Graduate student artists persevere during pandemic and find new inspiration

Penn Master of Fine Arts students are not only adapting to this year’s challenges, but are pushing their work in different directions, as they continue to paint, draw, sculpt, photograph, and film during the pandemic.

Kay (Seohyung) Lee works on a large canvas on in her studio.
Master of Fine Arts students at Penn—including Kay (Seohyung) Lee (pictured above, in her campus studio), Amrita Stützle, and Patricia Renee Thomas—continue to pursue their artwork projects during the pandemic.

Graduate student artists at Penn are not only adapting to this year’s challenges, but discovering new inspiration as they continue to paint, draw, sculpt, perform, photograph, and film during the pandemic.

“You don’t stop being an artist because you don’t have a studio. You don’t stop being an artist because you don’t have access to a fabrication lab. Being an artist is much more than material needs and habits. It is about testing the situation that confronts you.” says Ken Lum, who is a practicing artist, professor, and chair of the Department of Fine Arts in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

“An artist is an artist especially in the face of difficulties. The MFA students have taken it to heart. They have been incredibly resourceful in both their thinking and making of art.”

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program is following a hybrid teaching model: Classes continue to be virtual, while studios and fabrication labs that were closed in the spring were reopened before the fall semester. Hours at the studios in the Morgan Building are restricted to reduce the number of people in the building at the same time, available during assigned time blocks on the weekdays, and some Saturdays, as opposed to the usual 24/7 access.

The studio is critical for painter Patricia Renee Thomas, who uses materials that require professional ventilation, like oil paints and spray paints and gouache, and her third-floor rowhouse apartment is not equipped. So while the Morgan studios were closed, she turned her attention to examining surroundings outside in her home city of Philadelphia, and sketching instead of painting.

“All projects came to a halt. The shock of losing access to your work, it’s like writing a book and losing the file,” says Thomas, in her second year of the two-year MFA degree. “I decided to start completely unrelated bodies of work. I was drawing grass and making studies of ivy. I went old-fashioned. I made visual studies of things I would pass by.”

Patricia Renee Thomas painting a canvas in her studio wearing a face mask
Thomas is incorporating the natural world she examined during the summer into her paintings this academic year.

When she returned to the studio to paint again, she didn’t finish the pieces there, deciding instead to incorporate her summer discoveries exploring nature in new works. Self-portraits about the Black body and experience—typically defined by a riot of bright pinks, yellows, oranges—now prominently feature various gradients of green in the leaves of plants and trailing vines.

“As artists we all want to ensure that we are talking about things that are happening,” Thomas says. “Because our art is a reflection of how we are perceiving the world. If the world is changing, our art changes.”

The fine arts fabrication labs in the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, with saws and tools and technicians, have been available by appointment, as have the photo darkrooms, this semester. Borrowing camera and video equipment requires reservations and there are limits on the length of the loans.

“There are so many new protocols. The experience is highly compromised, but we’ve told students they have to concentrate even more: You have to make do. You have these ideas, you have to work with what is available to you,” Lum says. “I think it has made them better artists.”

Amrita Stützle, an Austrian-born artist who works in photography and video, has been using the darkroom to create her silver gelatin prints, and the studio space to edit her photos and create an installation of video projection incorporating fabric. When the campus closed in the spring, she returned to her home in Syracuse, New York, and went on walks and runs and gardened with her mother.

Amrita Stützle holds a large sheet of prints while wearing a mask in her studio.
Stützle is using her campus studio to edit photographs and create a video installation.

“I felt like everything shifted and understanding what was important before had to be reconsidered,” says Stützle, also a second-year MFA student. “Some of that has seeped into what I’m making now, considering the body in a certain landscape, farming, agriculture, spirituality, and in the summer and this fall that became part of my research. What I’m choosing to focus on is directly affected by the moment we are living in.”

Currently there are 22 students in the MFA program: 14 are in their second year, and eight in their first year, half the class deciding to defer a year because of the pandemic. Five students are pursuing dual degrees, two through a new collaboration with the School of Social Policy & Practice combining the MFA with a Master of Social Work, and three are pursuing degrees in historic preservation, landscape architecture, and city planning in the Weitzman School.

“Art is about responding creatively to the moment,” Lum says. “I have seen the MFAs respond to his difficult moment in the most profound ways.”

