On Wednesday, April 14, the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM) hosted an evening of studio visits with student artists E. Daley, Sophia Ramirez, Lena Coletto and Stephanie “Steph” Lister. These students are four of the participants in “At Length,” Mills’ current senior thesis exhibition for Studio Art and Art & Technology majors. Each artist gave a verbal presentation accompanied by a slideshow with in-progress and final pictures of the work they included in “At Length,” as well as images of other personal work they found relevant to the creation of their thesis or to their artistic practice as a whole. Some presenters also shared images of the workspaces where they create their art, addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their creative processes and techniques.
The first to present was E. Daley, whose bio on the MCAM website describes their senior thesis as “a living room wall [decorated] with paintings, sculptures and video that reflect the decayed American landscapes and nostalgia associated with oil industry propaganda over the past century.” During their presentation, Daley elaborated on their biography by saying, “Everything that’s kind of mixed into this show is — it’s like a mix of queerness, of advertising, of consumption of oil and environmental results of this consumption, American culture, masculinity, American masculinity, coolness, sexiness.”
One of the pieces they focused on in their presentation was a painted self-portrait in-progress, which used ocean imagery to connect to the environmental themes of their thesis, but also portrayed Daley with the “perfect balance of masculinity and femininity” which brings them confidence.
Gesturing to the portrait, Daley explained that their research on masculinity in the U.S. had led them to realize that “[masculinity] has been defined in this sort of queer way, initially. Like, it doesn’t — it’s not supposed to be queer, but a lot of the like, hot gun guys, like motorcycle guys, James Dean, Marlon Brando, all these people were closeted. […] I’m just, like, really trying to look at my own absorption of this stuff. Like, a lot of queer artists do reappropriate the cowboy Western Americana imagery. And I was really interested in thinking about where the problems are in that. I know that it’s empowering for me, and it feels good, and like taking something back that’s been sort of hoarded […] But there’s just, like, going to always be this existence of violence and exploitation and intense, intense gender roles driven into every single image, artifact, object, whatever. I guess I just really wanted to look at that in myself.”
When asked about plans for their upcoming practice, Daley said they are currently working on painting clothing and using their body as a mascot, “taking this very specific archetypal image of [their] own self and trying to […] use it as many different ways as [they] can.” They hope to do work with plein-air painting this summer, as well as to continue making self-portraits.
The second artist to present was Sophia Ramirez, whose bio states that she “uses ceramics and alternative photographic processes to unravel and reconfigure personal histories and an understanding of self.”
Ramirez explained that photographing light has become an important part of her practice since the onset of COVID-19, sparked by a “light diary” project that Mills professor Jennifer Brandon assigned to students when the pandemic prevented students from accessing campus studios. She credited the practice with helping her “think through these concepts” that she incorporated into her senior exhibition, and showed the audience several photographs of light projected in interesting ways in and around her home. One of these was a series of photos from her senior exhibition work, three images that show light projected across her bed and bedroom wall.
“I think this work is much more than just thinking about this light and constant change that is happening physically on the wall,” Ramirez explained. “I was with this work trying to find my own relationship with this passed-down object, this bedsheet, and using photography to kind of grapple with these feelings of loss and sort of creating a new relationship with these objects of comfort.”
One audience member asked Ramirez how she believes that increased social interaction and freedom post-pandemic will impact her practice.
Ramirez responded, “I haven’t seen my mom in a while, and it’s funny because I think she’s a big part of my work, her and my relationship with her. So I’m actually wanting to, you know, go spend some time with my family, my grandparents — who, again, a lot of my work is about — and sort of talk to them about it. Because I haven’t been able to do that, and I think it’s important to. You know, when we’re using other people sort of as subject matter, I want to be able to have those conversations with them.”
Third to present was Lena Coletto, whose work “combines sculpture with
Coletto shared videos of the bar-themed installation that would become a senior exhibition project at multiple stages; the first video came from spring 2019, when Coletto took Installation (ARTS 147) with Chris Sollars.
