hall’s gallery space, works from the Class of 2019 Master of Fine Arts (MFA) candidates are displayed. It does more than show what the students, who arrived on campus this fall, can do — it also inspires viewers to think abouts topics such as memory and environment.

The candidates’ first show, “Jekyll Grand Dining Sea Mist, We Too Lived,” opened Oct. 3. Curated by first-year candidates Sam Whalen and Jacob Zimmerman, the exhibition will showcase works by the program’s 10 artists until Nov. 17. Whalen and Zimmerman say the show focuses on narratives, both personal and fictional.

Some works on display, like Benjamin Lee Sperry’s series of art-adorned envelopes, grew out of past passion projects. Well before “Jekyll,” Sperry would mail a piece of art to his friend every day, either as a postcard or an image put straight onto the envelope.

A close-up of Sperry’s “Mailings.”

For Ph.D. candidate Esin Aykanat Avci, a Fulbright Scholar, the show allowed her to explore one theme of her research; the idea of connecting with nature through art. Avci sculpted decorative floor tiles out of clay from local White Clay Creek but did not bake them to harden as one usually would; Following the show, she will leave the tiles in the creek or its surrounding area, where they will eventually lose their form.

“I don’t imprison them in that handmade form — they still have the ability to go back to nature, where they come from,” she says.

For the MFA candidates, studio space becomes a home away from home. Not far from the gallery, the artists spend hours working in Recitation Hall Annex, an older building with a utility sink in the upstairs hallway and paint splotches and doodles along the walls. Whalen says she and other MFA students think of the annex as a sort of fraternity or sorority house for artists.

The students take about five courses, amounting to 15 credits per semester, Zimmerman says, but three of the classes are devoted to independent studio work.

“It’s basically, for three quarters of the first semester, you’re expected to produce work and produce and produce and produce,” he says.

The other quarter of the first semester focuses on art theory and critique. Gradually, the students will begin taking more traditional courses but expect the same artistic output from students as when they had ample studio time. Zimmerman enjoys being kept on his toes — he says the program’s fast pace is motivational.

His work depicts life at a slower pace: that of rural or suburban life. He wants people to look at everyday symbols, ones that play a role in his work, and consider their meaning. Traffic cones, raquet balls, baseballs and chain-link fencing play a role in his work for “Jekyll.”

Jacob Zimmerman
First-year MFA candidate Jacob Zimmerman says he uses found objects like sports equipment to evoke a sense of nostalgia with his work. This is part of a piece called “Late Movement Orchestra.”

Zimmerman wants to drive home the point that people pass something like a water tower every day, and it does not even cross their minds.

“Twenty years ago [a water tower] wouldn’t be natural, but nowadays you drive around, and it’s mundane,” he says. “And these objects are part of the landscape, and we don’t even think about them not being natural.”

The symbols of suburbia are nostalgic for the artist as well, acting as references to Zimmerman’s own suburban upbringing.

Whalen also looked to the past for inspiration as she created her piece, which focuses on influences that linger over time. Tucked to one side of the show’s second room, Whalen’s interactive art invites viewers to sit down in a pink chair at a matching desk.

From there, they can look up at the artwork displayed on the wall or direct their gaze straight to the computer monitor on the desk. The computer holds what Whalen calls “a digital file labyrinth,” or a selection of writings and snapshots organized by date.

“[It’s] a sort of choose-your-own-adventure way of getting to know somebody,” she says. “You have different avenues to go through and figure out who this person, which is me, is.”

Sam Whalen
First-year MFA candidate Sam Whalen created what she calls “a digital file labyrinth” as part of her work “Retrograde: an interactive self portrait.” In addition to inviting viewers to pore through Whalen’s computer files, the work also makes public memorabilia and journal entries from the artist’s past.

There are other avenues, too: a drawer full of items such as a folded note, a hot sauce packet and a Band-Aid. There are also photocopies of Whalen’s journals from 2009 to 2014, her time as an undergraduate art student in Seattle. There are three copies of the journals, each with its own layer of redaction — the third set is locked in a drawer, and viewers have to contact Whalen for access.

The idea for the display began when Whalen jokingly had the thought to create an archive of her own life.

“Then it turned into something more serious — What does it mean to define oneself?” she says. “What does it mean to define oneself in a digital age, where we’re constantly curating other people’s image of us – what’s accurate and what’s not accurate, what’s real and what’s not real at a certain point.”

Her piece was a departure for her — Whalen usually sticks to painting and drawing, but Zimmerman says that within the MFA program, students are encouraged to experiment and grow.

“It is very apparent once we have our critques, that our advisors and our peers really push us to break out of our – not so much our comfort zone, but just things that we haven’t considered yet,” he says.

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