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Four Emerging Artists to Watch: Studio Visits with MICA MFA and MA Graduates

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One main reason for the quality of visual art throughout the Baltimore region is an array of excellent MFA programs. At the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), there are thirteen major graduate programs, including Master of Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Business, Master of Professional Studies, as well as programs with a graduate emphasis. All combined, MICA’s grad programs attract about three hundred students each year from almost every state and more than twenty countries.

As each student completes several years of rigorous study and research, most are required to produce a thesis as a cumulative act and these often include exhibitions, written publications, lectures, and other hybrid forms. For many years, BmoreArt has paid close attention to MFA thesis exhibitions and projects, in order to educate ourselves (and our readers) about excellent new artists joining our community and to celebrate their achievements, and this year we have embarked on a collaborative approach to our coverage with MICA’s Office of Graduate Studies.

Working in conjunction with the directors of each individual graduate program at MICA, we have selected one graduating student to represent each program. We have visited their studios, photographed them in the place where they have created their most recent projects and masterpieces, and we offer a look at their practice through a series of interviews.

For our first interview series we offer you studio visits with Mariah Ave Williams, Hoffberger School of Painting, Kit Scott, MFA in Filmmaking, Victoria Cho, Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program, and Suryaa Rangarajan, MA in Illustration Program (MAIL).

 

Mariah Ave Williams, portrait by Jill Fannon

Mariah Ave Williams, Hoffberger School of Painting

Instagram : @madebymariahw 

BmoreArt: Where were you, geographically, creatively, and/or professionally, before attending MICA?

Mariah Ave Williams: Before coming to MICA, in December of 2019 I was transitioning out of undergrad life and like most, I was trying to figure out what to do. I was feeling all the things during that period–anxiety about adulting, career uncertainty, frustration with my art and not knowing what I wanted from it, all that layered with the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, like a lot of folks during that time, finding work and maintaining a job was pretty complicated. I was fortunate enough to be able to move back home with my parents who live in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I think quarantine actually gave me the time and space to work through my next steps for my career and artistic practice. It was when I decided I wanted to go back to school for painting.

Why did you select the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting for your MFA? 

When I applied, I honestly had no idea about the history behind the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting. I just wanted to stay in Maryland so I could be close to home considering everything that was going on with the pandemic. It wasn’t until I got accepted into the program that I started to look into the lineage of Hoffberger artists. Knowing that I could be moving through the same spaces also navigated by Amy Sherald and Jerrell Gibbs, both who are Black American artists I admire, that was almost enough for me to say yes to MICA.

In undergrad, my concentration was illustration but all I did during that time was paint. So, I knew if I was going to go back to school it would have to be for painting. MICA is one of the few art schools with a graduate program that is specifically dedicated to painting and cultivating a painting language. I applied to only a handful of other programs, but what made the Hoffberger program stand apart was this emphasis it has on “finding your voice.” I knew I needed help in doing just that. I had no idea what my artistic voice sounded like or what shape it made, all I knew was that I enjoyed painting. It was clear to me that MICA was interested in pushing students to experiment, to dare to mess up, or allow yourself to get lost in the work, to try things and figure yourself out using art-making to facilitate that process. I wanted this level of discovery in my own practice.

What have you learned from living in Baltimore? How has your perception of the city changed from before MICA until now?

I think I had already fallen in love with Baltimore prior to being at MICA. I can thank my formative years at Morgan State for that. But I think in terms of the art scene that MICA is a part of, I’ve learned how political and sometimes polarizing the art world can be for black artists and figurative artists alike. But in the same vein, I’ve witnessed how important community building is and how necessary it is to create and protect spaces for like minded artists to thrive in, simultaneously involving the people that have inhabited these spaces before we even arrived.

I’m proud to be able to say that I’m now a part of the art culture that lives here, it’s so rich! Baltimore makes me feel like I belong here and I want to be a part of nurturing and growing this community. I think I still have a lot more to learn from this city and it’s teaching me so much about myself in the process.

Tell us about your work. What are your primary materials? What are the main concepts you explore in the work? How do your materials and concepts intersect?

I like to think that I’m a figurative and portrait artist at heart since I am usually the subject matter in my own work. But, I’ve given myself the space to exist as multiple things while painting abstractly and representationally, sometimes a combination of both. I work mainly with oil paint because I’m still new to it and I’m enjoying learning how to manipulate it.

There is a realm that painting has moved me to and, in the same motion, it’s unearthed a process of self-examination in the form of imagined worlds and mysterious creatures. While navigating through my internal landscape, the otherworldly vistas I paint have become reflections of my relationship with myself in the same way that they have exposed the fear and angst I hold for what is to be uncovered.I’ve been able to witness my questions change from interrogations of the physical and social aspects of being alive to more abstract ideas of being.

