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SCSU art professor Thuan Vu reviewing student artwork in Earl Hall
Professor of Art Thuan Vu (in blue) reviews student artwork in Earl Hall.

Students paint and draw their way through the pandemic, tackling assignments that nod to life today — from masks to 6 feet of separation.

COVID-19 has dramatically altered life as we know it, including the intermediate drawing and painting courses taught simultaneously and in person by Thuan Vu, professor of art [above in blue]. Like many colleges and universities, Southern launched the fall semester with plans to switch entirely to remote education after the Thanksgiving break. But throughout the unseasonably warm months leading to that date, Vu’s students met for almost three hours each Tuesday and Thursday on the second floor of Southern’s Earl Hall to learn, create, and social distance.

Many aspects of the courses shifted in step with health and safety guidelines. Throughout Earl Hall — home to Southern’s departments of art and music — signs highlight one-way traffic patterns, separate entrances/exits, and reduced room-occupancy rates. Vu’s students were assigned to workspaces in three separate but adjacent studio classrooms to ensure social distancing, and all always wore protective masks.

In addition to shaping how the students worked, COVID-19 also informed their assignments. “I can always say, ‘Do a portrait.’ But there is so much going on right now in the world. Why not be topical, while still leaving the assignments open-ended so students can express what they want to express?” says Vu. And so, through their art, the students were asked to explore 1. masks (be they physical or psychological), 2. 6 feet of separation (a work at least 6 feet long or wide, reflecting social-distancing guidelines) and 3. the year 2020. For the latter, students hand-stretched two 20 X 20-inch canvases. On one, they presented a positive aspect of the year; on the other, a negative. Some of the results are seen here.

Vu is an award-winning, practicing artist — the recipient of a 2020 Artistic Excellence grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, one of only two painters to receive the honor. He’s taught at Southern since fall 1999, but notes that he and his fellow faculty members are navigating uncharted territory. “I have done this for 21 years, and [in the past] students would have concerns or be facing situations that usually fell into certain categories. But we’ve never had a worldwide pandemic. We’ve never had to switch to online teaching in the middle of a semester [like Southern did last spring], turning on a dime,” he says.

In contrast, faculty and staff had time to prepare for the 2020-21 academic year. “To teach on-ground is a blessing. They chose to be here,” says Vu, gesturing to the students. He stresses the need to be cognizant of students’ greater challenges — family and friends sick with COVID-19, personal illnesses, financial issues caused by the pandemic, or a potential need to quarantine.  In response, he has created 10 videos to demonstrate techniques both online and in the classroom, so students can watch him up close and personal while social distancing. Supplies also were ordered so the artists wouldn’t need to make additional trips. Above all, Vu insists that health concerns are first and foremost.

On a sunny day in October, he considered several of the 6-feet projects being drawn and painted: “Some people are drawing trains in the desert. Others are creating mythic graphic works that are super detailed or propaganda movie posters. And one is making an autobiographical portrait about being the son of a fisherman. Everyone has a take on it, because they are living through it. We want to hear their voices coming out in the work, and we do — and I love it all.”

Jaime Roy

Work of art by SCSU art student Jamie Roy

When the COVID-19 pandemic surged last spring, Jaime Roy, a senior majoring in studio art, was taking the art history course, “Global Arts of the Renaissance.” At the time, it seemed apropos to be studying art and the plague. Her mask paintings are inspired by what she learned. In particular, Roy recalls a painting the professor shared of bodies being placed in a mass grave. “One of the people carrying the bodies had a little slip of paper tucked in his hat, a prayer that was supposed to protect him from the plague. But if you looked closely, you could see a sore on his face, a sign that he was already infected,” says Roy.

Work of art by SCSU art student Jamie Roy

“This is my hand and my boyfriend’s hand,” says Roy of her 6-feet project. “I used to see him every single day. Now, when I do get to see him, I don’t know when the next time will be. It could be two weeks. Or, it could be a month. Especially with the lockdown, we had no idea. So, that is what this is about.”

Joshua Fitzpatrick, ’20

Work of art by SCSU art student Joshua FitzpatrickFamily is a central theme in the projects created by Joshua Fitzpatrick, ’20, who is one of seven siblings. “I have never drawn any of them, so I thought it would be a fun way to approach the [mask] project” says Fitzpatrick, then a senior majoring in studio art with a concentration in graphic design. While his siblings’ faces are depicted realistically, he rendered the masks in a flattened style without shadowing, adding a pop of color on images that graphically depict one of many aspects of the wearers’ personalities — from a love of star gazing to an analytical nature. For his youngest sibling, 15-year-old Hazel, a heart depicts the artist’s high regard and acknowledgement of the challenges facing teens, especially during the pandemic. “She is such an amazing person, so much better than anything she could possibly show on social media,” he says.

