Work by the notable Master of Fine Arts graduates in our annual spotlight addresses trauma, community, connectivity, and the nature of reality. Is it any surprise they went through the pressure cooker of COVID-19 in grad school? This year’s artists are from Boston University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Lesley University College of Art & Design.
Sam Witherow, 28
Film/video artist, MassArt
“Our present influences our past in subtle and undetectable ways,” a subtitle reads in Sam Witherow’s film, “Talking the Fire Out.” The camera wanders through landscapes in the artist’s hometown of Ayer and in her late grandfather’s hometown of Brookville, Pa., as if looking for ghosts among the trees.
Witherow’s grandfather lived across the street from her when she was young. He died when she was 11 and she grieved his passing. But she’d never asked him about his youth, and she was surprised to learn as an adult that he was from Pennsylvania. She wondered why he left.
Witherow wondered because trauma had driven her from Ayer. The film is not about that trauma. She does not reveal it; and her silence opens the door for viewers to insert their own stories. Rather, the film is about trauma’s aftermath. Witherow’s return to Ayer is a reckoning with her younger self — a self she in some ways abandoned.
“Life becomes before the trauma and after the trauma,” she said. “There can be a wall that gets built between those two things.”
In the film, nature is a soft place for the effects of trauma to be held.
“Just because this happened to me doesn’t mean I need to be this whole other person,” she said. “At the end of the day, I am still me.”
Oscar Morel, 24
Painter, Boston University
Morel arrived at BU in the fall of 2020 with enough money to pay the rent for an apartment — and that’s about all. So he scavenged for painting supplies and found materials that artists had left in the BU studios during lockdown. Cutting up and collaging them, he discovered his medium.
His works, often made with paint, depict scenes from his life growing up in the Bronx: his extended Dominican family, characters from the apartment building the family has occupied for decades, and mythic and historical narratives. Morel, who also dabbles in music on his computer, sees a link between collage and hip-hop.
“They’re both taking things that existed and reconstructing them and creating an alchemy,” he said. “It becomes something entirely different.”
The works have a cobbled-together grit and a loving touch. “Camino a casa” (or “way home”) depicts the artist as a toddler, walking with his father. The boy is animated; the man is solid. The father’s verticality echoes that of a streetlight behind him.
The artist’s recent paintings feature facets of the cityscape. Morel said he wants to work at a mural scale. He has a residency coming at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, and that lifestyle suits him fine.
“In a room in the middle of nowhere to paint,” he said. “Put food at the door. A shower. That’s all I need.”
Katy Rodden Walker, 37
Installation artist, UMass Dartmouth
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Katy Rodden Walker and her husband had a new baby. Her grandmother had just died. And she was trying to keep her artistic practice running during quarantine. She started working with gauze.
“I was being pulled in a lot of different directions. I wanted a material to express some of those ideas,” she said.
Her installation “Enmeshed” reflects her longing for community. Made of gauze, clay slip, and glue, it hangs overhead in a sheltering embrace. It was inspired by the interconnectivity of rhizomes and mycelium, plants and fungi whose roots form underground networks.
“What would a rhizome feel like at a grand scale?” Rodden Walker said. “I wanted to try to put somebody inside of that.”
For another installation, “Blooms,” the artist initially focused on micro-plastics, and then incorporated the rise in jellyfish blooms in warming oceans. Jellyfish and seaweed crafted from upcycled plastic bags and packing materials bob and float in a queasy environment lit in yellows and blues.
“I want the viewer to feel submerged within it and see the dystopia, even though there’s still beauty in it and slowness and appreciation for nature,” Rodden Walker said.
Alonso Nichols, 47
Alonso Nichols grew up in Smoketown, a historically Black neighborhood in Louisville since the Civil War. He has a picture of his great-great-great-grandparents, Richard and Emeline Griffin.
“They self-emancipated and followed the Union Army out of Virginia before the end of the Civil War,” he said, and pointed to his great-grandfather. “That man was a carpenter. He helped build some of the houses in Smoketown.”
For his thesis project, Nichols intended to photograph Smoketown, documenting residents and local businesses. Then the pandemic hit. Unable to travel, he turned to the Internet to investigate the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification.
“The more I looked, the more I began to realize that I can actually see the stages of deconstruction as the neighborhood becomes dismantled,” Nichols said.
His photo-collage of Internet images from 2008 to 2019 captures the process — old shotgun houses, empty lots, new developments. It’s installed on a pedestal of Smoketown bricks.
When Nichols visited Smoketown last year, he projected a video onto the former St. Peter Claver Church of a 1938 photo of children and staff at the elementary school there; it later closed when schools were integrated. The picture was his grandmother’s — she’s one of the children in the photo. In the video, people slowly vanished.
A video of that projection of loss is in his thesis show.
“This entire place was a community, it was a warren of families and people who leaned on one another to survive difficult lean times,” Nichols said. “It’s now in the process of being hollowed out.”
Juyon Lee, 26
Interdisciplinary artist, SMFA/Tufts
Lee has filled the space for her thesis show, “There is mystery in everything,” with video, sound, glass, and an S-shaped wall of one-way mirror film. The project addresses how much we think we know, and how little we truly do. The videos feature glass balls on a mirrored surface. Projecting them on and through the glass and the wall abstracts them.
“[The glass balls] are actual things that seem pretty definable. But then I abstract them, and it becomes muddy. Like, ‘Oh, what is this? What am I looking at?’” Lee said.
Viewers are thrust into a space of unknowing, making their own associations.
The artist’s work poses questions about why we’re quick to define and categorize, and what lies in the gulf between binaries.
“What’s between A and B? And then, what is the boundary? And how can I imagine it through my work?” she said.
Lee represents that boundary in image and light.
If it’s hard to grasp, that’s Lee’s point.
“I’m playing with the notion of transience and ephemerality with three-dimensional objects,” she said.
In short, even concrete things are fleeting.
Travis Flack, 33
Photography, Lesley University
Flack’s thesis project blends cheeky humor with existential angst. He examined all the photographs he’d made during his master’s program at Lesley, and pulled them together in a story.
“I wanted to make a self-portrait series that was loosely based on [the idea of] crime scenes,” he said. “I’ve been looking at my previous work like I opened a cold case.”
There are comic images of bagged evidence: a camera, the artist’s own head (two of them, in fact, in plastic bags in the desert, seeming to have a chat). But then, oblivion is a theme.
“I’m this kind of extreme person. I like really spicy foods. I like really loud music. I like skateboarding and surfing. And I’ve had some issues with substances,” Flack said. His photographs explore the desire to disappear into such experiences.
He paints some images over with solvent, giving them impressionistic auras. For the final image, “Wildness Seemed Right,” he layered several of the same shots and applied solvent. Previously sequenced images swirl and collide in a final self-portrait.
Other shots are more traditional, such as one of an old Joshua tree in California.
“I completely identified with it. It’s just this old Joshua tree that refuses to fall down,” Flack said. “It’s dying, but it’s not quite dead yet.”
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.