Currently, my work explores the ritualistic practice of mining through my individual and collective identities, a process of reckoning and destroying, abstracting and imagining, and of birthing myself over and over again. I’m interested in the act of “becoming” as an eternal practice through painting and in exploring how painting itself has become my spiritual landscape.I’ve found solace in allowing myself to show up in different ways in my work, which resulted in a shift from realistic representations to idealized bodies, even non-bodies, and godly beings.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show.

The title of my thesis is This is the Beginning. It’s a title that I think encompasses the sentiment I hold towards all the pieces I’ve made over the span of four semesters. This body of work is in total about 40 pieces, works on canvas and works on paper, all ranging from small to life sized. Some pieces no longer exist but they’ve all served as an investigation, sort of chipping away at some deep rooted truths, and standing at a threshold that divides my world from an imagined space.

The more current works sit in my studio. There is a series of self – portraits, mostly untitled, and largely abstracted and obstructed. At some point I moved away from painting myself and became more interested in painting transitional spaces. They’re imagined environments and landscapes that are really influenced by illustration and sci-fi graphic novels. Even though these types of works may sound different, seeing them together, there is a narrative that becomes more apparent —one that speaks to wayfinding through identity and self-actualization. I want viewers to follow a journey and to feel inspired to do their own personal voyaging.

What are your post-graduation plans?

My post-graduation plans are mainly to rest. I think that while the last two years have challenged me more than ever and I’ve been able to grow so much, I am also deeply exhausted. I want to take some time in between applying for residencies and my current part-time job to be intentional about recovering. Rest is imperative to our overall wellness and is just as productive as being in the studio.

A selection of recent work by Mariah Ave Williams:

Mariah Ave Williams, A Dwelling Place, 2023, oil on canvas, 36 x 47 inches
Mariah Ave Williams, Voyager No. 1, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 x 35 inches
Mariah Ave Williams, Grand Beast, 2023, Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 65 x 50 inches
Mariah Ave Williams, Opening, 2023, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
Kit Scott, portrait by Jill Fannon

Kit Scott, MFA in Filmmaking
IG: @ivory.ichor @hades.ichor

BmoreArt: Where were you, geographically, creatively, and/or professionally, before attending MICA?

Kit Scott: Before MICA, I was in Norfolk, VA getting my BA in Cinema Production at Old Dominion University. I was (and in some ways, still am) in the beginning stages of trying to figure out what kind of stories I wanted to tell.

For years, I’ve written and produced things about characters that are so different from me and while that has been fun, I think I got to a point where it bothered me that I couldn’t relate to my own stories. It has always been my focus and desire to create characters that are authentic and grounded in reality and so it was an eye-opening moment for me to realize that these same characters that were relatable to other people were not relatable to me. Before coming to MICA,  it was one of my goals to explore the parts of myself that I had kept private or dared to not even examine.

Why did you select this particular program for graduate study?

I selected MICA’s filmmaking program because it was small and it felt like an environment in which I could foster deep connections with my peers and mentors. I also liked that the program did not have tracks like a typical film program would and so you are essentially able to learn everything you need to be an independent filmmaker while also being able to focus on one area or another with ease.

The unique relationship between JHU’s film program and the wider MICA community also appealed to me. You are able to make connections with other filmmakers, especially those from a program that is focused primarily on the business side of filmmaking while also being able to meet and collaborate with artists from different backgrounds/programs on the MICA side.

What have you learned from living in Baltimore? How has your perception of the city changed–from before MICA until now?

I’ve learned while living in Baltimore that this community is more than willing to help you if you ask. This city has a lot of love to give and I was surprised and touched to know that there are so many people in this city who won’t even bat an eye to look out for you. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I first moved here but all I can say is that this city feels like a warm embrace.

Tell us about your work. What are your primary materials? What are the main concepts you explore in the work? How do your materials and concepts intersect?

In my projects, I tend to work with video and photography. Over the last year, my work has mainly focused on exploring queerness, especially in the BIPOC community. My Thesis film, Buried, explores the process of coming out. My work often involves elements of horror and the supernatural and so this resulted in Buried being a monster film about the inner turmoil becoming external and how your actions can affect everyone around you.

Film is such a unique medium because of its combination of the visual and audial. You are transported to a different world where anything can be possible. For me, film has been the catalyst to understand myself and what I want to be as an artist. Film has allowed me to share with others how I see the world in a way that other mediums can’t. It’s visceral and all encompassing in a way that fascinates me endlessly.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show. 