Work of art by SCSU art student Joshua FitzpatrickThe inspiration for his 6-feet project came from a visit home and a momentary pause he took before hugging his mother goodbye. “I guess everyone understands where that pause came from. But it made me think about the people who normally see their friends all of the time, but haven’t been able to visit for a while. I haven’t seen my friends in months,” he says. His project is 10-feet across — so the figures at each end are truly 6-feet apart. In the center of the drawing, figures embrace. “They just want to be close to each other, and, obviously, COVID got in the way of it,” he says.

Work of art by SCSU art student Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee

Sophomore Brandon Lee has weathered his share of recent challenges. The week prior to beginning freshman classes at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, he learned that its partnership with the University of New Haven was ending at the close of the 2018-19 academic year — effectively shuttering the degree-granting program he was enrolled in at the Lyme campus. And so, as a sophomore, he finds himself at Southern. It’s been a fine move artistically, says Lee. In the midst of the pandemic, on-campus, in-person courses bring peace and relief. “It’s a shared experience, everyone committed to the same common goal of completing works. It definitely gives you motivation,” says Lee. He notes that his 6-feet drawing [right] — among the largest he’s ever done — is his favorite from the course — a self-portrait based on a narrative he imagined about a fisherman’s son.

Shaina Alexander

Senior studio art major Shaina Alexander is a transfer student who came to Southern with credits from Middlesex Community College and Montserrat College of Art. “She embraced the idea of having a little more humoristic aspect to her work,” says Vu, with a smile.

Work of art by SCSU art student Shaina Alexander

“So, I thought, why don’t I do strange masks that I’ve seen,” she says. Included are a self-portrait and drawings of her cousin and father, all donning intricate masks complete with zippers, an opening for straws, or a clear space to reveal the wearer’s mouth.

Work of art by SCSU art student Emelia Luz

Emelia Luz

Emelia Luz, who transferred to Southern from the Maine College of Art, appreciates Professor Vu’s willingness to embrace whimsy in her drawings.

In search of inspiration for her mask project, the sophomore turned to the nation’s health care workers. Her initial muse: a parent who works as an emergency room nurse. “I wanted to show how basically we see health care workers as warriors,” she says of her cartoon-inspired images of health care heroes fighting the COVID-19 virus. “And I do love playing with a little bit of fantasy in my pieces,” she says.

Thomas DeFranco

Work of art by SCSU art student Thomas DeFranco

Work of art by SCSU art student Thomas DeFranco

“My series is about how masks change us — who we appear to be to ourselves and the world,” says senior Thomas DeFranco, a studio art major with a concentration in graphic design. “For this [self-portrait], I thought about how we perceive ourselves under the mask. Nobody sees under the mask anymore — the fear associated with the sickness and the threat of death.”

For the 6-feet project [right], DeFranco was inspired by the three parts of Italian-writer Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem the Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). DeFranco’s work reflects the etching style often used to illustrate Dante’s masterpiece, “with some personal twists,” he says.

Nathan Shilling

Work of art by SCSU art student Nathan ShillingA self-described “hands-on learner,” Nathan Shilling says he’ll enroll in on-campus course options whenever possible.  He’s an interdisciplinary studies major, with concentrations in biology and studio art. Commenting on one of his mask drawings, he notes: “Originally, I didn’t want to have a definable figure. Just a mask. But then I figured with the political climate [in October before the election], everything is devolving right now, so I drew a chimp.”

 

Isabelle Reina

Work of art by SCSU art student Isabelle ReinaIsabelle Reina, a senior art education major, is student teaching this spring. But she first experienced the power of art education at age 15, while working at Cindy Stevens Fine Art in Clinton, Conn. “I was inspired by all of the positive things [my boss] was doing for the community — working with children, adults, people facing addiction. I saw how a creative outlet helps to positively impact lives,” says Reina. She strove to relay that positive spirit in Vu’s class. Her mask projects portray close friends, her brother’s girlfriend [right], and her new dog, Max, a husky puppy, who joined the family when he was 4-months old, right before Southern closed its physical campus and switched entirely to remote education for the spring 2020 semester. Max was a joy and a challenge for Reina, who was tackling upper-level, online courses. “He’s ripping up the masks [in the painting]. Because he’s a dog — and that’s his thing,” says Reina, with a laugh. She was thrilled to return to Earl Hall when campus reopened for the fall 2020 semester. “I love working in a classroom setting,” she says.

Work of art by SCSU art student Isabelle Reina
Samantha Melendez

Work of art by SCSU art student Samatha MelendezHer loved ones figure prominently in the three mask paintings created by Samantha Melendez [right]. She typically uses a more realistic style, but with Vu’s guidance explored the use of color for a portrait of her boyfriend. A second imagine shows her baby sister, who was born last year, bringing great joy to the family — as well as the worries and challenges of protecting a baby. “I think it’s because I am already in my 20s, and she is so small. I tend to have this almost motherly love toward her,” says Melendez. Another portrait depicts a young woman pulling an octopus from her mask — and was created after Melendez learned that a beloved family member had been raped. “I made this intentionally,” she says of the image of a young woman wearing a shirt printed with the phrase: Just Say No. “A lot of people say, ‘If you don’t want to have sex with someone, just say no.’ . . . But that’s not always the answer. Sometimes you are forced to do things. They are out of your control.”

