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Graduate Student Artists Persevere During Pandemic and Find New Inspiration

Graduate Student Artists Persevere During Pandemic and Find New Inspiration

“An artist is an artist especially in the face of difficulties. The MFA students have taken it to heart. They have been incredibly resourceful in both their thinking and making of art.”

Graduate student artists at Weitzman are not only adapting to this year’s challenges, but discovering new inspiration as they continue to paint, draw, sculpt, perform, photograph, and film during the pandemic.

“You don’t stop being an artist because you don’t have a studio. You don’t stop being an artist because you don’t have access to a fabrication lab. Being an artist is much more than material needs and habits. It is about testing the situation that confronts you.” says Ken Lum, who is a practicing artist, professor, and chair of the Department of Fine Arts at Weitzman. 

“An artist is an artist especially in the face of difficulties. The MFA students have taken it to heart. They have been incredibly resourceful in both their thinking and making of art.”

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program is following a hybrid teaching model: Classes continue to be virtual, while studios and fabrication labs that were closed in the spring were reopened before the fall semester. Hours at the studios in the Morgan Building are restricted to reduce the number of people in the building at the same time, available during assigned time blocks on the weekdays, and some Saturdays, as opposed to the usual 24/7 access.

The studio is critical for painter Patricia Renee Thomas, who uses materials that require professional ventilation, like oil paints and spray paints and gouache, and her third-floor rowhouse apartment is not equipped. So while the Morgan studios were closed, she turned her attention to examining surroundings outside in her home city of Philadelphia, and sketching instead of painting.

“All projects came to a halt. The shock of losing access to your work, it’s like writing a book and losing the file,” says Thomas, in her second year of the two-year MFA degree. “I decided to start completely unrelated bodies of work. I was drawing grass and making studies of ivy. I went old-fashioned. I made visual studies of things I would pass by.”

When she returned to the studio to paint again, she didn’t finish the pieces there, deciding instead to incorporate her summer discoveries exploring nature in new works. Self-portraits about the Black body and experience—typically defined by a riot of bright pinks, yellows, oranges—now prominently feature various gradients of green in the leaves of plants and trailing vines.

“As artists we all want to ensure that we are talking about things that are happening,” Thomas says. “Because our art is a reflection of how we are perceiving the world. If the world is changing, our art changes.”

The fine arts fabrication labs in the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, with saws and tools and technicians, have been available by appointment, as have the photo darkrooms, this semester. Borrowing camera and video equipment requires reservations and there are limits on the length of the loans.

“There are so many new protocols. The experience is highly compromised, but we’ve told students they have to concentrate even more: You have to make do. You have these ideas, you have to work with what is available to you,” Lum says. “I think it has made them better artists.”

Amrita Stützle, an Austrian-born artist who works in photography and video, has been using the darkroom to create her silver gelatin prints, and the studio space to edit her photos and create an installation of video projection incorporating fabric. When the campus closed in the spring, she returned to her home in Syracuse, New York, and went on walks and runs and gardened with her mother.

“I felt like everything shifted and understanding what was important before had to be reconsidered,” says Stützle, also a second-year MFA student. “Some of that has seeped into what I’m making now, considering the body in a certain landscape, farming, agriculture, spirituality, and in the summer and this fall that became part of my research. What I’m choosing to focus on is directly affected by the moment we are living in.”

Currently there are 22 students in the MFA program: 14 are in their second year, and eight in their first year, half the class deciding to defer a year because of the pandemic. Five students are pursuing dual degrees, two through a new collaboration with the School of Social Policy & Practice combining the MFA with a Master of Social Work, and three are pursuing degrees in historic preservation, landscape architecture, and city planning in the Weitzman School.

“Art is about responding creatively to the moment,” Lum says. “I have seen the MFAs respond to his difficult moment in the most profound ways.”

Artist Kay (Seohyung) Lee, who is from South Korea, usually works on large-scale paintings, but started delving into a variety of other materials before the pandemic. She was completing a large-scale sculpture, covering canvas with sourdough starter that created a cracked, textured surface. Abandoned when the studios closed in the spring, when she returned, it had collapsed.

Lee is creating smaller works at her home studio but will continue working on her larger paintings in her campus studio.

“That was so sad to go back to my studio and see the work I had built was ruined,” says Lee, also a second-year MFA student. “But that’s the risk in working with organic material.”

Choosing to create a studio in her apartment during the pandemic, she changed both the size and the subject of her artworks. First, she turned to animation, and then to pencil drawings, now creating works that are about 8-by-10 inches that incorporate her Asian identity.

“I refused to use that as a subject matter for the longest time, but right now I’m working on a series of drawings and paintings at the moment that deals with Asian bodies,” she says. “I am making drawings and paintings that consist of multiple clones of myself, Asian girls encountering chaos and havoc in this natural setting.”

The new series, she says, is reflecting her fears of the coronavirus and also the discrimination she feels being Asian during the pandemic. Titled Hellscape, the series is “mostly expressing my discomfort and dissatisfaction with spaces around me, spaces around my body, my culture, my religion. It helps me process all these things going in my head.”

Lee plans to continue the large paintings when she regularly returns to the campus studio, but in the meantime she says she is “using this time to try new things I’ve never done before.”

The MFA program encourages interdisciplinary study and experimenting with various forms of art making. “A student has license to experiment, and they should take advantage of that,” Lum says. “We are not an art school. We are an art department within a world-leading research university.”

The students say they are finding the videoconference course sessions to be collaborative, and the time at home efficient for their research. Some classes have been surprisingly successful precisely because they are online, Lum says. One that has been a big hit this semester, he says, is Art World Exchange: Major curators, artists, and writers spoke to the class through videoconference.

“Without the pandemic, most of them would have said no. But now they deploy their smartphones and are able to offer an intimate tour of their work in their studio. A convivial context is created whereby they respond to student questions in a more personal way, despite the mediation of a computer screen.” Lum says. “Artists want to do this. They want to share their work. They want to show others how they have responded to the moment.”

The chance to gather together to show their work and get feedback from faculty and fellow students, called critiques, is what the students say they are missing the most, now possible only through videoconference. Also they are disappointed that they cannot display their work to the public in the end-semester art shows.

A thesis statement, portfolio, and exhibition are the foundation of the MFA degree requirements.

In early 2021, the Department will be launching a virtual exhibition space for both graduate and undergraduate fine arts students, to show this year’s work. In the spring, Lum says Penn will partner with seven other universities to create 2020 MFA, a virtual exhibition space, and in May or June create an in-person exhibition in New York City.

The artworks he expects will be different than other years, and will reflect the experience of the pandemic. “I think it is better because it has tested them,” Lum says. “For a young artist still in formation that is a valuable experience to go through.”

Read the full story from Penn Today.