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Alumna

Marla McLeod

To hear Marla McLeod, ‘14, describe her passion for her former major, geographic information science (GIS), one can’t help but imagine her happily surveying the earth’s surface, gathering information and studying its infinite connections for years to come. But life had different plans for this artist, who was recently named by the Boston Globe as one of “5 Outstanding Art-School Grads for 2020.”

“I really loved geography,” McLeod says. “[With GIS] you can follow different veins and be creative and share perspective. The information builds, and you see how to build connections the more you bring in. It was the study of everything, everywhere.”

It wasn’t until she transferred from community college to Southern in 2012 and took a painting course that she found herself impassioned by the same principles — studying a subject, building up depths of color, sharing perspective – and started questioning her career path.

“I took an art class with Rachael Vaters-Carr, and in that class she told me I was really good at it. And when she told me that, I was a little skeptical,” McLeod says. “In Professor Thuan Vu’s painting course, I was trying to figure out how to paint! What kind of painting did I want to do? He suggested I try working from my own photography, and I took a picture of my friend in drag taking his makeup off, and I felt like, ‘Wow, I think I can paint!’ The colors came alive. And that’s how I got into it.”

After graduating from Southern with a degree in studio art, she took two years off to practice her technique. In 2018, she was accepted into the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (she graduates this August) and, in 2019, was the recipient of Tuft’s Tisch Library Research Grant, for which she spent the summer “researching Black identity in America and representation and combining the research with fashion found in the drag culture.”

The culmination of the research for her exhibition “RePresent” were her sculptures “Anonymous Woman” and “Baldwin,” which were presented at Black Portraitures 2019 at NYU. McLeod removed things from her sculptures  — skin, hair, features — that have to do with individuality and characteristics in culture and visual cues about who they are as an individual.

“Anonymous Woman”
By Marla MacLeod
Size: 84in (h) x 72in (w) x 72in (d)
Medium: Various textiles, acrylic paint, beads, wood, mannequin
Year: 2019

According to McLeod, “One sculpture represents the black woman in America, the visual references to negative imagery like the mammy are overlayed and altered with symbols and references to Black pride. The second sculpture represents the black man in America, the intimidating hooded figure is overlayed and altered down, adding lavish details that give the figure a sense of royalty.”

For her MFA thesis, McLeod continued her study of Black women from her undergraduate thesis at Southern.

“I began to understand how much I don’t understand about African American history,” McLeod says, “so I had to go back and research and learn and dig into the topic this time with five large portraits.”

In her oil paintings, backed with textiles inspired by Mali mud cloths to give a sense of African tribal patterning, McLeod asked herself: “You’re depicting black people, are you just putting them on display? Each woman, they’re only wearing black, and the viewer must decide what they’re putting on to that body. As I’m creating, the women are happy to be photographed, they are happy with something that’s being created of them, they’re proud. When I get done painting, I worry if I’m getting it right and then from there, it’s wondering if people will be satisfied. I feel like it’s extremely relevant at this point.”

“Ancrum.” From MacLeod’s MFA thesis project, 2020

The large-scale, realistic portraits were displayed this spring at the Tufts University Art Galleries.

As a Black artist, McLeod feels it is important to contribute to the conversation about race “because as I continue my studies it remains to be a considerable factor in what I read about African American history, and it continues to play a considerable factor in my own life. It is at the core of where we are socially in America at this moment. It’s important for me to contribute.”

Art Professor Vu agrees: “Marla is a great example of how committing to the process of art-making, self-investigation and hard work can really pay off. She learned not only the technical skills of drawing and painting, but, more importantly, she found the desire to go deeper and make work that was truly meaningful to her. By doing so, she is contributing her personal voice as a woman of color to a public audience that desperately needs to become more aware of stories from diverse perspectives. I am so happy for all her success and am so proud to have been able to assist her in her growth.”

Despite the accolades and recognition, is McLeod at peace with the fact that she left GIS for art?

“Art majors are for impractical people, either your art sells or it doesn’t,” she says. “For me, it’s been, ‘How much do I enjoy doing my work, will one person look at it?’ I had to get past that naysaying idea about an art career and once you go into it, you will find avenues that are extremely practical. There are teaching jobs, museum fields, and more. People don’t realize how much the artistic field affects every other field.”