Artist Kay (Seohyung) Lee, who is from South Korea, usually works on large-scale paintings, but started delving into a variety of other materials before the pandemic. She was completing a large-scale sculpture, covering canvas with sourdough starter that created a cracked, textured surface. Abandoned when the studios closed in the spring, when she returned, it had collapsed.

Kay (Seohyung) Lee, wearing a face mask, paints on a canvas in her studio.
Lee is creating smaller works at her home studio but will continue working on her larger paintings in her campus studio.

“That was so sad to go back to my studio and see the work I had built was ruined,” says Lee, also a second-year MFA student. “But that’s the risk in working with organic material.”

Choosing to create a studio in her apartment during the pandemic, she changed both the size and the subject of her artworks. First, she turned to animation, and then to pencil drawings, now creating works that are about 8-by-10 inches that incorporate her Asian identity.

“I refused to use that as a subject matter for the longest time, but right now I’m working on a series of drawings and paintings at the moment that deals with Asian bodies,” she says. “I am making drawings and paintings that consist of multiple clones of myself, Asian girls encountering chaos and havoc in this natural setting.”

The new series, she says, is reflecting her fears of the coronavirus and also the discrimination she feels being Asian during the pandemic. Titled Hellscape, the series is “mostly expressing my discomfort and dissatisfaction with spaces around me, spaces around my body, my culture, my religion. It helps me process all these things going in my head.”

Lee plans to continue the large paintings when she regularly returns to the campus studio, but in the meantime she says she is “using this time to try new things I’ve never done before.”

The MFA program encourages interdisciplinary study and experimenting with various forms of art making. “A student has license to experiment, and they should take advantage of that,” Lum says. “We are not an art school. We are an art department within a world-leading research university.”

Patricia Renee Thomas, Amrita Stützle and Kay (Seohyung) Lee, each seated in their own studios.
Master of Fine Arts students Patricia Renee Thomas, Amrita Stützle, and Kay (Seohyung) Lee in their Morgan Building studios on Penn’s campus.

The students say they are finding the videoconference course sessions to be collaborative, and the time at home efficient for their research. Some classes have been surprisingly successful precisely because they are online, Lum says. One that has been a big hit this semester, he says, is Art World Exchange: Major curators, artists, and writers spoke to the class through videoconference.

“Without the pandemic, most of them would have said no. But now they deploy their smartphones and are able to offer an intimate tour of their work in their studio. A convivial context is created whereby they respond to student questions in a more personal way, despite the mediation of a computer screen.” Lum says. “Artists want to do this. They want to share their work. They want to show others how they have responded to the moment.”

The chance to gather together to show their work and get feedback from faculty and fellow students, called critiques, is what the students say they are missing the most, now possible only through videoconference. Also they are disappointed that they cannot display their work to the public in the end-semester art shows.

A thesis statement, portfolio, and exhibition are the foundation of the MFA degree requirements.

In early 2021, the Department will be launching a virtual exhibition space for both graduate and undergraduate fine arts students, to show this year’s work. In the spring, Lum says Penn will partner with seven other universities to create 2020 MFA, a virtual exhibition space, and in May or June create an in-person exhibition in New York City.

The artworks he expects will be different than other years, and will reflect the experience of the pandemic. “I think it is better because it has tested them,” Lum says. “For a young artist still in formation that is a valuable experience to go through.”

Homepage image: MFA student Patricia Renee Thomas is working on an oil painting of herself in a ghillie suit, which is used for camouflage.

A large bright painting on canvas by MFA student Patricia Renee Thomas
Patricia Renee Thomas: “Camouflage,” 2020, oil and spray paint on canvas. (Image: courtesy of Kravets-Wehby Gallery)

Patricia Renee Thomas

Philadelphia-born and raised, Thomas has been drawing and painting since she was a child, focused on what she calls the “investigation of skin.”

“I was aware of colorism growing up as not very fair for a Black person. I started early in the research of the demonizing of dark skin,” she says. “I was hyper-aware of the skin before I knew the nuances of what that meant.”

In undergraduate school at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, she studied depictions of Black people in advertisements from the Jim Crow era to today’s social media, and incorporated what she discovered in her paintings.