 

Ryana Kelsey

Work of art by SCSU art student Ryana KelseySenior Ryana Kelsey is a general studies major, enrolled in a flexible program that allows students to delve into broad academic themes: business, humanities, social sciences, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Kelsey’s interests pointed her toward the social sciences concentration. She took both online and in-person classes for the fall 2020 semester, among them, courses from the departments of anthropology, psychology, women’s and gender studies, and art — including intermediate painting with Professor Vu. Her portraits reference both COVID-19 and social justice  — deeply connected issues based on racial health disparities and the high percentage of Black Americans to get the disease.

 

Kyra Catubig

Work of art by SCSU art student Kyra CatubigWith Professor Vu’s urging, Kyra Catubig moved on from a self-portrait to create a more surreal image for her second mask project. The painting includes two of her friends, who were originally drawn in separate sketches. Sunflowers and bees nod to one of Catubig’s favorite album covers: Flower Boy by Tyler, the Creator. A studio art major with a concentration in graphic design, Catubig is a resident adviser and desk attendant at Chase Hall, and also works for Southern’s Office of Orientation, Transition, and Family Engagement. Looking forward, she is considering graduate school, most likely, to pursue a degree in counseling. Meanwhile, she welcomes the opportunity to connect in class. “Honestly, it feels really good. I look forward to going to those classes,” she says.

Samantha Pansa

Work of art by SCSU art student Samatha Pansa“Being around other creative people really encourages you to push your boundaries. I would never have moved toward [so much] color if I wasn’t surrounded by people who were experimenting with their own art,” says Samantha Pansa, a senior studio art major, with a concentration in photography and a minor in art history. Pansa focused her mask projects on the environment, referencing the California wildfires, pollution, and threats to the oceans in her surrealistic paintings. Initially a journalism major, she changed course after studying photojournalism. “I realized I liked the camera aspect much more than the journalism,” she says.

 

MEET THE ARTISTS

 

Cover image, Southern Alumni Magazine, Spring '21Read more stories in the Spring ’21 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

 

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.

When Melissa Sutherland, ’09; Jarryn Mercer, ’09; and Symone K. Wong, ’09, saw the need for a dedicated space for artists of color to express themselves, Wong says, “We made a decision and just went for it.”

[From left] The founders of sk.ArtSpace: Southern graduates Jarryn Mercer, Melissa Sutherland, and Symone K. Wong.

It’s one thing to have an idea. It’s another to implement it, especially when there are multiple people involved — three — and other responsibilities call — full-time jobs — and a physical space is needed — a bright, airy gallery would do nicely — and bills need to be paid — rent! — and there are only so many hours in the day — 24, to be exact. But when Melissa Sutherland, ’09; Jarryn Mercer, ’09; and Symone K. Wong, ’09, saw the need for a dedicated space for artists of color to express themselves, Wong says, “We made a decision and just went for it.”

The women, who have been friends for 14 years, met on the track and field team at Southern and, as they put it, “immediately connected.” They were in different academic programs at the university: Sutherland majored in studio art, Wong studied communication, and Mercer pursued a liberal studies degree. But alongside running, they also shared a love for the arts.

Members of the Class of 2009, (from left) Jarryn Mercer, Melissa Sutherland, and Symone Wong became friends competing on Southern’s track and field team.

In 2015, after Sutherland and Wong headlined a two-woman show at VM Nation Studios, they began talking about having their own creative space, namely for black artists, to exhibit.

“Artists show art in places that don’t align with their vision, like in bars and coffee shops,” Sutherland says. “It takes away from the experience.”

“The main point isn’t the art,” adds Wong. “We needed a place that represented a space for artists.”

“We put the numbers together and said, ‘We can actually do this. Let’s do it,’” Mercer says.

By June 2016, sk.ArtSpace in Brooklyn was born. The two-level locale, which is bright and inviting, is one part gallery and one part event space, with a courtyard in the back. “It’s much more like a traditional gallery space, with white walls and lighting,” Wong says. “It’s a blank canvas.”

In addition to showcasing artists and musicians in the gallery, the women host product launches and wedding showers, and offer cost-friendly services to fellow creatives. The SK team also has launched successful events, including an annual Future Is Female exhibition, which features an all-women roster of artists from throughout New York City. Reaction to the show has exceeded the women’s expectations, creating a conclave of artists with close bonds.

The gallery showcases artists and performers in the community.

According to Sutherland: “Response has been quite amazing, sometimes overwhelming. People love and enjoy what we’re doing, and they think it’s something we really need, so they support us. There aren’t many galleries in our neighborhood that provide this platform.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been struggles. Before the women opened sk.ArtSpace they were working nine to five jobs as executive assistants in different industries. They still are: Mercer is with a wealth management firm; Wong and Sutherland at different marketing companies.