As fate would have it, McLeod will bring her unique perspective back to Southern this fall as an adjunct professor, teaching Art 150 Introductory Drawing. In the position, she’ll be able to share her knowledge and perspective with students; as she puts it: “I had a great support system at Southern and hopefully now I’ll be doing what professors did for me.”

Marla McLeod’s work has been presented at Southern Connecticut State University; the School of the Museum of Fine Art; Ely House, CT; City Lights Gallery, CT; Dana Hall School, MA, and ESPN, amongst others. She was the 2014 recipient of the Robert EW Eisele Fine Arts award, and 2019 Will and Elena Barnet Painting Award.

Xhenet Aliu

Southern’s English Department and its creative writing program, as well as the university in general, have turned out a number of successful writers over the years. One such Owl alum, whose 2018 debut novel has been enjoying critical acclaim, will bring her talents back to campus to kick off the university’s celebration of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing Program‘s 10th anniversary.

On March 7 at 7:30 p.m., alumna Xhenet Aliu, ’01, will read from her novel, Brass, followed by a Q & A and refreshments. The reading, which will take place in Engleman A120, is free and open to the public.

Aliu graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English and went on to earn an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MLIS from The University of Alabama. A native of Waterbury, Conn., she was born to an Albanian father and a Lithuanian American mother. She now lives in Athens, Ga., and works as an academic librarian.

Her debut fiction collection, Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, and Brass was published by Random House in spring 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Barcelona Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.

English Professor and Creative Writing Coordinator Tim Parrish was Aliu’s thesis director. He says, “Xhenet Aliu is a fantastic writer who perfectly exemplifies the exceptional quality of authors coming out of Southern’s undergraduate and Master of Fine Arts’ Creative Writing programs.”

The MFA program is a full-residency, terminal-degree program, preparing students for careers as publishing writers, teachers, editors, and professionals in the publishing world. While the curriculum focuses heavily on the writing workshop and the creative thesis, the MFA also requires students to study literature at the graduate level and provides opportunities for students to train for teaching collegiate-level writing, and in some cases to teach their own courses. The year 2019 marks the program’s 10th anniversary, which will be celebrated over the course of the coming year, culminating in a weekend of special activities in October.

Since its publication in early 2018, Brass has received the following honors, among others:

  • One of Entertainment Weekly‘s “10 Best Debut Novels of 2018”
  • A San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Book of 2018
  • Named a “Best Southern Novel of 2018” by Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • One of Bustle‘s “31 Debut Novels from 2018 That You Seriously Shouldn’t Miss”
  • Named a “Best Book of 2018” by Real Simple
  • A Spring 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection
  • Starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal
  • New York Times’ Book Review Calendar of “Must-Know Literary Events in 2018”
  • Elle‘s “21 Best Books of 2018”
  • Southern Living‘s “Books Coming Out This Winter That We Can’t Wait to Read”
  • Huffington Post’s “60 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018”
  • Book Riot‘s “101 Books Coming out in 2018 That You Should Mark Down Now”
  • Elite Daily‘s “2018 Book Releases That’ll Make Reading More Your New Year’s Resolution”
  • Bookish‘s “Must-Read Winter Books 2018”
  • The Millions‘ “Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview”
  • Christian Science Monitor‘s “5 New Titles to Check Out in the New Year”
  • Kirkus Review’s “11 Debuts You Should Pay Attention To”

From reviews of Brass, which is set in Waterbury, Conn.:

“Lustrous . . . a tale alive with humor and gumption, of the knotty, needy bond between a mother and daughter . . . [Brass] marks the arrival of a writer whose work will stand the test of time.” — O: The Oprah Magazine

“Aliu is witty and unsparing in her depiction of the town and its inhabitants, illustrating the granular realities of the struggle for class mobility.” — The New Yorker

Brass simmers with anger — the all too real byproduct or working hard for not enough, of being a woman in a place where women have little value, of getting knocked down one too many times. But when the simmer breaks into a boil, Aliu alchemizes that anger into love, and in doing so creates one of the most potent dramatizations of the bond between mother and daughter that I’ve ever read. . . . I left this book with the sure sense that the characters were alive beyond its pages, though I wouldn’t dare try to guess what they are up to — Elsie and Lulu are too real for that.” — The New York Times Book Review

View a photo album from Jahana Hayes’ September 2016 visit to Southern.