“I wanted to redefine this visual language for myself so it doesn’t hurt me so much. It became a conduit to investigate other things,” she says. Right before the pandemic, she had an exhibition of her work at the Kapp Kapp Gallery in Philadelphia, which she describes as a body of work about the visual and laborious process of doing a set of African-American hair.

During the early months of the pandemic, Thomas ventured outside to reconsider her relationship with nature “and why I don’t trust it very much.” When she returned to the studio on Penn’s campus her new work is seen “through the language of nature and motivated by my memory and body’s relationship to it, and color, lots of color,” she says.

“I think it is something very primal to have this connection with trees and fresh air. I haven’t taught myself how to be immersed in it,” she says. “I’ll take myself on a hike and I still don’t love it. I don’t feel protected. Who is allowed to be in these spaces and be protected?”

She recounts the episodes of Black people being questioned, whether in Central Park or the wilds of the woods. “In my paintings I am investigating myself in these places,” she says. “With COVID, I was thinking about the healing abilities of nature and how I want to access that.”

Oil and guache painting titled Wissahickon by Kay Seohyung Lee.
Kay (Seohyung) Lee: “Wissahickon,” 2020, gouache on paper, from the “Hellscape” series. (Image: courtesy of the artist)

Kay (Seohyung) Lee

It was not only the chance, but the encouragement, to experiment with new art forms that brought Lee to Penn, also drawn by the diversity of the faculty.

“I wanted to make sure I was in a grad program where I felt safe and comfortable expressing things I believe in, and have them be met with some degree of understanding,” she says.

Department Chair Ken Lum and sculptor Michelle Lopez, have been particularly supportive, she says. “We have that common knowledge of being an Asian artist in the U.S. right now. They help me to think about how to fight against the bias we face and really helped me focus on being an artist.”

Witnessing hostilities against Asians around the world during the pandemic, she says has not felt safe, a “terrifying feeling” that she poured into her artwork and research, resulting in her new series titled Hellscape that features female Asian bodies.

Lee was born and raised in Seoul and she went to high school and college in the United States, graduating with a fine arts degree from Washington University.

Throughout her studies at Penn, she says, the Fine Arts faculty has been encouraging her to try various artforms. Professor Joshua Mosely, she says, led her to animation. Professor Sharon Hayes urged her to experiment with video and performance. Lopez supports her work in sculpture. Lum suggested public art is her calling.

“I have thought of myself as a painter for so long,” she says. “I have never done any of these before, but they are always encouraging me to try something new. It is incredible to see how this program encourages you to fail and to learn from that and take that to another place.”

Lee will be teaching Drawing 1 to undergraduates in the spring, which is the first class she took in fine arts: “It is just full circle.”

Two black and white photos side by side by MFA student Amrita Stützle.
Amrita Stützle: Stills from her 2020 short film, “The Gardens of the West.” (Images: courtesy of the artist)

Amrita Stützle

Combining her Austrian roots with her Upstate New York upbringing and her appreciation for family land in eastern Washington, Stützle says her international outlook makes its way into her work as she tries to examine aspects of identity.

A photography major at Syracuse University, after graduation she worked at a small nonprofit that supports emerging photographers, for five years assisting other artists. Primarily she worked as a printmaker and built educational programming.

Stützle decided to continue her own artistic education at Penn to focus on her practice as a photographer and video artist, but also expand upon those pursuits. She had considered taking her work into installation and sculpture, but the pandemic precluded that opportunity.

“Finally at this point in time I am getting excited about what I have been making,” she says. “I am choosing to work more with agriculture, and considering the land, which is more possible at this time than working with people. What I’m choosing to focus on is directly affected by the moment we are living in.”

A storyboard up in her studio on campus, she says she’s been working on a film about the land in Washington, the agricultural business there now, and the use of the land in the past. She is researching Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, she says, thinking about how agriculture was used as a justification for colonization of the West.

Regularly shooting photographs and sifting through those she took during the summer, she is considering creating a book. She will be teaching a photography course to undergrads in the summer 2021 semester.

“This is a moment of recalibration. Honestly considering why we make work, what work is important to make now, and what is driving us, has been something really fruitful,” she says. “In terms of making work for my thesis, I feel like I’ve pushed myself, and I hope to push myself more in the spring, and hopefully the work reflects that.”

Amrita Stützle in her studio with back turned to camera pins a grid of images to her wall.
 Stützle with a storyboard of her photographs in her campus studio.