Says Mercer, “There are never enough hours in the day, but somehow the work always gets done.” The friends manage the workload by dividing and conquering. “We pick up each other’s slack. We all do whatever needs to be done, day-to-day,” says Mercer.

Finances, too, are a critical consideration. The gallery combines an event-space business model with a traditional gallery structure. The women receive commission for some collaboration packages as well as group exhibitions they curate, and they rent the gallery for private events.

They are continually looking for support to keep the momentum going.

“Support doesn’t always have to mean money,” Sutherland says. The gallery relies on interns, for example. Support could also mean assistance from a videographer to help with marketing. “We’re also trying to find sponsors and donors. We want to take the gallery and creative space to another level,” says Sutherland.

Based in Brooklyn, sk.ArtSpace has hosted more than 12 first-time solo shows for up-and-coming visual artists as well as more than 25 free art exhibitions for the community.

She continues: “One of our top priorities that we look forward to is offering services for beginning and emerging artists, like workshops on how to write an artist bio, and being able to coordinate panel discussions on how to become gallery artists, and the steps it takes to get there. We would love to connect with successful artists in the community and create spaces for artist talks.”

Networking and building a community for black creatives — a place they can call home — was the impetus behind the gallery’s creation. It will always take center stage. “We have a huge list of initiatives that would help with expanding the depth and knowledge of black artists,” Sutherland says. “We are working on building a larger creative network where people are able to connect, collaborate, and expose each other to new opportunities.”

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but Sutherland, Mercer, and Wong all hope to parlay their work at the gallery into full-time positions. “That’s our ultimate hope, that we can make our own schedules and deep-dive into this,” Wong says. “We think about it every day. Our conversations as friends have always been, ‘How can we be our best selves and better ourselves and support each other and others?’” They’ve taken the first step by opening the gallery doors. ■

Cover of SCSU Southern Alumni Magazine Summer 2020Read more stories in the Summer ’20 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

Thuan Vu, Meredith Miller, and Terrence Lavin (Meredith Miller photo credit: Tanya Marcuse)

Three members of the Art Department faculty have received grants to support their work through the Artist Fellowship Program of the Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA). Art Professor Thuan Vu, a painter, received one of seven Artistic Excellence Awards, while Art Professor Terrence Lavin, Art Department chairman and a jewelry maker and metalsmith, and photographer Meredith Miller, an adjunct faculty member in the Art Department, won Artist Fellowship grants.

The Artist Fellowship Program provides competitive grants to encourage the continuing development of Connecticut artists. These grants provide support for artists to pursue new work and achieve specific creative and career goals.

There are three types of grant designations awarded under this program based on reviewer assessment. The Artistic Excellence grants are $5,000 each, while the Artist Fellowship grants are $3,000 each.
Emerging Recognition grants are $1,000.

The awards covers all arts disciplines including the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, crafts, installation, illustration); music (music production, music composition, and opera); writing (fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and Young Adult fiction); dance and choreography; and theater (playwriting, film, and writing).

Of the top seven recipients of Artistic Excellence grants, Vu is one of only two visual artists to receive this grant. Of the paintings he entered in the awards competition, Vu says, “The black and white painting of flowers are a meditation on creating meaning and beauty in a world of conflict, division, and loss. Conceptually, the flowers were painted in a grisaille palette to convey how joy and beauty feel tempered during this time in my life and in our nation’s history.”

Thuan Vu, “Kintsugi no. 2″/ Oil on linen/ 18” x 18”/ 2019; and “Kintsugi no. 1″/ Oil on canvas/ 60” x 40”/2019

Lavin, who teaches jewelry and metals, writes of his work, “My current research is focused on looking toward the creation of a body of creative work that will adapt emergent digital tools and industrial manufacturing processes to the traditional forms, materials and practices of metalsmithing & sculpture. I’ll be working with 3D modelling software and rapid prototyping to explore 3D-printed output in two specific areas:

  • direct casting of 3D printed forms into metal and glass (via lost-wax and/or sandcasting processes)
  • electrolytic deposition (electroforming) of copper on 3D printed models”

Lavin is one of 35 artists in the state who were chosen to receive a $3,000 award from the COA. The funding provides an opportunity for these artists to continue their artistic development and creation of new work.

Terrence Lavin, “Core Fragment” and “Prototype C”

Miller was also one of the 35 artists to receive a $3,000 award. She received an Artist Fellowship from the COA with her photographic series, “On Trail: Portraits on the A.T.” She began this project in July 2019 during an artist residency at Monson Arts in Monson, Maine, an official Appalachian Trail Community. She explains, “My studio was conveniently located across the street from a hostel for thru-hikers. I plan to continue this project and am applying to other artist residencies situated along the A.T throughout New England.”

Meredith Miller, “Fireball,” “Barefoot,” “Earbuds,” “Wild Jay-Horsepower-Sparkle Machine – and Sister Bunny,” and “Twinkle Toes”

 

Alumna jewelry designer takes the prize for artistry and entrepreneurship.

Jewelry designer Stephanie Howell wearing one of her creations.

