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Story and scale from MFA Art & Design Students

Painting of a person with brown hair playing a hand-held game. The painting is bright pink and blue. The woman sits on a chair by a table holding books and a television remote.
Travis Keller, Spring Break: The Night We Made Contact, oil on canvas, 2022; Photo by Amy Penne

Krannert Art Museum’s East Gallery was bustling last Saturday afternoon for the 2024 MFA exhibition’s opening reception. This year’s cohort of MFA Art and Design students produced an impressive variety of art. From leaded glass, to manga, to bold figurative paintings, the exhibit is well worth a trip over to the museum, where there’s always plenty to explore.

As I listened to the artists talk about their work and listened to what others had to say, I was struck by their professionalism and their emphasis on process.

In his bold and color-filled large-scale oil paintings, Travis Keller explores how light, figures, and time all interact on the canvas. He writes: 

In Finding the Light, painting is a time-based media. It is a practice of searching for hope in rituals and memories of my daily life. Through the process of painting, I maintain connections to my chosen family when space and time keep us apart. I collage together references from videos, photographs, drawings, and my own memory, all of which have varying degrees of clarity. I excavate these often blurred, dim, or dull images to find the light that is already there.

I asked Keller what’s next for him and what he got out of the MFA process. “I’ll be on the job market,” he replied. “I want to teach. I’m looking forward to teaching art. I think what I really got out of this time in the MFA program was community. A sense of community. We all did our own thing and our art is very different. But we shared community and fueled our process and made us better.”

Black and white manga images of action figures. They have grey heads and large eyes. Japanese characters are also floating in the frames in a bold black graphic.
Kofi Bazzell-Smith, from Radius, 2024; Photo by Amy Penne

Kofi Bazzell-Smith, surrounded by his action-packed manga installation, was likewise grateful for his time in the MFA program at the University of Illinois. “I think what I really got out of this program was a real sense of how to be a professional artist. We had plenty of time to work on our art, of course, but each week, we’d meet and do a lot of professional development work. How to market your work, set up shows, write wall text. In short, how to truly be an artist in the professional sense.”

Black and white images of Manga figures in action. The photo includes the original drawings in black and white of manga figure
Kofi Bazzell-Smith, from Radius, 2024; Photo by Amy Penne

Bazzell-Smith’s exhibit included an interview he did in Japan while studying the art of manga running in a loop on one of the walls. It gave the room an even more dynamic feel even though the focus was definitely on the story of Radius, a story which “underscores the commodification and exploitation of the body in sports and media, using humans and machines as metaphors for race and class.” 

Photo of cut and leaded glass. The mosaic shards are bright blue, orange, red, and yellow.
Song Shangye, A Stick-Figure with Two Heads, Cathedral glass, leaded solder, 2024; Photo by Amy Penne

I didn’t get a chance to speak with one of the other featured artists in the show, Song Shangye, but their work was inspired by an entirely different canvas. Their two leaded glass pieces, A Stick Figure with Two Heads, were striking in their precision and attention to craftsmanship. The nails holding the glass in place were visually arresting in their placement around the table.

Photo of artwork involving cut leaded glass. The glass is mostly clear on a white background but a few of the shards on the right include pastel pink and green elements. The artwork is held down with long nails all around the work.
Song Shangye, A Stick-Figure with Two Heads, leaded textured glass, 2024; Photo by Amy Penne

Shangye’s work utilized grids, lines, color, and printed textbook pages demonstrating the mathematical intricacies of figure painting.

Photo of a crowd attending an art gallery with white walls. On one wall, manga drawings in black and white feature a grey-faced character; on another wall there is a video running with Japanese characters dominating the blue screen. Several people are looking at the art on the walls
MFA reception 2024, Krannert Art Museum; Photo by Amy Penne

Gallery and museum exhibits always inspire me. It doesn’t matter what kind of gallery, or the focus of the exhibit. There’s something about the walls and the lighting and experience art and artifacts in that kind of, usually, silent space. While the hustle and bustle of an opening reception gives you an opportunity to speak with the artists and hear the interesting comments and questions from other viewers, I’m glad I can go back in the next couple of weeks and get a different sense of the exhibit, minus the hubbub. See you there.

MFA Exhibition
East Gallery, Krannert Art Museum
500 E Peabody Dr
Champaign
April 6-20
Free

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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