The title of my show is called Rebuilding Relationships. I and my fellow cohort members aimed to explore different types of connections; how they can form and break apart but more importantly, how they can be reformed. Our thesis showcase took place at the Parkway Theatre.

I hoped that the audience was able to look at these films and resonate in some way with them. I want the audience to have questions about their own relationships in their lives. How do they function? What is missing? How can these connections be stronger? After making my film and watching my other cohort members films, these are some of the questions I’m left with.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I am looking for more opportunities to be on set and to make further connections in the film industry in the greater DMV area. A few friends from my cohort and I are also preparing to produce a film sometime this summer and I look forward to that.

A selection of images and film stills from Kit Scott:

Kit Scott, Still from Calm+Calamity, 2021, 35mm film
Kit Scott, Still from Buried, 2023 (film)
Kit Scott, Comfort, 2021, digital photo
Kit Scott, still from Kill the Boy, 2022 (video)
Victoria Cho, portrait by Jill Fannon

Victoria Cho, Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program

Website: VictoriaChoArt.com
IG: @victoriachoart

BmoreArt: Where were you, geographically, creatively, and/or professionally, before attending MICA?

Victoria Cho: Before attending MICA, I was born and raised in Great Falls, Virginia. I attended Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) K-12, and I grew up going to weekly art studio lessons at J Art Studio in Chantilly, Virginia. 

Why did you select this particular program?

I chose to come to MICA as an undergraduate because of its notable Painting and 5-year Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) programs. Growing up, I had really positive experiences within different education contexts, particularly within my schools’ art classes, the studio classes I attended on the weekends, and the volunteer tutoring program I helped run and teach in as a high schooler for grades K-6. 

My passion for art and education led me to develop a curiosity for how to create rich lessons that engage students in learning both skills in art and dispositions that they can carry outside of the classroom. Therefore, I was really drawn towards MICA’s 5-year MAT program in that it allowed me to develop my fine art practice and skills as an undergraduate Painting major and simultaneously complete a number of art education courses with topics ranging from observing teachers in their classrooms to the psychology behind children’s artistic development. 

Can you talk more about the program and how you learned?

An example of an MAT course that was of particular interest to me and later proved to be beneficial in my education practice was Strategies for Teaching Art. It not only taught me about methods for teaching art, it enlightened me about what was important to me as an artist and individual. For this class, I created a set of essential questions and a lesson plan around the theme of visually reconstructing memory and formulating meaning using one’s belongings. Students were prompted to gather items of personal significance which would be used as inspiration for a mixed-media collage. The collage, created with a variety of art-making means such as painting, drawing, and Photoshop, is a visual response to the objects.

The goal of the lesson is for students to express and translate their objects as metaphors of their own lives. After trying out this assignment myself by prototyping my own collages, I grew to really appreciate the process of dissecting objects both visually and conceptually to uncover and reconstruct personal meaning. The gratification of producing a new, visual form of personal value while making sense of what is important to me as an artist and individual was unmatched, and it prompted me to continue creating lessons based on self discovery and personal history. Since art allows one to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, I think it is important for students to have self-awareness in understanding who they are as individuals, in order to effectively voice their memories and beliefs. 

What have you learned from living in Baltimore? How has your perception of the city changed – from before MICA until now?

After living in Baltimore for almost 5 years, my perception of the city has greatly changed from before MICA until now. I have seen and experienced the close-knit community and ways in which people deeply care for one another and know each other’s stories. 

As a student-teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools, I have also learned that the students carry with them so many creative talents and multi-faceted parts to their identities. When given the right educational tools and opportunities, those students are able to produce visual artworks that are incredibly profound and as emotionally impactful as that of a working artist today. 

Tell us about your work. What are your primary materials? What are the main concepts you explore in the work? How do your materials and concepts intersect?

I am intrigued by the process of navigating recounts of family histories, personal memory, and photographic moments in time. In my most recent body of work, I aim to address familial experiences and understand how generations of relationships continue to influence the present moment. 

My curiosity in visually exploring personal history was sparked by the discovery of a vast library of archived, maternal family photographs after the passing of my grandmother in 2018. When leafing through the pages of each photo album, I realized there were decades of stories and lives that were unfamiliar to me, including those of my grandmother before I was born. Upon inquiry, I have since learned more about these prominent figures in the albums through conversations with my mother and relatives. 