Having spent six years traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe, Stephanie Howell, ’11, has officially arrived as a business owner. In June 2019, she launched her first collection of jewelry through her namesake company S. Howell Studios — and within months was named a top five finalist in the Halstead Grant competition for emerging silver jewelry designers.

Applicants to the annual competition submit a portfolio of their work and answer 15 questions related to their businesses. “Applying for the Halstead Grant is essentially like creating a well-thought out business plan,” says Howell, who won a $500 grant and received national media exposure from the competition.

The recognition was a welcome confirmation for the entrepreneur, who traveled extensively after graduation. She financed her trips by working in restaurants while keeping future business plans in mind. “I set a goal to start turning one of my passions into a career by the time I turned 30,” says Howell. At 29, she decided to devote her career to jewelry design. “Once I was ready to settle down, it felt like a no brainer,” she says.

“I am profoundly inspired by botanical textures. By co-creating with the earth, I’m able to make carefully handcrafted silver fossils,” says Stephanie Howell.

The clues to Howell’s future career were certainly there. Years earlier, as an incoming freshman browsing through Middlesex Community College’s undergraduate catalog, she was immediately drawn to a course in metal and jewelry design. She earned an associate degree and transferred to Southern where she was a studio art major “from day one,” with a concentration in jewelry and metalsmithing.

She recalls a small, tight-knit group of classmates, and cites Professor of Art Terrence Lavin as being “invaluable” in terms of shaping her education. “He constantly challenged me to step outside of my creative comfort zone and become a better artist,” says Howell, who graduated magna cum laude.

She continues to design in metal, valued equally for its permanence and malleability. She uses the lost-wax casting process to create “silver fossils, preserving plants indefinitely.” Botanical details — the delicate veins of an aspen leaf or the floral whorls of lupine — embellish her handcrafted collection of earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, often accented with gold and semiprecious stones.

“By featuring subtle beauty in my work, I encourage people to take a closer look at the world around them,” she says.

A model shows some of Howell's latest jewelry collection.
A model shows some of Howell’s latest collection. “Terry Lavin was my jewelry and metalsmithing teacher the entire time I was at Southern. He constantly challenged me to step outside of my creative comfort zone and become a better artist,” says Howell.

Chaz Guest, ’85, takes artistic expression to new heights, re-examining the history of slavery and launching a superhero in the process.

SCSU alumnus Chaz Guest, '85, standing in front of painted canvas.
Brian Bowen Smith Photo

Chaz Guest, ’85, may not be a household name, but his work has been embraced by many big ones. Herbie Hancock and Vanessa Williams collect his paintings. Former President Barack Obama hung his portrait of Thurgood Marshall in the Oval Office. Oprah Winfrey praised a portrait of Maya Angelou as a little girl that she had commissioned from Guest: “Saying the painting is beautiful is too mild of a word.”

Chaz Guest shaking hands with President Barak Obama
The artist shakes hands
with former President Barack Obama, who hung Guest’s portrait of the late Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, in the Oval Office.

Guest arrived at Southern as a gymnast on scholarship, not knowing what direction he wanted his life to take. He left after studying graphic design with an inkling he had become an artist. He credits David Levine, his art history professor, and the late Howard Fussiner [professor emeritus of art], the only painting teacher he ever had. “Those two put me on the path of the life I have now as a painter,” Guest says from his studio in Los Angeles, brush in hand, working on a portrait of the abolitionist John Brown while we speak. One of Fussiner’s landscapes hangs on the wall.

Levine introduced Guest to the history of art. Fussiner encouraged him to become part of it. The painter — who reminded Guest of Salvador Dali with his wild white hair, quirkiness, and energy — encouraged Guest by praising his work in front of the class. He also passed along commissions to paint watercolors of people’s homes. “He opened my eyes to the idea that I could paint something and actually earn some money,” Guest says.

Painting by Chaz Guest
Patrick Painter Gallery Photo

After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a brief stint illustrating fashion magazines in Paris, Guest devoted himself to his own painting. He sold his first work on the sidewalk outside his apartment in New York City. With that money, he bought a larger easel and more supplies and was on his way. Today, the artist is represented by the Los Angeles-based Patrick Painter Gallery. His work has been shown in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Paris.

A devotee of Kyokushin karate, which his older brother taught him upon returning from the service in Okinawa, Japan, Guest has used the martial arts to open his mind and dedicate himself to his art. An aging hip prevents the 58-year-old from regularly practicing karate, but he still applies the mental principles. “Martial arts is a way of life,” he says. “I certainly have it in mind.”

His influences range from Fussiner to Balthus, from Dali to Picasso. Inspiration also comes from musicians — Pavarotti to Mahalia Jackson, but especially his beloved jazz. Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane. He has painted them and frequently plays their music in his studio while working. He’s also created paintings on stage inspired by live jazz performances. He starts without preconceived notions of what he is going to paint and improvises along with the musicians. “It’s best to have a blank mind, and flow to the vibrations and spirit of the music,” he says.