The Council of Chief State School Officers today announced that Southern alumna Jahana Hayes, ’05, a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., is the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Jahana Hayes, '05
Photos courtesy of Waterbury Public Schools

Hayes’ route to teaching began as a student. The first in her family to graduate from college, she was inspired by her teachers who urged her to dream bigger and who believed that she was college material, despite a challenging upbringing. She earned an associate degree from Naugatuck Valley Community College, a bachelor of science from Southern, a master of arts from Saint Joseph University, and a certification from the University of Bridgeport.

A veteran history teacher, Hayes also sees herself as an advisor, counselor, confidant and protector. She endeavors to fill the role her own teachers had in her life, guiding students to be their best selves and encouraging them to take ownership of their communities.

“As a teacher, I strive to facilitate learning in a way that engages students by connecting on a personal level and stimulating academic growth, while simultaneously producing contentious and productive members of society,” she says.

For Hayes, being a teacher is a privilege and an opportunity to transform lives and foster a sense of social responsibility in the next generation. As the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and a spokesperson for the teaching profession, Hayes hopes to motivate more people to become educators and continue to carry out this important work.

“I am honored to be the 2016 National Teacher of the Year,” Hayes says. “In the course of the next year, I hope to stoke a national conversation about education that is inclusive of everyone. I want to engage people who have not traditionally been part of the conversation to join in this important effort to prepare well-rounded students for success in life.”

The National Teacher of the Year program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and presented by Voya Financial, Inc., identifies exceptional teachers in the country, recognizes their effective work in the classroom, engages them in a year of professional learning, amplifies their voices, and empowers them to participate in policy discussions at the state and national levels.

As the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Hayes will spend a year traveling the nation to represent educators and advocate on behalf of teachers. She looks forward to sharing her belief in the importance of service-learning, and in making the teaching profession more attractive and appealing to young people across all demographics.

Every year, exemplary teachers from each state, the U.S. extra-state territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity are selected as State Teachers of the Year. From that group, the National Teacher of the Year is chosen by a panel representing 15 renowned education organizations, which collectively represent more than 7 million educators.

“The Selection Committee selected Jahana Hayes as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year because we believe her message of service-learning resonates in the education discussion today,” the committee stated. “In addition, we believe she has a strong story that speaks to educators and will bring an important perspective to the public discourse over the next year.”

“Teachers like Jahana Hayes are leading the way to a brighter future for America. What an exceptional educator — we are all proud,” says Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Extraordinary academic rigor, high expectations, and unwavering commitment to service outside the classroom are the characteristics that Jahana brings to Waterbury students each and every day. She is truly preparing the next generation of global citizens. I want to congratulate Jahana and thank her for making a difference in the lives of so many Connecticut children and families.”

“Jahana Hayes inspires her students to believe in their ability to change the world. She ignites a love of learning and builds their self-confidence. This well-deserved distinction provides Jahana the platform and opportunity to share her gifts, passion, and talent with students and educators across the nation. Without question, Jahana will inspire others to believe in the power of teachers to change the world through education,” says Connecticut Department of Education Commissioner Dianna R. Wentzell. “Connecticut is so proud of Jahana. She is a true role model for educators across the nation who seek to deliver on the promise of an outstanding education for every student.”

“To be the National Teacher of the Year requires not only pedagogical precision, but also the ability to connect to the hearts and minds of a school community,” says Waterbury Superintendent Kathleen M. Ouellette. “Jahana’s own life experience, her passion for education, and the inspirational manner in which she impacts her students, all contribute greatly to her success. Jahana has masterfully refined a focused, pragmatic, yet heartfelt approach to an evolving global vision of education, bringing her to this pinnacle – the 2016 National Teacher of the Year! We in Waterbury, Connecticut, are very proud!”

Hayes and the other 55 State Teachers of the Year have been invited to an event on Tuesday, May 3, at the White House, where they will be honored by President Barack Obama.