The American University Museum has quite a treat for D.C. art buffs. On the second floor gallery is a collection of master’s thesis work from MFA students in AU’s Department of Art. The exhibit showcases well-refined talent and diversity in subjects and techniques from 11 artists: David de Bol, Angela Esteve, Emily Francisco, Lisa Marie Jakab, Ryan Carr Johnson, Shahdeh Khodavandi, Dan Perkins, Anna Prezioso, Heather Ravenscroft, Jenny Sawle, and Harini Thyagarajan.
Each artist’s processes, inspirations, and final products described in the gallery talks were fascinating. Here is a conversation with three of the artists, starting with Harini Thyagarajan, an artist from Chennai, India. Her piece was an experiential artwork made of 17,500 pounds of salt on which she invited viewers to play.
Steven Dawson: Why salt?
Harini Thyagarajan: “I have a personal history with salt. My family had our own salt farm back in Chennai, India, on the southern coast by the sea. My hometown is the saltiest place I’ve ever been. You walk outside and you can feel the salt on your tongue; that’s how salty it gets in the summer. The material just started making its own work for me.”
SD: What kind of salt do you use?
HT: “When I started working with salt, I started experimenting with the different origins. Was it rock salt? Was it sea salt? And then experimenting with their functions. Was it ice melting? Used for cooking? And then slowly the origins and history began to vanish because the salt itself was overtaking those aspects. It didn’t matter where it was from; it didn’t matter what history it had. I think the presence of the material itself would speak for itself. That’s when I realized that we would have a sort of play on words with ‘all purpose salt,’ which is what I used.”
SD: Where do you get 17,500 pounds of salt?
HT: “This is actually restaurant-grade salt, so I get it from large wholesalers and depots. I received quite a few suspicious looks.”
SD: Tell me about the experience of creating it and then showing it.
HT: “The experience was very satisfying because I moved every single salt bag individually. So it was 50 pounds at a time, and opening each bag was like opening Christmas presents, it was so satisfying.”
SD: What is next for you?
HT: “I have to move back to India. But I am currently in the process of exploring these works. Initially, I wasn’t interested in gallery exhibitions or anything because I feel like I should wait and just enjoy the experience of making these experiential works. To me, it is all about the experience with the art.”
Next, I talked with Angela Esteve, who works with shredded paper to form themed collages whose ambiguity allows viewers to project their own meaning onto the work.
Steven Dawson: How did you arrive at using shredded paper as your material, and what do you shred?
Angela Esteve: “I tried a lot of different things, using paper; ripping it, tearing it, and eventually shredding it. Then I tried putting together photos of my children, because they’ve all left home, and I wanted to reconstruct the feeling of having them there. But then I realized that you couldn’t have that, so I started using children’s books that I read to them as children. Then I thought I would use my own work, since that is something else from the past. So it’s a combination of children’s books, my work, and new prints. Anything related to my life is in the work. For example, I like reading the Financial Times, so that’s in there.”
SD: What do you want a person to get out of looking at your piece?
AE: “It’s all very representational. I like to start off with something real and recognizable and then make it into an abstract work. It could mean anything to the person looking at it.”
SD: What are your plans after graduating?
AE: “I already have two degrees, and a post-graduate certificate in education, and now a master’s degree. So I am going to get teacher certification. I’d like to teach while still carrying on making work.”
Finally, I had a conversation with Anna Prezioso, who created clothing from denim material that was intentionally meant to constrict the movement of the person wearing it to explore the limitations that trauma survivors experience.
SD: Why did you use denim as your primary material?
Anna Prezioso: “I’m really interested in the material for a couple of reasons. I love how people have tons of different associations with denim, so I’m interested in what the viewer brings to the piece. For me, I always found that jeans can be so comfortable, but if you don’t have your right size, you can’t force yourself to fit in them. It doesn’t stretch like spandex or cotton. So I enjoy pushing the limitations of the material itself, to see where that breaking point is. So I like playing with that duality of the material.”
SD: You mentioned in your Gallery Talk that this is the first time you have introduced performance into your art. What was that like?
AP: “Performance is a new thing for my work, and it was great getting feedback from the live models that I tailored the outfits for. I feel like having people interact with my work, and having someone actually wear my work opened new doors for my work. I will definitely keep creating work with a performance aspect.”
SD: What are your plans after AU?
AP: “I am going to Berlin for six weeks in AU’s MFA summer program out there. There is a wonderful art community over there, so I am interested to see what that’s like over there versus New York or LA or D.C. After that I plan on returning to teach. I get a lot out of working with students, and working with them feeds my own work.
The MFA Thesis Exhibition, Crossing the Bifrost, will be at the American University Museum through May 26. For more information, visit the MFA thesis gallery website.