Actor Angela Bassett with Ruth E. Carter, holding the award statuette designed by Guest
Actor Angela Bassett with Ruth E. Carter, holding the award statuette designed by Guest. • ICONN MANN Photo

Guest works in a variety of mediums. His Geisha Series, created on Japanese zori sandals, was inspired by a trip to Japan, and his Cotton Series, portraits of enslaved men, women, and children, is done on cotton picked from Southern fields, where the subjects might have toiled.

After admiring Guest’s Cotton Series, Yahya Jammeh, then president of the Republic of Gambia, invited him to visit in 2010. Guest painted an oil portrait of Jammeh as a gift, which he presented upon his arrival. “It was a life-changing trip,” Guest says.

A stop at James Island in the Gambia River to see the remains of a fort used by British slave traders was particularly profound. Guest spent time alone in a holding cell. “I felt all of my nightmares as an African-American started in this one place,” he says. He wept. Anger and sadness washed through him. He emerged transformed. “Afterward, I felt new,” he says.

Guest suggested that the island be renamed Kunta Kinteh Island to honor the slaves who passed through. Jammeh agreed and the name was officially changed in 2011. For the occasion, Guest sculpted a Mandinka warrior rising out of one of the island’s many baobab trees and escaping the shackles of slavery. He called it Freedom. It was not installed as a 30-foot statue on the island as originally intended, as it lacked the support of the president who succeeded Jammeh.

But the bronze sculpture was chosen for the statuette of the ICON MANN Legacy Award, most recently presented to Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ruth E. Carter, winner of the 2019 Academy Award for costume design on the film, Black Panther. The Legacy Award honors those whose body of work has positively transformed the narrative and trajectory of black culture.

For all of his success as an artist, Guest is proudest of his role as a father. He has two sons, Xian, 16, and Zuhri, 25. He wears a bracelet made from a mold of their umbilical cords. “I enjoy being a father of two great boys,” he says.

Artwork by Chaz Guest, '85
Patrick Painter Gallery Photos

Guest’s latest project is Buffalo Warrior, a graphic novel he wrote about a boy born into slavery in the 1800s who becomes a modern-day superhero. Guest illustrated the book in Japanese sumi ink on handmade paper — and also painted a series of the hero in oil and another related series entitled Buffalo Soldiers. He’s in discussions with movie studios to turn the story into a feature film.

He sums up his aesthetic, which is particularly apparent in the Cotton Series and Buffalo Warrior: “I wanted to start from the root of our American experience, which happens to be slavery. So I wanted to go back there in that time and paint with everything I have to convey dignity and love and [that] they’re people, not only slaves. If you want to make a good painting, you’ve got to paint what you love — and I love those people.”

Artwork by Chaz Guest, '85
Patrick Painter Gallery Photo

Southern Alumni Magazine cover, Fall 2019, featuring Peter Marra, '85

Read more stories in the Fall ’19 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

Southern sculpture students have collaborated on “Silence the Violence,” a three-dimensional work referencing the national debate about 3D printed guns. Their socially engaged work is being presented in the #Unload: Pick Up the Pieces exhibition at The Ely Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven.

The work encompasses a human-shaped target with circular vignettes representing the different viewpoints of each of the artists. Each vignette becomes a point on the target that can be interpreted as either a bullet hole or as a lens detailing the student’s personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions about guns.

The individual vignettes are constructed as 3D prints to serve as a formal reference to the 3D printed gun debate. Guided by Professor Art Rachael Vaters-Carr, Southern’s student collaborators include: Karen Daye, Evan DiGiovanni, Danielle Fleuriot, Tyãnna Garner, Sammi Huang, Tyler Kopeck, Isabelle Louime, Duke Pierre, Amber Pindulic, and Jenna Reeser.

#Unload: Pick Up the Pieces, which runs through November 11, is an unjuried, inclusive, community-driven exhibition that explores issues surrounding gun control laws and the impact of guns on society. The exhibition aims to raise questions regarding violence, safety, gender, equality, and the influence of media on violence and mental health stigmas.

Artists from diverse backgrounds and working across media have created material-driven and conceptually-charged works either from decommissioned gun parts from a Hartford buy-back program or works inspired by the theme. The artworks reflect society’s divided attitudes towards gun control, gun safety, gun reform, the Constitutional right to bear arms, as well as recent events relating to gun use, ownership, safety, and violence.

The exhibition is a highlight of Artspace New Haven’s 21st annual City-Wide Open Studios festival  complemented by artist talks, panel discussions, presentations by political candidates and other community notables, and a voters’ registration table leading up to November 6 mid-term elections.

 

Rachael A. Vaters-Carr, professor of art, and Jeremy Chandler, associate professor of art, are participating in Further On, an art exhibition at the Hans Weiss Newspace Gallery on the campus of Manchester Community College (MCC). The gallery’s curator, Susan Classen-Sullivan, professor of visual fine art at MCC, invited Vaters-Carr and Chandler to take part in the exhibition of works by nine artists who are professors at institutional neighbors to MCC. The institutions being represented are: ECSU, CCSU, SCSU, UConn, and Hartford School of Art, all popular transfer destinations for MCC students. The exhibit, intended as an opportunity for MCC students to connect with faculty from those programs, runs through December 6.

