Four Emerging Artists to Watch: MICA MFA and MA Graduates II

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Throughout the Baltimore region, there is a consistent abundance of high quality visual art. One main reason that international art careers are started in Baltimore 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 second interview series we offer you studio visits with Mama Sallah, Rinehart School of Sculpture, Sandy Cheng, Curatorial Practice MFA, Alejandro Aquilar Canela, MFA in Illustration plus a Certificate for College Teaching of Art, and 秋秋 Qiu Qiu, MFA in Community Arts.



Mama Sallah, details from Unimaginable Pain, thesis show at MICA

Mama Sallah, Rinehart School of Sculpture

@sallahjenkins @rinehart.sculpture.mica

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

Before I came to MICA I was still in Baltimore of course, just finished teaching an arts summer camp I think it was. I was still grieving my mother at the time and I had not seen my sister in 35 years. I went to see my sister in 2020 before I joined the program in 2021. So in 2020/2021 before I went to Rinehart, COVID wasn’t resolved so I taught a lot of online ceramic workshops and I taught after-school summer camp online. I didn’t do much of my studio work, most of my work was teaching and the art that I made for my students, but for myself, I wasn’t doing a lot. One thing I did do during this time was create a work “Women of the Pandemic” which consisted of 12 oil pastel “paintings” of women.

Why did you select this particular program? 

First of all, I had no intentions on going back to school, I was encouraged to go back to school by a friend. And I wanted to go into a program other than ceramics because I was comfortable where I was in ceramics. My spirit had been calling for wood and steel and I was already a sculptor, but I wanted to make larger pieces so I decided that Rinehart School of Sculpture was the way to go. Before I applied I read about the director. Her name was Jann Rosen Queralt, and I really admired her style of teaching and working so I became really eager to join the program.

By the time I got to Rinehart, Jann was retired and my director was Dolores Zinny whom I love dearly too, and has encouraged me a lot to just keep working. Rinehart affords me the opportunity to use new tools, how to weld, how to use saws and to build large as well as getting to meet great artists and curators from the top museums in the country. MICA really afforded me to do some of the things that I really dreamed of, they afforded me the resources to create any damn thing that I wanted.

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

The Baltimore now is totally a different Baltimore from what I’ve known it to be. The city changing doesn’t stop my eagerness to learn new things and to go to school. I love learning and learning new things so whether the city changes or not that doesn’t stop my eagerness. The city can fall apart, but as long as there’s a school that I’m interested in that I can go to, and if it wouldn’t have been MICA it would have been somewhere because that’s how I feel about school.

Joining the MICA community hasn’t really changed my perception of Baltimore, even at MICA Baltimore is still Baltimore. There are still good sides of Baltimore and not so good sides of Baltimore. I wish MICA could be more involved in Baltimore’s community. But when I look at MICA, I don’t really see that. I wanted to encourage the students to come here and take their education seriously, there’s millions of people out there who think they’re great artists, so take your learning seriously and do your work. Do work that’s on a professional level.

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 work is to eradicate what I call historical erasure of Black and Indigenous people in America–that’s why my thesis surrounds Emmitt Till. My primary materials are found objects, steel, and wood. Systemic racism is a common theme in my work. My idea is to always tell a story.

My work is spiritually driven and I need to listen to the spirits and the ancestors because I have stories to tell. Sometimes I think it would be nice to do purely aesthetic art like pretty flowers, but I have a story that needs to be told. I have been chosen to be that kind of artist, I consider myself a vessel for these stories to be told and retold. The only thing I have to do is use my hands and my eyes to create.

People have said to me more than once that my show is brutal, gruesome, etc. But once the spirit tells me to create a piece and where it’s going, no curators have ever told me to move my work. I don’t pick anything, it’s already chosen for me. Some call me a sacred artist, but I don’t call myself that. None of it would be possible without the creator. That’s why I’m always grateful for the creator to be in my life because I get a chance to tell stories with my art.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show, where it is, and how you want it to resonate with viewers?

My thesis show is titled Unimaginable Pain. The exhibit gives a realistic look through sculptural interpretation of Emmitt’s body, the murder kit, his mother’s perspective, the mostly white jury that didn’t convict the murderers and the boy’s room. The way I want viewers to perceive it is through the truth of the art.