Using passed down oral histories, family photographs, and my own childhood memories, I construct multi-layered compositions that include portraits of the featured, photographed family members, images of important locations, and individual-specific patterns and symbols to explore new ways of retelling my family history. I visually collage these images and ideas together through painting, screenprinting, and digital media, and each work celebrates the lives of those depicted. When developing a piece, alternating between traditional, analog processes and digital means helps me to replicate the idea of moving back and forth between the past and present. 

My making process begins with a digital collage that consists of several photographs and digitized patterns that I create myself. The collage is either translated into multiple digital layers with the intention of it being screenprinted, or it is drawn onto canvas and painted with acrylic gouache. Screenprinting holds tremendous significance in that it physically allows me to apply the literal and metaphorical layers of each depicted person’s life. Furthermore, the process of creating an edition reminds me of the act of passing down the same story to many people. On the other hand, painting provides the opportunity for heavy focus on every aspect of the composition and the expression I want to give each person and object.

With the final images in both my screenprints and painting, themes of poignancy and beauty are emphasized, highlighting loss while conveying the joyous moments the subjects spent together. 

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show.

The title of the MAT thesis show was Grad Show I: Teaching MA. It was on display from February 23, 2023-March 8, 2023, and it was located in two galleries within MICA’s Lazarus IV Center: Sheila & Richard Riggs Gallery and the Fred Lazarus IV Center Leidy Gallery. The exhibition showcased the 19 graduating MAT students’ thesis works they created over the summer of 2022, including playfully created clay works, plein air paintings of environments from international travels, crocheted comfort animals for school classroom-use, and mixed-media works created from natural dyes and pigments.

As artist-educators, we constantly intertwine processes of creative investigation and inquiry within our work as we acknowledge that creating will continue to serve as a source of inspiration and hands-on learning that informs our teaching. While creating and installing the work for the show, we considered subject matters that were not only of personal significance but also of relevance in teaching our future students.

As a part of the MAT program and philosophy, we learn how to engage students in creative processes that teach them larger concepts and real life dispositions. The core subjects of each MAT student’s body of work, such as embracing family histories and identity, sustainability and environmental awareness, community, and memory serve as a starting point for themes we aim to teach our future students. 

What are your post-graduation plans?

After graduation, I am really looking forward to working as the full-time art teacher at Colvin Run Elementary School in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. I feel grateful for the opportunity to work within and give back to the school county that I grew up in and have so many fond memories of. My experiences in FCPS helped build me for success in going to MICA, and I believe that my education journey has now come full circle as my MAT MICA studies have well informed my art education practice in returning back to FCPS as a teacher.

Right now, I work as a museum educator contractor for the National Gallery of Art, and I look forward to continuing my work with them whilst I teach full-time at Colvin Run. 

A selection of work samples by Victoria Cho: 

Victoria Cho, Three Wise Women
Victoria Cho, A Celebration of Life
Victoria Cho, Lounging
Victoria Cho, Ada's Day Out
Victoria Cho, Family Business
Suryaa Rangarajan, portrait by Jill Fannon

Suryaa Rangarajan, MA in Illustration Program (MAIL)

Website: suryaarajanart.com
IG: @unfoldingme

BmoreArt: Where were you, geographically, creatively, and/or professionally, before attending MICA?

Suryaa Rangarajan: For about five years before coming to MICA, my work involved storytelling and relationship building with donors and community stakeholders for non profit organizations in the US and India. I worked to raise funds for programs providing access to quality after school education, comprehensive sexuality education, and preventing gender based violence and child sexual abuse.

Most of my creative release at the time came from designing marketing and program collateral that told empowering narratives.

Why did you select the MA in Illustration program? 

A lot changed for me during the pandemic. While I was satisfied with my job and knew that I was making a difference, a big part of me also wanted the space to explore the arts. Fortunately or unfortunately, I got COVID in 2020 and my health took a turn for the worse. I was in and out of doctors’ offices so much, I needed to decide whether I should invest time in my health or my work. I felt like I was being unfair to the children I served by not bringing my best self to my work.

Art would allow me to do that in a different way. I took about a year to recover and made art as much as I could during that time, addressing themes I was passionate about–body positivity, sexuality, intimate partner violence, self love and expression.

When I started looking at programs, I wanted to be at a school and community that was inclusive and would enable me to navigate the real world, since I was so new to the art space. MICA checked a lot of my boxes, including a diverse community, and more specifically – I was really impressed with the quality of work being produced by MICA alumni, specifically the Illustration and Graphic Design departments.

The fact that a large part of the first semester studio classes involved exploration of various mediums and streams of illustrative work was very enticing, too.

Tell us more about what and how you learn in this program.