Classen-Sullivan explains, “We have a vibration Fine Art Program at MCC, with over 100 fine art majors. Though many go on to specifically fine art institutions, some transfer to Connecticut four-year schools. The exhibition, along with bringing strong relevant contemporary art to the college and community, serves to acquaint MCC fine art students with the work of professors they may have as instructors in the future. Additionally the exhibition verifies that fine arts professors also have rigorous art making practices.”

snow-cave-mergedJeremy Chandler – “Snow Cave Merged”

Chandler, who teaches photography, says of his work, “My art practice continues to grow out of a desire to express my personal history, experiences and relationships, through a prolonged engagement with place and a process that emphasizes structured improvisation with those I photograph. I primarily engage with my audience through rich, open-ended narrative imagery, which subverts ritualized expressions of masculinity, while creating altered perceptions of space and place.”

vaters-carr_18_document_2017Rachael Vaters-Carr

Vaters-Carr says that her work “is intimately connected to survivorship. Themes of healing, destruction, protection and defense have consistently resonated throughout my work and have always served as the primary catalyst for my art practice. The forms and shapes found in this body of work are inspired by objects that have been altered to include reference points that hint at medical intervention, altercation, and trespass. Over the past few years, I have been obsessively reworking these forms into drawings, paintings, and sculptures that explore personal narrative with more universal implications.”

Learn more about the gallery and the exhibition.

 

Thuan Vu, art professor, exhibit

As a Vietnamese-American whose family came to the United States as refugees when he was very young, Art Professor Thuan Vu knows what it means to be an outsider looking in. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Vu settled with his family in New Orleans, La., when he was just two years old, and the thematic core of his work as an artist has always been the exploration of his identity.

“As a Vietnamese refugee, I grew up in New Orleans wanting to be a model American citizen,” he says, adding that his “misplaced strategy” as a teenager was to absorb all things Western and American. “I was the surely the only 15 year old who was thrilled to learn about the art of Currier and Ives and Thomas Cole . . . and who could happily sing the Great American Songbook by 17 years of age,” he says. His interest in the American canon, he says, reveals a love for tradition and its development, and he grew into his Vietnamese-American identity “through the acquisition of cultural knowledge: adopt the tradition, adapt it to my life, and use it to grow.”

Vu’s latest body of work – a series of paintings called “The New World” — is now on display at the New Haven Lawn Club, 193 Whitney Avenue, New Haven. The opening artist’s reception took place at the Lawn Club on Tuesday, November 15. The exhibit is on display and open to the public through December 21.

The recipient of numerous awards and grants, Vu exhibits and lectures nationally. His research has taken him to Vietnam and Paris, where he studies Vietnamese communities worldwide.

“My drawings and paintings document how I grew into my Vietnamese-American identity,” Vu explains. “In my work, I reflect on themes of growth, integration, and reconciliation. These paintings combine Eastern and Western traditions of depicting nature to describe a space that is as much emotional as it is physical. These spaces, created through a combination of memories, photographic references, and my own imagination, mirrors the refugee experience of re-creating a sense of home.”

The New World (American Hymn 3), charcoal on paper, 18" diameter, 2016
The New World (American Hymn 3), charcoal on paper, 18″ diameter, 2016

“The New World” is a series of paintings that he began in 2011 and is the latest manifestation of his life as an individual, an American, and an artist.

Vu explains that over his career, his art has traced his process of growth and integration, especially in the exploration of his ethnic heritage since he visited Vietnam for the first time in 2002, 27 years after his family fled the country. In the various series of his work, he has used different visual languages to express the specific thematic content. “I use the languages of the many cultural traditions that I studied in order to express how I navigate my identity,” he says.

With The New World series, Vu says, he hopes to evoke the feelings involved in building a new life in a young and innocent America. “Contemplative and hopeful, these paintings share the emotive ethos of early 19th century American painters who went out to discover this new land. I correlate the American experience with that of my parents: Coming to America with seven of their eight children, I imagine their sense of awe, confusion, and hope. I feel their search for a ways to adopt, adapt, and grow. I can picture their appreciation for the opportunity that America represents.”

Visually, the work combines Eastern and Western traditions of depicting nature. Elements of Romanticism and abstraction are mixed with an Asian sensibility to create an image meant for Zen-like contemplation.

“In this series,” Vu says, “I chose to use nature as the universal constant, the one thing that affects all people, that can create a sense of awe, and that can inspire the mind to contemplation.”

The series’ name, “The New World,” echoes the Vietnamese term for “new world” – “doi moi” — a term coined to describe a Vietnamese age of optimism and open trading in the mid-1980s after the Vietnam War.

