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CFA’s Graduate Thesis Exhibitions Are Like “Visual Poetry”

Showcasing painting and sculpture, graphic design, art education


For the past two years, painting, sculpture, graphic design, and art education graduate students in the College of Fine Arts Master of Fine Arts program have been engaged in intensive studio work. The fruits of their labor are on view in this year’s MFA Thesis Exhibitions, being held simultaneously in three galleries on campus. Each exhibition underscores the 38 graduate candidates’ virtuosity and mastery of materials.

But hurry. You only have a few more days to see the shows before they have to make way for the annual Undergraduate Thesis Exhibitions.

The MFA Painting and Sculpture Thesis Exhibition, at the 808 Gallery, features the work of 12 painters and 4 sculptors. Show curator Richard Ryan, a CFA associate professor of painting, likens the work to “visual poetry.” It’s a fitting description. Each of the pieces is thought-provoking, engaging, and multifaceted.

Acrylic and collage artwork by Jackie Feng

Lady by Jackie Feng (CFA’15).

One of the most arresting pieces is Lady by Jackie Feng (CFA’15), a brilliantly colored abstract acrylic and collaged paper on canvas. Feng says the work depicts “an ephemeral female figure constructed out of disparate parts,” and that the painting, like much of her work, revolves around issues of intimacy, aging, relationships, and the female experience. But she is quick to assert that while the painting expresses specific things for her, viewers should establish their own interpretation. “The meaning I find in my paintings won’t necessarily be the same for a viewer, since each person brings their own unique history to each piece as they see it,” Feng says.

Keenan Derby’s No Tomorrow is a giant black-and-white diptych that Derby (CFA’15) says seeks “a balance between moments of beauty and serenity existing simultaneously with violence and chaos.” The oil painting is one of eight larger works by Derby that appear alongside 12 small abstract panels he describes as a “documentation of the passage of time, the cycle of the seasons, and cosmic progressions.

“Each painting is a moment that holds a specific emotional filter processed through my own interior world,” he explains.

Many of the thesis projects are deeply personal, and in some instances, autobiographical in nature.

Watercolor mural by Josue Rojas

Son by Josue Rojas (CFA’15).

Josue Rojas (CFA’15) grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco after fleeing war in El Salvador with his family. The area was famous for murals that reflected the character of their neighborhood. Rojas’ work—large, colorful, and complex paintings and collages that are rooted in political awareness—is born out of that tradition.

“Murals express the narratives that lie at a community’s heart,” says Rojas, adding that it was through murals that he “was able to understand the world around me, my own history.” His flame-colored watercolor mural Son celebrates “brokenness, a promise of healing, and acceptance.” Man’s Way to (Face the) Music, a vibrant oil painting with acrylic, collage, crayon, and wood glue on canvas, pays tribute to Rojas’ mother. “It’s a manifestation of gratitude to my mother and the spirit that guides me through the creative process. It is a feminine energy.”

Sculpture by Meghan Sampson

Mamaspider by Meghan Samson (CFA’15).

Meghan Samson (CFA’15) is one of four sculpture students with work in the 808 Gallery show. Her main installation includes a series of porcelain heads that she says forms “an intricate web of relationships, performing the nuances of family, love, and attachment.” Each sculpture in the series is either a portrait of a member of her family or a self-portrait, but she says many of the pieces, like Mamaspider and Children, are hybrid beings that “confuse human and animal, male and female.”

The work is designed to engage the viewer directly. “It’s all about communication and storytelling,” Samson explains. “I want people to enter into the work with a sense of curiosity. I have placed the heads so they interact with the viewer. Sometimes they are surrounding the viewer, as if it is a family dinner or holiday gathering. Sometimes they are by themselves, looking off into the distance.”

This year’s MFA Graphic Design Exhibition, on view at the BU Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, features works by 16 graduate candidates. Exhibition advisor Nick Rock, a CFA assistant professor of graphic design, says the show reflects the close-knit nature of this year’s students.

“This class formed a strong bond and culture with each other this year, and I think it shows in the exhibition,” Rock says. “This may be the most significant unified group show we have had in the graphic design department. The students have worked since January to design a unified gesture and celebrate the group nature of the show. You will notice this both from the graphic and visual quality of the show, but also in the fact that their work is intermingled throughout, as opposed to being in distinct spaces for each student. I think this is a big step forward for the culture of our program.”

The show underscores the deep talent within the graphic design program: bold designs, a sharp attention to the importance of form and function, and eye-catching typography are all in evidence. Themes in the exhibition demonstrate the intense power of graphic design to engage with viewers and challenge common perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

For Alice Donovan (CFA’15), art and design are a “social movement.” Accordingly, much of her work revolves around “interaction and community activation.” Donovan’s Memories for Sale satirizes consumerism and social media through the “sale” of her childhood memories. Available for “purchase” are memories such as “a summer night on the Ocean City Boardwalk” and “a third birthday filled with a family’s love.” Donovan says that in an effort to create a more interactive experience, viewers are being urged to submit their own memories as well.

Faux MBTA tickets designed by Alice Donovan

Commuter Therapy by Alice Donovan (CFA’15).

Another of Donovan’s projects, Commuter Therapy, has already received attention from the likes of the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV. Frustrated by the MBTA’s infamous inefficiency during this past winter’s record snowfall, Donovan designed and laser cut “Optimism Tickets,” faux train tickets meant to brighten the mood of weary commuters with upbeat messages like “Smile” and “Everything is going to be okay.”

This past February, she handed out hundreds of the tickets at crowded commuter areas, including the Park Street T station. The reaction, she says, was “overwhelming and totally exciting” and taught her something about the power of art, design, and personal experience. “All people want is to feel connected, and that is what this project did for commuters,” she  says. “Art and design should be used as a tool to create and cultivate these connections, and I truly believe that that starts with understanding the people around you and figuring out how to reach them.”

Typography graphic design piece by Katie Leech

Type Specimen Newspaper: Mood Font Family by M. Katie Leech (CFA’15).

As part of her thesis project, graphic designer M. Katie Leech (CFA’15) created an entirely new typeface, called Mood Font Family, a dynamic typography that she hopes captures the emotions she experienced struggling with dyslexia. She uses typeface to establish an emotional narrative arc for her own experiences with dyslexia, one that she hopes will have an impact on viewers as well. “People walking around looking at this work may have some of the same emotions and experiences,” she says. “Connecting with even one person is important.”

The third component of the annual MFA exhibitions is the Art Education MA Thesis Exhibition, which is on view at Gallery 5 on CFA’s fifth floor. Students in the MA Studio Teaching and Art Education programs focus on ways to teach children and teenagers how to think visually and create art. The exhibition includes written descriptions of the philosophies the six graduate students have developed in their student teaching, placed alongside their pupils’ drawings, sculptures, and more.

The exhibition marks an emotional culmination for each of the graduate candidates. “There’s nothing more exciting, testing, and in many ways bittersweet than preparing for the public display of one’s work,” says Rojas. “It’s a public showing of my inner life.”

The MFA Painting and Sculpture Thesis Exhibition is at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, April 26; hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1  to 5 p.m. The MFA Graphic Design Thesis Exhibition is at the BU Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, April 26; hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. The Art Education MA Thesis Exhibition is on view at CFA’s Gallery 5, 855 Commonwealth Ave., fifth floor, through Friday, April 24; open during normal building hours. All are free and open to the public and are within walking distance of one another.

Samantha Pickette can be reached at pickette@bu.edu.

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