I want them to see the brutality, instead of just seeing the body, I want them to see the body and the murder kit. I want them to see just what it was like for a 14 year old to experience that kind of brutality. People kept thinking I was going to put the body in the casket, but the spirits kept saying they wanted the viewers to see exactly what was done to the child. It was on view at Fred Lazarus IV Center’s Riggs Gallery between April 14 and April 30th, 2023. It will be exhibiting again this year, follow @rinehart.sculpture.mica for more updates.

What are your post-graduation plans?

My plans are to get rest, apply to some residencies to get a break from teaching for a bit and then after that I think I will teach 2nd grade. I’ve already taught 6-12 and substituted, but I’d like to teach 2nd grade, although I’d be happy to teach anywhere from 2nd grade to college level. A dream I have is to open my own art school for elementary aged children. I hope to find a nice big studio sometime soon to be able to continue creating my art.

Studio image by Mama Sallah
Mama Sallah, details from Unimaginable Pain, thesis show at MICA
Studio image by Mama Sallah
Mama Sallah Jenkins, photo by Jill Fannon


Sandy Cheng, Frequent Goodbyes, photo by Vivian Doering
Sandy Cheng, photo by Jill Fannon

Sandy Cheng, Curatorial Practice MFA

@ssandy.cheng @micacuratorial

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

Prior to attending MICA, I was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in visual art and design from my hometown of Tainan, Taiwan. During that time, I spent a lot of time hiking and painting landscapes of Taiwan’s breathtaking natural scenery. As I did not have the opportunity to grow up in Taiwan, this was a way for me to connect with and learn about the land.

Why did you select this particular program? 

I chose the MICA CP program for its unique emphasis on contemporary art. Compared to other programs in the US and around the world, I appreciated that CP offered hands-on experience working with contemporary artists, while also balancing collaboration and socially engaged practices with academic research in history and theory. Additionally, what really stood out to me were the exceptional professors, who each had expertise in various art disciplines and were incredibly supportive in encouraging students to explore their passions. Overall, the CP program has a warm and welcoming community that fosters creativity and growth.

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

Upon moving to Baltimore, I received warnings from my roommates about certain areas to avoid, but I held onto the belief that there must be something valuable waiting for me in the city! Through my experiences, I have learned about the meaning of community and witnessed firsthand how people support and care for each other in this cultural context. I did not have a preconceived perception of Baltimore, as I approached the city with an open mind and allowed myself to fully experience all it had to offer.

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?

As someone who has been exposed to many different cultures, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the differences that exist between people. This interest in cultural influences has strongly informed my curatorial practice. I am fascinated about the ability of art to create connections and foster understanding, which is why I explore how artists from diverse backgrounds incorporate their cultural perspectives and experiences into their work. I believe that by bringing together works of art from diverse sources, we can better understand each other and appreciate the unique ways in which our experiences shape our creative output.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show, where it is, and how you want it to resonate with viewers?

The title of my thesis show, frequent goodbyes, represents an exploration of the experiences of third culture kids and the complex nature of cultural identity. The show aims to shed light on the unique challenges faced by those who have spent a significant portion of their childhood living outside of their passport countries, and on either side of their parents’ cultures.

The show presents a diverse range of works that speak to the theme of cultural hybridity and the search for identity. Through a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, and video, the works on display challenge traditional notions of cultural identity and explore the idea of a global citizenry. Ultimately, my goal with frequent goodbyes is to encourage viewers to reflect on the rich diversity of human  experiences and to consider how we might bridge differences and create a more inclusive and connected world.

What are your post-graduation plans?

As I approach the end of my MICA journey, I am about the next chapter of my professional career. My post-graduation plan is to stay in the DMV area, and I look forward to exploring new ways to engage with local artists and to working collaboratively to bring their work to a wider audience.

Sandy Cheng, Frequent Goodbyes, photo by Vivian Doering
Sandy Cheng, Frequent Goodbyes, photo by Vivian Doering


Alejandro Aguilar Canela, How to Stand Against Adversity, 2022, Mechanical Pencil on Vellum
Alejandro Aguilar Canela, photo by Jill Fannon

Alejandro Aquilar Canela, MFA in Illustration plus a Certificate for College Teaching of Art

@alejandrocanela @mfa_ilp

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

Before beginning my MFA at MICA, I worked as an Art Director at an advertising agency in Mexico City while also pursuing my personal work as an illustrator, primarily using microns and acrylic on paper. I frequently participated in small gallery exhibitions and art markets, where I sold original pieces and various merchandise. I was fortunate enough to have my work featured in group shows around the world, including Canada, Germany, Brussels, and the 2018 Miami Art Basel.