I loved that one of the required classes during this year was focused on professional development, and that an illustration agent who worked with a company I had admired for years was leading it. I can confidently say I was not disappointed. This really has been one of my best classes, with very valuable insight.
Having looked at the breadth of work that my program director and other professors had done, I knew I would receive the guidance–in terms of career and art direction–I needed. And again, I certainly have.

What have you learned from living in Baltimore? How has your perception of the city changed–from before MICA until now?

I have had a great experience so far. Although most of what I’ve seen falls within a five mile radius of my dorm and my studio, I was lucky enough to experience the Bromo Art Walk, and have spent a significant amount of offline time at the Inner Harbor, and I treasure both. I love how integrated MICA is in the community, and I definitely feel like 1 year isn’t enough to explore everything Baltimore has to offer.

One thing I truly appreciate as a brown woman in the US–I can see the love for and effort to lift up artists and voices of color. I am a Leslie King-Hammond Fellow, and getting to meet her and learn about her journey with the other fellows has been a highlight of my year. I didn’t know how important it would be for me to feel comfortable and empowered as an artist, to be around other POC.

Tell us about your work. What are your primary materials? What are the main concepts you explore in the work? How do your materials and concepts intersect?

My journey into art started with an exploration of themes that were very personal to me, and frankly to fall back in love with myself and my body after a series of health and other issues. In some ways my art is aspirational–the women I draw are comfortable in their skin, they know who they are. They are who I want to emulate in my own life.

When I worked in the social space, I noticed that many organizations use collateral that emphasizes a tragic narrative, seeking to create an extreme reaction rather than sustainable growth. Images can have such an impact on the way we respond to things, and whether it was for healthcare, education, asylum, or anything else, I felt that most of the images used did not present communities with dignity. I knew that in whatever I created, I wanted to hold on to that dignity, to show the joy that we can have in our bodies and selves, to build on the work of activists and human rights workers who came before me with compassion and respect.

I work primarily digitally, with Procreate and Adobe Fresco. Empathy and joy are very important to my practice, and I love exploring identity, sexuality, and body positivity. I often draw inspiration from natural elements like plants, fruits, flowers, tangled vines, water, and light to explore these concepts. In addition to that, I was a dancer when I was younger and I like incorporating movement (sometimes quite literally in animated work) and varied postures in most of my work. Life is rarely still.

Since a lot of my work is about celebrating the body, our voices, and our so-called flaws, I love the infinite potential of Procreate and Adobe Fresco in layering textures, colors and mediums over each other to create something unique, “flawed,” and powerful. I often use the live brushes on Adobe Fresco, and just let the brush flow into a form and create something from that as a warm up. I also lasso a lot of my figures into the poses they are in, it feels like cutting paper to me, and trusting my scissors or my lasso tool is important to my process.

When I do work traditionally, I feel like my mark making is very dependent on how the paper interacts with my tools. I try to bring a similar conversation between canvas and tool into my digital work – letting the textures carry my story forward. This is especially true for my thesis work – where I layered multiple textures and tones on top of each other to create the fruits.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show.

It is called Medley. I was showing at Pinkard Gallery between March 24th and April 9th. Each of our bodies have variations in texture, color and discoloration, bumps and scars. We often deem ourselves worthy or not based on these variations. We often exist more for others than ourselves. We are taught that only perfection deserves love.

I have had a tough relationship with my body, counting the number of creases, folds, pimples, and additional pounds as I grew older. But I have learned to love every inch of it through art. This series is based on the idea of Wabi Sabi–the theme for our gallery show. To me, this is a process of reclamation and acceptance–of our bodies and our spaces.

In my career, I want to continue using the figure, texture, color and natural elements to make space for inclusive dialogue and complex narratives.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I would love to work with newspapers and magazines, research and non profit organizations, and publishing houses to make topics that are often difficult to talk about more accessible through editorial and narrative illustration for all ages.

I am also working on a couple of personal projects, in collaboration with sex educators and therapists, aimed at using illustrated tools to discuss consent, sex, and sexuality. I hope to create products that could be especially helpful for folks who are neurodivergent, or have been through traumatic experiences, or have changing relationships with their bodies. In general, empower folks to have agency over their sexuality and sexual expression.

If not in-house or freelance work, I am seeking a space to dive deeper into long term projects at artists residencies, and continue to be in a space where I have the opportunity to interact and grow with other artists.

A selection of work samples by Suryaa Rangarajan:

Suryaa Rangarajan, Papaya
Suryaa Rangarajan, Peachy
Suryaa Rangarajan, Mango
Suryaa Rangarajan, Dragonfruit
Suryaa Rangarajan, Tangerine

Portraits by Jill Fannon with artwork images provided by the artists

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