Using creativity to display art in a new environment

MSU art students’ Spring 2020 thesis exhibition moved to virtual gallery

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A benefit for having an art student exhibition online is that all world has access to the work.

The downside, however, is that a thesis exhibition is often one of the first experiences an art student, and/or recent graduate of the arts, has to exhibit his or her work in a gallery.

“It’s a huge deal to have a gallery showing for students who don’t have a lot of experience with that,” said Celeste Utke, a Capitol Hill resident who graduated in May from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing.

The BFA Thesis Exhibition is the apex of MSU’s Studio Art and Communication Design students’ education, states a news release. It typically takes place at the Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Dr., in Denver’s Arts District. However, the Spring 2020 event had to be moved online because of the COVID-19 closures.

“The promise of exhibiting in a coveted gallery space motivates students who often plan their work to respond meaningfully to that site,” said Deanne Pytlinski, chair of MSU’s Department of Art, in a statement on the website for the online BFA Thesis Exhibition. “When we are thrown a curve just before the thesis exhibition gets installed, it can feel like a jarring crash where all of our plans lie piled up in a ruin. But, as artists and designers, that is when we have to use all of our creativity to find solutions, to shift to a new environment, to use new tools.”

So, that is what the students did.

“We all came together, and made something that seemed impossible, possible,” said Lauren Bassett, who earned a BFA from MSU in art education and is looking into doing her student teaching this fall.

“Students made adaptations that in many cases strengthened their work,” Pytlinski added in her statement, “responding now to their own domestic spaces or a virtual environment in thoughtful and poignant ways.”

Utke, for example, whose piece is titled “Of The Echoing Self,” created nine 2 ½ by 5 foot canvasses — about the size of her body — with depictions of nature-themed elements and on them, such as roots and topography maps.

“They (the patterns) came from different places in my head,” Utke said, “representing emotional wavelengths when I’m in nature.”

The piece, she said, is a “self-reflection of how my body interacts with the natural world.” Originally, in a gallery setting, the works would have been displayed in a circle, to create the idea of the interconnectedness of humans and nature. For the online gallery, however, Utke set them up outdoors and photographed them. It changed the perspective a bit, Utke said, but it provided the opportunity for the canvasses to interact with nature.

Bassett created a performance arts piece that she intended to perform on opening night, but ended up filming it for the online exhibit.

Entitled “The Chain/The Veil,” Bassett, 33, made a chain of 12,040 individual links — one for each day of her life up to project completion — that symbolized “the chain reaction of thoughts, behaviors and consequences that have led me to this point in the present,” she said.

“The chain, the veil of my past, needs to be removed, in order for me to heal and move forward in life,” Bassett said.

A friend helped her apply the chain to her face, which Bassett wore for about three-to-four hours prior to filming its removal. In the five-minute video, Bassett removes the chain piece-by-piece, which symbolizes acceptance and moving forward from the past. For Bassett, it was a reflection on the loss of her grandfather and her divorce, but also good events in her life, such as her travels in Europe.

“There was a lot of reflecting and pain, but healing, also,” Bassett said. “We all have a past and experiences that might burden us and keep us from moving forward. It’s OK to accept and reflect, and let go and move forward.”

Madison Sierra Faulkner, who graduated in May with a BFA from MSU in communication design, had an image in her mind of people interacting with her work at the gallery.

“Luckily, I had started work on my project last fall and was mostly complete by the time we were asked in March to move to the online exhibition,” she said. “I was able to reorganize my small, one-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment in order to hang and document my crafted empathetic environment.”

Her piece, “The Wall Protecting Me from You,” incorporates positive coping mechanisms for those who suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), which can develop in adulthood when a child is raised by narcissistic parents in a mentally-abusive environment, Faulkner said.

There are three elements to Faulkner’s work — a quilt that expresses the relationship between dysfunctional family dynamics and mental health; the word `YOU,’ representing anxiety for which the wall protects; and a knitted suit that serves as body armor, and using craft as a coping mechanism.

“One method of coping I’ve adopted to overcome CPTSD symptoms, is craft,” Faulkner said. “If I start to feel the familiar waves of dread or if I catch myself wide awake in the middle of the night, I turn to creation.”

Most of the students who have work displayed in the online exhibition are hoping to someday display their pieces together in a gallery. It may be that they rent a space in Denver somewhere after COVID-19, Bassett said.

For Faulkner, the online exhibition acts more as the educational element “to introduce audiences to the invisible trauma of living in a narcissistic environment,” she said.

“I am eager to show my work in its originally-intended state,” Faulkner said, adding she feels her work can truly help someone process trauma. “I’m willing to wait for the right opportunity for that.”

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