Although most of my work was 2D, I experimented with painting ceramic vases. However, despite my enjoyment of the process, I ultimately found it lacking in dimension. Due to my demanding work schedule, I found myself feeling stuck in a rut and too tired to dedicate much time to drawing. It became frustrating to feel like I wasn’t able to pursue my passion. So I decided to quit my job.

Why did you select this particular program?

The Illustration Practice program at MICA immediately caught my attention when I first read its description. It combines the business aspects of illustration with the theoretical and critical aspects, all while encouraging every student to experiment with different materials and perspectives of what this discipline can be. It felt well-rounded from the beginning, and now that I am finishing the program, I can confidently say that it is. The program pushes you far beyond your comfort zone, allowing for immense personal growth. The creative process becomes just as relevant as the final piece, leading to a transformation in one’s confidence and preparedness.

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

At first glance, Baltimore felt like a strange city to me. Not necessarily in a negative way, but it didn’t feel like a natural fit. However, over time, I began to discover how welcoming and accepting the city truly was. Strangers on the street would compliment me, store employees were friendly, and people held doors open for one another, which may sound insignificant but it’s actually an excellent representation of a city’s mood.

Additionally, my artistic work was received with open arms. I began to appreciate how Baltimore helped me stay focused on my work and discover hidden gems throughout the city. It’s important to note that I know this is not an entirely accurate description of the city, as Baltimore does face many social problems. However, MICA does provide a bubble of sorts, serving as a safe space that you can come and go from depending on your interests. Recently, it has become clear to me, perhaps too late, the magnitude of the artistic community outside of MICA that I am looking forward to exploring.

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 work is predominantly monochromatic and non-digital, often in black and white or blue and white. I’ve found that working without color allows me to achieve a certain rawness that I find very appealing. I primarily use ink and/or pencil to create intricate and uniform textures that evolve into characters that depict a range of emotions.

Through my work, I aim to create a language that everyone can understand and use for their emotional well-being. With that being said, I don’t create pieces solely for myself, but for the audience in mind. I draw from my personal experiences as a neurodivergent individual who has lived with dysthymia for 15 years to analyze mundane situations and represent the core sentimentality behind them. I strive to capture the unspoken and unseen emotions that can truly clarify the purpose of our actions and existence.

What is the title of your thesis show?

Creatures Without Memory is an experiment on emotions, a lesson to learn about the dark part of our psyche that has the purpose to be, in the end, a positive, hopeful outcome. It is within narrow walls where we learn to appreciate the outside, the mundane, the simple act of being.

A book written and illustrated from a neurodiverse perspective comes to talk about the depression, anxiety and overthinking of the day to day in order to spark a conversation about mental health, without addressing directly the subject but its insides. It is the point of view of the unspoken, the uncomfortable, the constant poking of emotions we actively avoid without knowing the importance of listening to them, those key pieces that create paths to a deeper self-analysis.

The visual imagery accompanying every poem in its pages is not a representation or ornament of the words, but an extension of them; they don’t exist as separate parts but as one piece shaped by two disciplines who seek each other in order to create a bigger spectrum on a situation or emotion. A thesis created to explore your mental state, and act upon it.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I am interested in teaching, that’s one of the reasons why I did the Certificate for College Teaching of Art while doing my MFA, so my plan is to pursue a career in Art Education while continue to do publications and gallery exhibitions of personal work.

Alejandro Aguilar Canela, Family Portrait of People I Still Remember, 2022, Digital Illustration
Alejandro Aguilar Canela, Flower, 2023, Mechanical Pencil on Paper



秋秋 Qiu Qiu, weeds II; 2023; mixed media
秋秋 Qiu Qiu, portrait by Jill Fannon

秋秋 Qiu Qiu, MFA in Community Arts

Graduate Program Assistant, @community_arts_mfa
Communications & Development Manager, WombWork Productions, Inc.
Columnist, Inkstick Media
Artist website:

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

Right before MICA, I had been spending my summer in New York City working on promoting more widespread discussions about the intersections of art, nuclear weapons, and political events broadly. Most notably, I had been partnering with the Noguchi Museum to make a brief exhibitions documentary alongside some fellow Asian creatives in the city for their special exhibition Memorial to the Atomic Dead.