“Before this class I didn’t even know what site-specific installation was,” Coletto explained, “and it really sort of just blew my mind and opened my heart, because installation is now sort of my main passion.”
However, it was a ceramics class taught by Cathy Lu in 2020 that spurred Coletto to think about using an installation project for a senior thesis. The same class also began Coletto’s practice of recreating objects via sculpture for use in installations, rather than simply incorporating found objects.
Two important elements of Coletto’s artistic process are sketching and list-making. “It helps me get out what’s in my head on paper, it helps me to visualize and just sort of further my inspiration,” Coletto explained. “I’m writing down anything I’m thinking, because I want to constantly record my ideas. I don’t want to forget anything, ever, so I will sort of constantly draw these pictures and make these lists, like, over and over and over again, adding to them but sort of really instilling […] any sort of spark of inspiration I’m having at the time.”
Coletto also uses an “inspiration wall” as part of an artistic workspace, explaining, “When I’m working on whatever I’m building at the time, I like to have lots of images and pictures around me, so I often print images out and look at them.”
When an audience member asked about the sources of Coletto’s models for recreated objects, Coletto responded, “They’re all from memory. There’s a specificity to the objects and I choose them because I’m trying to recreate my own personal memory, my own experience.”
MCAM director Stephanie Hanor praised Coletto by commenting, “The thing I also really love about your work that’s hard to see in images is the scale. […] Everything’s a bit exaggerated and a little cartoony, which I think — you’re so smart in using the materials in a way that kind of conveys all the emotional impact and power of these objects.”
The last to present was Steph Lister, whose bio tells us she “inhabits alter egos to experiment with writing narratives and creating artwork. Her practice incorporates video, sculpture, performance, installation, photography and writing to create pieces that are playful, satirical and often autobiographical.”
Lister began her presentation with a stuffed whale named “Jim” in her arms. “I didn’t have him for a long time and he’s back, so I wanted to include him,” she explained. In addition to crediting Jim, she gave a shoutout to Keli Dailey, whose journalism classes Lister took when she first came to Mills and was unsure whether to pursue art or journalism. “I guess I figured it out, but who knows?” Lister joked.
A significant part of Lister’s thesis was developed in Chris Sollars’ class Sculpture: Living Form (ARTS 014/114), for which Lister chose to embody the “living form” of a fern. To help her inhabit that form, she created a “fern suit” and a mask, using both fern leaves and other materials.
Her exhibition work is also significantly concerned with a golf course, where Lister collects golf balls that are hit from the course and uses them to fill a crack in a nearby cave. A video of her doing this can be viewed in the thesis exhibition.
Elaborating on the thematic choices she made, Lister explained, “Ecology and the environment and plants are always a big inspiration [for me], but in kind of a naive way, I guess, because, like, I love it, but I’m not a scientist. Grief is also a big part of my work.” She gestured to a picture in her slideshow, of a white wall with the words “Grief Inc.” painted onto it. “That’s actually a company, called Greif Inc. Look into it, it’s really mind-blowing. They, like, destroy the Amazon rainforest.”
When asked about her inspiration for the fern suit, Lister said that she was once given the nickname “Fern” based on the syllables of her name — “Steph-fern-ie” — and that she is still sometimes called that, though it has never stuck. “So it’s kind of trying to investigate that more, like, ‘Why is this my name? Should this be my name?’” she mused. “Also, it’s the oldest plant, I think it’s been on earth for like billions of years, pretty much forever. […] It’s witnessed all the changes that have happened on the earth, so it’s kind of comforting. Our oldest elder. Great question.”
The theses of these four artists, as well as those of the other eleven Studio Art and Art & Technology majors graduating this semester, can be viewed virtually at https://mcam.mills.edu/about/senior-thesis-exhibition.php through the Mills College Art Museum website.