“The term recognizes a turbulent history yet optimistically accepts change,” Vu says. “In this series, I depict overlapping natural elements in ambiguous perspectives to create an unexpected space. This space — which is as much emotional as it is physical — can be at once thunderous, ethereal, and peaceful. It is the visual expression of the complicated, and often confusing task of building a new life faced by many refugees. Nature is used to mirror this journey and is depicted in numerous ways, from the sublime to the minute, from the literal to the abstract. In its variety, it expresses the non-linear task faced by us all in building a sincere sense of self and a true sense of home.”

Thuan Vu painting, The New World (Fall 2)
The New World (Fall 2), oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″, 2016

View an online gallery of Thuan Vu’s work

Founder's Gate
Founder's Gate
From a unique outdoor classroom to one-of-a-kind works of art, here’s a look at a few quintessentially Southern locations. When you spy these views, you know you’re in Owl territory.

A tie to Southern’s past, Founders Gate is part of a newly instituted tradition: each fall, the incoming class enters campus through the gate following new student convocation. In the spring, graduating seniors will cross it again to mark the culmination of their undergraduate experience. The gate spans the area between Lyman Center and Engleman Hall, but originally stood on the school’s first campus on New Haven’s Howe Street. After being restored and moved to its current location, it was dedicated during Homecoming in 1987.

Geological Rock Garden
Geological Rock Garden

A unique outdoor classroom, the Geological Rock Garden includes 52 rocks that are indigenous to Connecticut. Numerous quarry operators in the area donated boulders for the display, which was created with the aid of Thomas Fleming, chairman of the Department of Earth Science. Some of the boulders are from Stony Creek Quarry, which provided stone for many iconic buildings and monuments, including the base of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, and the Smithsonian Institution.

H2O: Liquid Zone
H2O: Liquid Zone

Set along a well-traveled path on the Fitch Street side of Engleman Hall, the stainless-steel sculpture, “H20: Liquid Zone,” was designed by award-winning international landscape architect Mikyoung Kim. Rain, snow, and ice collect on the sculpture, changing the view on an ongoing basis. The artist’s stunning portfolio includes the Crown Sky Garden in Chicago, the roof garden of the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and the ChonGae Canal Restoration Project — Source Point Park in Seoul, Korea.

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

End of the Line/West Rock
End of the Line/West Rock

Nature lovers are invited to view West Rock in a whole new light, courtesy of the environmental sculpture, “End of the Line/West Rock,” which was installed in 1985 on the Farnham Avenue side of Brownell Hall residence hall. The sculpture was designed by Nancy Holt, a pioneer of the land-art movement, which began in the late 1960s in response to growing awareness of environmental issues and debates about what constituted “real” art. In this work, two rings frame views of West Rock, showcasing the geological formation as an art object. Holt, who died in 2014, said of her designs, “I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them.”

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

Sculpture on top of Engleman Hall
Sculpture on top of Engleman Hall

Is it an Owl’s outstretched wings, an open book evoking the quest for knowledge, or perhaps both? Perched on top of Engleman Hall, this sculpture can be seen from much of Southern’s campus.

Rain Harvester
Rain Harvester

Every cloud has a silver lining, and, on campus, it’s the rain harvester located outside of the Academic Science and Laboratory Building. Named in recognition of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority for its leadership-level support, the rain harvester is ecologically sound as well as beautiful. Water drains into a 40,000-gallon underground collection system that is used to water surrounding greenery — reducing the need for irrigation of the area by 50 percent. An ultraviolet-purification system eliminates bacteria.

50-foot-tower sundial
50-foot-tower sundial

Incoming students are invited to learn many things during orientation, including how to tell time using the nearly 50-foot-tower sundial found on Engleman Hall. Built in 2005 of precast concrete and aluminum, the sundial is an award winner. The American Institute of Architects’ Connecticut chapter recognized it as the top design in the art/architecture category in 2006. The project’s architects are Howard Hebel (Herbert Newman & Partners) and Frederick Sawyer, who is a co-founder of the North American Sundial Society.

Hilton C. Buley Library clock
Hilton C. Buley Library clock

Those who haven’t mastered Southern’s sundial turn to the Hilton C. Buley Library clock. The bars light up in blue to show the hour, while the dots glow a golden hue for minutes. The clock was installed in 2015 as part of the renovation of the original section of the library. For a picturesque view of campus, go to the fourth floor of the library and look out of the clock’s transparent face.

Serie Metafisica XVIII
Serie Metafisica XVIII

Set on a hill overlooking the campus pond, the bronze sculpture, “Serie Metafisica XVIII,” was created by Herk Van Tongeren and installed on campus in 1983. In 1987 the New York Times fittingly described the late sculptor’s work: “The walls, columns, and steps of the theaters were mysterious and incomplete. They suggested Greek and Roman theaters, but it was unclear who would take their place on stage and what roles they would assume.” On sunny days, students are often found sitting on the sculpture, bringing Tongeren’s vision to life.

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

Summer issue of Southern Alumni Magazine 2016