Unfortunately, our video project ran into a few too many complications, but I was still able to take all the knowledge gained from the experience and publish it as an article with The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Why did you select this particular program? 

If not for the Community Arts MFA at MICA, I may never have agreed to attend art school in the first place. My biggest hesitation to trying for an MFA, aside from the fact that I’ve never been formally trained in art and got my Bachelors in chemistry, was an impression that MFA programs would be stuffy and elitist.

I was uninterested in art classrooms that prized aesthetics above all else, even above human well-being and the politics involved in collective well-being. The MFA in Community Arts program, however, exists for the exact purpose of addressing those concerns I have. That’s not to say our program ignores or even rejects aesthetics; rather, we actively choose to consider the aesthetics alongside the political implications and backgrounds to the choices we all make with a shared goal of increased community uplift.

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

I hadn’t known anyone or anything about Baltimore prior to coming to MICA. I hadn’t seen The Wire so didn’t even have a Hollywood version of the city’s story in my head prior to coming. I had, however, of course heard the usual lay-person review of “Isn’t that city really dangerous?” This feedback had never really deterred me from coming to MICA though because I heard the same remarks all throughout undergrad about Houston’s 5th Ward–a predominantly Black and underserved neighborhood.

I expected, at minimum, neutral experiences in Baltimore. But thanks to the unique positioning of being in the Community Arts program, I’ve been privileged to witness extreme moments of beauty, community care, and solidarity across multiple neighborhoods. Yes, perhaps the city has faced some extreme levels of hardship and violence. But despite the difficulties, Baltimore has germinated a community culture so rich, so inspiring, and so heartwarming that I feel only the collective strength and joy for its residents when I think about my time here.

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?

Before coming to MICA, I’d consider myself primarily an illustrator-type of art maker, and a hobbyist level at that! Since being here, I’ve done my best to find time for as much exploration into new mediums and practices as possible. I’ve still a lot left to learn.

Conceptually, I’d say my practice hinges on two key beliefs: That everything is political and that the only story one can individually, validly tell is their own. Both my art making and nuclear policy work thrive on finding and assessing the invisible threads connecting everything: the pseudo-vulnerability popular in online content from Gen Z and Gen Alpha with society’s ability (or inability) to critically consume news or understand complex international affairs, Olivia Rodrigo’s teenage break up album Sour with cultural identity and the politics of race and gender, and always, always, always more.

What is the title of your thesis show? Please give us a sense of depth and breadth of the show, where it is, and how you want it to resonate with viewers?

The title of my thesis show is Ideological State Apparatus. I found the term from Kathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings in which she mentions a 1990 journal article about Japanese Mothers and the O-bento as a mechanism for cultural and ideological control–an ideological state apparatus. The term struck a chord with me as I had lately been feeling like much of my existence to the general public was as an ideological state apparatus.

I felt as if I was something, rather than someone, that strangers could hold up high as an example for promoting their own narratives. That Chinese people are brainwashed if I expressed even just marginal support for the country of my birth. That the Chinese government is fabricating their population’s overall support for the government regime if I expressed even just marginal critiques of the system. That I was a poor, pitiable baby girl saved by the modernized, white Westerners by being internationally adopted. So, over the last year or so, I’ve sought out to construct my thesis show such that I can be the bard screaming, sobbing, throwing up / laughing, skipping, and hugging through my own epic. My and my cohort’s main thesis show was on exhibit at the Enoch Pratt Central Branch from May 8 to June 30, 2023.

What are your post-graduation plans?

Despite my deep affection for Baltimore, I plan to move to Philadelphia to move in with my best friend from undergrad. I’ll be keeping my current full-time appointment with the social justice, performing arts non-profit WombWork Productions with a focus on grant writing, social media, and website development. I’ll certainly be back to visit Baltimore quite often, however, to stay connected with the community I’ve built thus far in this city. In Philadelphia though, I also hope to further a new potential community partnership that focuses on transracial adoptee experiences.

秋秋 Qiu Qiu, salt, fat, acid, heat; 2023; mixed media
秋秋 Qiu Qiu, greater than the sum of our parts; 2023, mixed media
秋秋 Qiu Qiu, like the empty promises of all my favorite song lyrics; 2023, acrylic on canvas
秋秋 Qiu Qiu, Banana Series No. 2: Dragon Lady; 2023; mixed media
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