fou people standing in a white room
Students in the Curating Exhibitions graduate seminar, Nana Ferdnance (left) and Jenah Creecy (right), discuss objects during the set up of the art exhibition, “(Kin)dred Ties,” featuring MFA students' work. Seminar students Mary McLean and Kathryn Long are seen in the background. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Students curate fellow students’ work in new VCUarts exhibition

The exhibition offers history, art history and museum studies graduate students some hands-on experience in spotlighting the work of their studio-based peers.

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A new exhibition of work by graduate students in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts is a first-of-its-kind show fully curated by fellow graduate students in art history, history and museum studies.

The multidisciplinary exhibition, called “(Kin)dred Ties,” opens May 5 with a 5 p.m. reception at the Murry N. DePillars Gallery, 1000 W. Broad St.

Lisa Freiman, Ph.D., an art history professor in VCUarts, designed a new graduate seminar, Curating Exhibitions, to guide students in curating the works of living artists. In addition to readings and insight into the hands-on production process, Freiman emphasized to her students the need for an overall logic to the exhibition.

“Once they started realizing that there were a lot of works that were addressing family – whether it be memories both traumatic and positive, or histories or any number of associations that come with that – [her students] chose specific works, and it was the works that stood out,” Freiman said.

The seminar matched eight art history, history and museum studies graduate students with about 30 VCUarts studio art graduate students in the departments of Craft/Material Studies, Painting + Printmaking, Photography + Film, and Sculpture + Extended media who volunteered to be a part of the project.

“It seemed like such a logical thing to have an exhibition be the medium for cross-pollination between the two programs,” Freiman said.

Among other readings, her seminar included the book “The Curator's Handbook” by Adrian George, but the face-to-face meetings with fellow graduate students in their art studios were a highlight for the curators.

“The most exciting part of it was when they came back from their studio visits and were doing presentations of each of the MFA candidates,” Freiman said. “They said, ‘The studio visits were amazing. It was so interesting to look at this work and to hear what the artists thought about it, and to be able to have a conversation with them about it.’”

Four people standing around an object on a pedestal
Lisa Freiman, Ph.D., works with her students Meredith Glasco, Jenah Creecy and Liz Chung while setting up the exhibition “(Kin)dred Ties.” (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

The seminar’s history and museum studies students scheduled group meetings outside of class to parse out and organize the exhibition theme. Fifteen VCUarts graduate students were highlighted initially, with about a dozen featured in the final exhibition.

Mary McLean, a master’s student in history in the College of Humanities and Sciences, took the Curating Exhibitions class to broaden her interpretive skills, and the assignments took her out of her comfort zone.

“One of the biggest challenges has been knowing how to communicate with artists,” she said. “I tend to like to stay in my office, do my research, maybe share it with a couple people. And what this class has challenged me to do is actually reach out to artists and ask them hard questions about their art, like, ‘Why did you make this? Why was this important?’ Those aren't really questions that you ask somebody. It's their precious art that they've spent so much time on. You’ve got to be a little gutsy. And it's definitely challenged me.”

McLean said she learned to ask the artists: What are you trying to communicate? How can the audience interact with this? The answers often would make conceptual art relatable.

She was matched with Stacie Sabady, a craft/material studies graduate student in the School of the Arts who used yarn that pays homage to the matriarchs in her family.

“The yarn that she used was from her great-aunt who had passed away,” McLean said. “It's a sentimental piece. So when I'm writing my interpretation of the piece to go into the exhibition, I want to make sure that I'm not being disingenuous to the memory of her great-aunt.

I want to make sure that I'm getting her rendition correct. And that's really challenging because I want to be able to convey it to the audience that this is a sentimental piece without exploiting it.”

McLean, who is focusing on Colonial America for her thesis research, added that working with living artists, unlike historical studies of objects, has helped bring empathy to her interpretations.

Nana Ferdnance, a seminar student who is studying art history with a museum studies concentration, relished learning about the artists’ passion and the significance of their work.

“Sometimes when people see contemporary modern art, it may look simple, but there's so much meaning behind that,” she said. “And sometimes for artists, it could be a process of processing trauma, family, emotions and relationships. And that was a through line in our theme where we talked to a lot of artists. They were expressing their family connections and their relationships through their artwork. It was just really gorgeous.”

With a keen interest in diverse contemporary artists, Ferdnance enjoyed interacting with painting/printmaking graduate student Ali Kaeini. His work in the "(Kin)dred Ties” exhibition is a drop cloth framed with Iranian-style miniature objects and architecture, along with poetry painted on it that conveys the experience of displacement.

Ferdnance said the hands-on seminar echoed her recent experience as an intern at the National Gallery of Art and will support her career aspirations in the museum world. In addition to working with people of different backgrounds and interests, she got insight into creating exhibition proposals and contracts, coordinating with artists for delivery of their work, and event production and promotion.

A man is standing to the left of a painting and a woman is kneeling to the right of it. They are both holding measuring tape going across the painting.
Students Elliott Martin (left) and Ajana Bradshaw (right) arrange a painting in the exhibition “(Kin)dred Ties.” (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Freiman said her seminar students responded robustly to interacting with artists close to their age, and in turn, the MFA students were excited at having peers look at their work.

Shannon Kurzynec’s piece in the exhibition, “Pill Pack Brooch Two,” is crafted of bronze, silver and steel.

“My experience with pills all started with my grandmother,” said Kurzynec, a first-year MFA student in craft/material studies. “When I was younger, she broke her neck, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table with her and watching her take pills by the handful – and her not being able to swallow them because of the accident. I couldn't even tell you how many she had to take a day. That really impacted the way I viewed pills.”

Losing family members and friends to opioid use and disposing of many pills after her grandmother passed away, also made a big impression on Kurzynec. By creating art out of pharmaceuticals that abound, she wants to make a statement about the commodification of medication.

“It was a great experience getting to have a conversation about my work and the ties to my family,” Kurzynec said of the seminar students and the “(Kin)dred Spirits” exhibition. “By my work being chosen to be in there, it’s quite fantastic for me, because that's a side of my work that isn't always shared. It's not a family portrait. It's my version of a family portrait. Or a family tree in a really indirect way. It’s been an experience to be able to share that with others.”

"(Kin)dred Ties" will run through May 10. Gallery hours are 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.