Artists coming out of art schools often make art keenly tuned to the moment. Boston-area schools have produced high-powered artists including Rashid Rana, Marie Cosindas, and Brice Marden. We met up with some especially promising artists exhibiting in thesis shows this spring at Boston University, Lesley University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Lauren Shepherd, 32
Shepherd came to UMass Dartmouth to make functional ceramics. But after Donald Trump was elected, she says, “I relinquished all hope.”
Then she listened to the audiobook of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.”
“He talks about how . . . ‘black’ is not a real thing. It’s this shadow, this veil put on you, and you have to deal with the burden of it,” Shepherd says.
“What if . . . people didn’t see your skin, just this beautiful pattern?” she asks. “Made in the Marks,” a self-portrait, substitutes a pattern in clay and vinyl for figuration. “They wouldn’t have that initial clenching, ‘guard your purse’ reaction to a black person,” she says.
Shepherd applies African ornaments to her face in “Enough is Enough?,” a searing video that mimics the cozy intimacy of a YouTube makeup lesson. In time, her face is coated with liquid black clay, and her expression deadens. The clay embodies the veil of American blackness — an erasure of identity.
It’s a gut-punch. Says Shepherd, “No level of status will keep you from experiencing these moments.”
Max Bard, 29
Painting and sculpture
Bard worked as a park ranger at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, near Newburyport, where he harvested trash.
“I can’t see something on the ground and not pick it up,” he says. His sculptures are made of refuse, wood, and other scavenged material.
The wood comes from property developments: Bard sees trees flagged for destruction and claims them, chopping and milling them himself. “I grab a tree like a squirrel grabbing a nut,” he says.
The sculptures, thrusting arcs of wood strung and seeded with detritus, capture the stuff and velocity of today’s world. “It becomes the visual language of a contemporary American landscape,” says Bard.
He is delighted to highlight trash, and insists he’s not being a scold about it but putting it to good use and, indeed, launching it. “These are all about physics and energy and light,” he says of his works. “How light travels.”
“The physics is a nice way to bring everyone back to the reality of things,” he adds. “Nonlinear time. Concepts of the sublime. If this piece is just about a twist — perfect.”
Anja DuBois, 27
Dandelions are bitter. Nettles sting. They also have healing properties. DuBois’s eerie videos explore plants’ effects on her body.
“My interest in the environment is really an interest in human behavior, and how we connect with other beings,” she says.
Her work touches on humankind’s dominion over the natural world. “How do you express curiosity in a nonviolent way?” she asks.
But the body as an instrument of perception in an increasingly disembodied age is an even greater theme. Her interest here sprang from a hard day of hiking.
“The last third of the hike was so challenging, my only recourse was to become hyper aware,” DuBois says. “To let a branch brush me and count the seconds of how long I felt the sensation. It makes you aware of time, of touch.”
Body of the artist, meet body of the nettle. “I’m approaching it from this simple, intimate, basic place, me and the plant,” says DuBois. “If I can start to work through a problem with my body and another being, that’s ground one for understanding.”
Kamal Ahmad, 36
Mixed media installation
Ahmad, a Kurd, was born in a basement in northern Iraq during the Iran/Iraq War.
“Don’t call me Iraqi,” he says. “[Kurds] are killed by the Iraqi government.” Ahmad’s family spent his early years in a camp anticipating execution by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The story of his life is a chronicle of war and persecution: the Persian Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq, ISIS’s abuse of Kurdish women.
He got out in 2013. “I couldn’t stay anymore,” he said. Coming to the United States, he says, he knew one thing: “Someone should hear this voice.”
His sculptural installation features rolled-up memory-foam pads.
The pads — which people in the Middle East use to sleep on the floor — fold into one another. Ahmad tucks inside the stuff of home: cloves, charcoal, prayer rugs. Some are clad in fabric from his mother’s dresses, others in prints made to match his own skin.
“They’re like a human body,” Ahmad says. “Or a destroyed building. It can be a city . . . or a family hugging each other.”
“All my life, all cities, towns, lost,” he says. “All my memories.”
Will Harris, 28
Harris’s grandmother, Evelyn Beckett, died last November at 92. Suffering from dementia, she began to fade away years before that.
“I was scared she wouldn’t remember who I was,” Harris says.
His thesis project uses documents of his grandmother’s life to record the impact of her dementia.
She lived in Philadelphia most of her life. “She was quiet. Super-kind, she wanted to make sure everyone else was okay,” Harris says.
Cleaning out her house, Harris found old snapshots and showed them to her.
“She couldn’t recall who they were,” he says. He has blown up the portraits and wiped away their features. There’s only one image of his grandmother, a long exposure he shot, all blurred. A haunting sound component contains fragments of their conversations.
“Who is Evelyn B. Beckett?” he asks. Her answer is muffled. “That’s you,” he says.
Beckett left the Philadelphia house to Harris. He’ll move there when he graduates. There’s more to find. “I’m mining the archive of her life,” he says, “Trying to put things together.”
Matt Hufford, 25
Hufford paints at Hall’s Pond Sanctuary, in Brookline. “The ecosystem is an old white cedar wood swamp, devastated by development,” he says. “Cedar logs in the bottom of the bog create a naturally occurring oil slick on the pond.”
His plein-air landscapes weigh nature’s fragility. “I stand in the water,” he says. “I cannot drop oil or oil paint in.”
He enlists the materials of the land — leaves, moss, earth in the form of clay, and some trash — to carry the message of that vulnerability.
First, Hufford painted on coconut fiber and leaf debris, making landscapes that look like shimmers on the earth itself. He went to Death Valley over winter break and painted on scrap metal from a mine site and on clay.
“Unfired ceramic dries and starts to crack as I paint,” he says. He drapes it over natural forms, such as a log. He impresses root systems in the clay, or captures snow crystals that land in wet paint. His paintings are as much texture as image, imprints of a moment — like fossils — in a changing world.
BOSTON UNIVERSITY 2019 MFA THESIS EXHIBITIONS PAINTING & SCULPTURE II Through May 3. Laconia Gallery, 433 Harrison Ave. www.bu.edu/cfa/2019-mfa-thesis-exhibitions/
LESLEY UNIVERSITY MFA IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND INTEGRATED MEDIA GRADUATE EXHIBITION Through April 28. Lunder Arts Center, 1801 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. lesley.edu/events/mfa-in-photography-and-integrated-media-graduate-exhibition
MASSACHUSETTS COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN MFA THESIS EXHIBITION 2019 May 3-19. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. massart.edu/2019thesis
UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS DARTMOUTH 2019 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION Through May 11. University Art Gallery, 715 Purchase St., New Bedford. 508-999-8555, www.umassd.edu/cvpa/universityartgallery/
SMFA AT TUFTS 2019 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION: NO TIME FOR LAUNDRY May 1-19. Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford. smfa.tufts.edu/academics/graduate/mfa-curriculum/thesis/mfathesis2019
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.