The graduating Studio Art MFA cohort is hard at work installing its thesis exhibition in·position, on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center from April 23 through May 22. We spoke with the artists to learn about their artistic journeys while enrolled in the program and the way that viewers’ expectations play a part in their practice.
This is the first MFA exhibition open to the public at American University since the pandemic began. Join us at the opening reception on Saturday, April 23, at 6:30 p.m. Review AU’s COVID-19 protocols on vaccinations, testing, and masking before attending.
Since starting the program, I’ve been circling back to older ideas and incorporating a lot of learned lessons and developed skillsets. There were many limitations from the pandemic that made my work adapt and evolve. It went from videos, prints, and installations to hybridizations as social practice. Now the plants that grow intertwine with these digital expressions.
The work Grow & Unite is a social engagement forum that uses the gift plants to activate community. Everyone occupies the earth in a variety of “positions.” This piece is meant to encourage personal growth through care for one another and the plants. It developed out of an interest in blind consent given to corporations. I believe our own positions are weaponized to hurt and divide the masses. Plant-life can help. It can teach and nourish, even heal. We need to preserve and heal what is left in our ecosystems.
I believe that expectations can be important. Some perspectives are based on them or the inversion of expectation. I guess that we often imagine a lesser version of reality. There are infinite outcomes and I try to inspire and question expectations with my art.
The progression of my artwork since beginning the program is best illustrated with a newly found understanding of space, which has expanded to include sculpture and installation work. The genus or catalyst that inspired this evolution was the profound cultural and environmental change that I experienced when I relocated from South Korea to America. These changes served to guide and influence my quest for discovery—of both origin and identity—through materials in my studio practice.
This change also inspired new forms and meaning in the materials that I use. I was raised surrounded by natural materials, which contrasts with the synthetic materials easily found in American material culture. My reuse of materials illustrates the Taoist belief that all matter existing in the universe circulates to maintain balance and harmony in·position. The life source and auspicious energies are perceived to construct a perfect circle.
Viewers' expectations are a component of the process. Viewers are challenged to contemplate, and hence become more aware of the multitude of material circulating and recycled. The viewer is solicited for this contemplation and understanding, whether they are cognizant of this fact or not. Everything is connected and should be protected at every step of its respective lifespan. My work in recycling forms symbolizes an axis mundi—connection to heaven and earth, mind, and matter, all to restore order and hopefully function as a community gift or shrine.
Since beginning the program my work has become more focused, specifically on mental health. It’s been challenging to find my voice through the materials that interest me, like fabric and yarn, but by making a lot of bad art I’ve learned so much about how to make things that I like!
The pieces in this show speak from my own “position” as a registered nurse and individual with an anxiety disorder. There is a delicate balance between telling my personal narrative and connecting with the broader public, and I hope my work starts to enter that space.
Throughout the program, I’ve learned that I can focus too much on getting a specific reaction from the viewer, instead of letting the work start an open conversation. In this show, I am presenting the audience with evidence of my research into nursing, myself, and mental illness, giving them space to reflect on it as they wish.
Kevin Michael Runyon
My process of making work before enrolling in the program at AU was always a bit reactionary to itself, meaning I would often react to a choice, or series of choices or moves, made within a work to explore an overall concept or composition. Perhaps my first year here was an organic progression of that process, and a continued ethic of studio practice. A sort of clocking in and getting back to task. As the pandemic swept, I found myself reacting not to the work but to the situation. Without studio access, I found a new interest in the platform of digital art, in sketching and oddly enough a return to songwriting that completely changed how I approach work and continues to influence my current studio painting practice and process.
Immediately, I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about the title in·position. What could we possibly be in-position for, in the stark reality of the evolving pandemic? It sat with me, and I realized that, through multiple lenses, this truly encapsulates what we are emerging from or awakening to, both socially and conceptually, and as artists we are in a constant state of declaring our positionality and understanding and reactions to times and places we live.
I don’t think expectations necessarily play a role in my work; however, the role of the viewer is incredibly important. I do consider the experience of the viewer, and how a person experiences, really, anything. I think art has this incredible platform to inspire engagement, to challenge perception, and ultimately speak of truths or even non-truths. How one “sees” or “reads” a thing has become incredibly important, because it begs the question of how someone presents a thing, and why it’s being presented.
I came into the program as a seasoned digital photographer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized that I would have to shift mediums because locations and people were not as accessible as they had been in the past. I decided to use my time in grad school to experiment and play with different digital mediums, namely audio and video collage.
For four years, I worked as an early childhood educator in a predominantly immigrant and refugee community of students and families. This experience forced me to reflect on my own upbringing and family legacy. I realized that I lack a living family archive of narratives and lived experiences that are important for me to understand who I am and where I’m from. My research and subsequent artwork is an exercise in grappling with this reality in hopes of better understanding my position within the African Diaspora and DC communities at large.
This work is deeply personal to me, and as such, I don’t allow expectations of others to shape or inform this work. However, I hope that this work can serve as an invitation for audiences to examine their own family legacies and reflect on how those narratives have played a role in shaping their positionality.
Throughout my time at AU, my studio practice has expanded into realms of sculpture, and I have continued to rely heavily on material exploration. My work has become more inherently personal as I explore the relationship I have with my body; I have also discovered ways to integrate both beauty and abnormality in my pieces simultaneously.
The beauty of a program like ours is the intimate relationships we are able to cultivate with one another. The exhibition’s title in·position expresses our positionalities while acknowledging our connections to each other. My artwork is a snapshot of how I move through the world and my body’s impact on it.
The artwork I make comes from my own experiences and material exploration. I do hope that the viewers’ expectations are subverted by the seductive, repulsive, and bodily nature of the sculptures.
I consider my work to be interdisciplinary, experimental, and wide ranging in nature. I traverse many modes of visual communication in an attempt to discover the cultural significance of objects and the inherent symbolism embedded within them. Researching where I come from while also searching for truth in my own personal history, I explore themes of culture and tradition from rural America to create personal reliquaries of memory and emotion. This work allows me to speak to not only who I am, but also to a part of American society that is often overlooked and under-explored within the context of contemporary art.
Shiloah Symone Coley
Since starting the program, I’ve expanded to work in an anti-disciplinary collage fashion across a plethora of mediums, which allows me to be more concept driven. I now factor in time, video, and sound, which were mediums I’d incorporated in my practice as a journalism student, but hadn't integrated into my artistic practice until this program.
in·position acknowledges that all our perspectives have evolved from the different positionalities we hold. In my work, I seek to challenge those perspectives, in part constructed by what narratives we believe to be true.
I don’t think about viewers’ expectations because I have no control over those. However, I do hope that my work inspires the viewer to ask more questions about the media they consume and if/how they participate in constructing cultural narratives that have real world implications.
Photos by Dylan Singleton