5 outstanding art-school grads for 2020

From left: Charles Suggs (Boston University), Nate Heilman (MassArt), Jasmine Gonzalez (UMass Dartmouth), Byron Hocker (Lesley University), and Marla L. McLeod (SMFA/Tufts). Provided images

In an ordinary year, spring means art lovers can see what some of the smartest, most forward-thinking artists at local schools made for their Master of Fine Art thesis exhibitions.

This year, schools have sent students home. Studios have been shuttered. Still, MFA candidates at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Boston University, Lesley University, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth will be graduating, and their thesis work is viewable online.

The future is foggy for 2020′s new graduates. Artists who hope to teach at the college level don’t know if schools will be open in the fall. But these artists seem sanguine. What is most important to them is that they continue to make their art.

Nate Heilman

Sculpture, MassArt

Heilman was in the Marines from 2001-14 and saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan. His sculptures address the ripple effects of war.

“We don’t think about the spouses and the children,” said Heilman, 36. “Or the children in the developing countries where we go and fight.”

Nate Heilman made sculptures wedging fragile cups among rugged bricks. “The teacups pop out sometimes,” he said. Courtesy Nate Heilman

After a friend from the Marines committed suicide, leaving behind five kids, Heilman, the single father of an 8-year-old daughter, was shaken.

“I would walk into my daughter’s room and [wonder]: What have I touched that she would have to deal with?” he said.

Her tea set caught his eye. He made sculptures wedging fragile cups among rugged bricks. “The teacups pop out sometimes,” he said. “You sweep it up, throw it away, and replace. You’re concerned with the cups, but as soon as they shatter, we throw them away.”

He hand-wove two cots from barbed wire, a process that drew blood and stained the sculptures. In one, the wire is tightly woven; in the other, threads shoot upward. “When we’re dealing with something traumatic and we’re awake, we reason it away,” Heilman said of the contained cot. “When we’re asleep, it’s another matter.”

Heilman is not worried about the future. “I’m resilient,” he said. “I’ve done enough where I know we’ll come out on the other side of this.”

“MassArt MFA Thesis: 2020” will be on view May 18-June 18 via Or visit

Jasmine Gonzalez

Ceramics/mixed media sculpture, UMass Dartmouth

“I am 27 years old, and I have lived in 27 places,” Gonzalez said. That nomadic life has prompted her focus on the meaning of home. She builds vessels and house shapes from clay and fills them with materials that resonate with memories. Everything seems tenuously connected, rickety, jerry-rigged, and sacred.

Jasmine Gonzalez builds vessels and house shapes from clay and fills them with materials that resonate with memories. Courtesy Jasmine Gonzalez

Houses from her past underpin her work. “One of the places I’ve lived in for a longer period is Memphis. My dad built a playhouse in our backyard,” Gonzalez said. “My grandmother grew up in Puerto Rico in a house swallowed by the earth. It was more a concrete pad with window screens.”

Gonzalez lives with her husband and 1-year-old son on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut. She no longer commutes daily to her New Bedford studio. She hopes to teach, but for the moment she’s at home.

“I’m working in a new space more abruptly than I would have liked,” she said. “I’m working in window spaces, crawl spaces, at my kitchen counter. Wherever my fingers go.”

All the moving she has done prepares her for an uncertain future. “I’ve experienced situations that prepare me for the next big to-do,” she said. “I’m grateful for adaptability.”

“2020 MFA Thesis Exhibition” is on view via

Marla L. McLeod

Painting, SMFA/Tufts

McLeod uses finely honed skills in traditional portraiture to celebrate the variety and subjectivity of Black women. Her thesis project begins with five large portraits.

“I take everything out with the exception of what people see when they look at people with Black skin,” she said. “Skin, hair, and features.”

Marla L. McLeod created five large portraits to celebrate Black women. Courtesy Marla McLeod

She backs the paintings with textiles inspired by Mali mud cloths. “I wanted to give a sense of African tribal patterning,” she said. “When I see people wear that in the US, it gives me a sense of pride.”

McLeod, 38, includes in the patterns the wisdom of her subjects’ mothers in Spanish, Patois, and English.

“A hit dog gonna holler,” McLeod said, citing one. “You get a sense of that Southern culture.”

The exhibition also features a mannequin in garments associated with the enslaved “mammy” stereotype — head scarf, apron. McLeod embellishes that garb with symbols of Black pride to make the figure regal.

The artist is applying for teaching fellowships, “but that may be pushed out to next summer because of the pandemic,” she said.

In the meantime, SMFA/Tufts has filled her cup. “I came here as a portrait painter searching for a way to get more content,” she said. “The question was: What are you saying, and why?”

The SMFA/Tufts thesis show will be online in June at Or visit

Charles Suggs

Video art, Boston University

Suggs’s split-screen video “Shadrach” revolves around Shadrach Minkins, a Black man who escaped slavery and settled in Boston. In 1851, police enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act seized him at work.

The video chillingly interleaves Minkins’s story with contemporary images of violence and prejudice. Suggs’s drawing of a poster cautioning “Colored People of Boston” shares a screen with a present-day warning about ICE raids.

Charles Suggs's split-screen video “Shadrach” revolves around Shadrach Minkins, a Black man who escaped slavery and settled in Boston. Courtesy Charles Suggs

Suggs, 53, loves finding little known stories. “It’s easy for these crimes against Black people to be just buried away,” he said.

The video features the artist’s hand-drawn, printed, and digital animations. Some of the drawings and prints are in his thesis show. The handmade aesthetic anchors Shadrach’s tale in a bleached-away past.

Until the end.

When Minkins was being tried, “A group of Black workers from the dock burst into the courthouse and dragged him out,” Suggs said. He went to Montreal via the Underground Railroad. Then, in the video, Minkins flushes with color.

The artist applied to BU after years of working at MIT as an administrative assistant. “I was feeling restless,” he said. “I want to do this, why am I not? I want to be a professional artist.”

He’s figuring out how to proceed in the midst of a pandemic. “What is the art world going to be after this? How do we show work?” he asked. “It’s hard to say.”

The “2020 MFA Thesis Show” is online at Or visit

Byron Hocker

Photography, Lesley University

Hocker lives with his wife, infant son, and mother in a small house in Warwick, R.I. Before COVID-19, his disabled 12-year-old daughter joined them on weekends. He documents the close quarters in his thesis project, “Red Sky Morning.”

“It’s been a way for me to deal with everyone in the tiny house, maybe to look at it in a different light and sometimes not take it so seriously,” said Hocker, 39.

Byron Hocker's “Red Sky Morning” series documents everyday life in a small house. Courtesy Byron Hocker

The images recall Renaissance paintings, with dramatic chiaroscuro and expressive poses. His mother, Joyce, who is blind and diabetic, is the star. Her face echoes through time as she sits beside her old high school portrait, and again in her granddaughter’s features.

Before matriculating at Lesley, Hocker was a commercial photographer. Lately, he has worked at a motorcycle shop, now temporarily closed. His wife, a nurse, is on maternity leave.

“We’re pretty much stuck in the little house, finding things to do to not go crazy,” Hocker said.

With an MFA, he said, “Best case scenario is I find a gallery and be a teacher.”

But that may not be in the offing immediately. “It’s a tough thing,” Hocker said. “I always have a job at the motorcycle shop.”

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