A photo of the VMFA and the reflection pool next to it.
Five VCU students are among 19 professional artists and students awarded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts fellowships to support their artistic careers. (File photo)

Five VCU students receive 2024-25 fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Pursuing photography, painting and sculpture, the three graduate and two undergraduate students are among 19 artists selected statewide.

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Five Virginia Commonwealth University students are 2024-25 recipients of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Visual Arts Fellowship for their work in photography, painting and sculpture. 

The three graduate and two undergraduate students are among 19 professional artists and students awarded $118,000 to support their artistic careers. The VMFA began the fellowship program, one of the largest of its kind, in 1940 and has awarded nearly $6 million to more than 1,500 Virginia artists.

“Many of the student winners have said that VMFA’s Visual Arts Fellowships lessen the financial burden of tuition and allow them to more fully immerse themselves in their creative process,” said April Heitchue, the museum’s fellowship coordinator. “The artistic validation that they feel from receiving a fellowship award is also very meaningful.”

Here are the 2024-25 VMFA student fellows from VCU – four from the School of the Arts and one from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

Isaiah Mamo

Graduate student in public administration (Wilder School)

Mamo, an Alexandria native, describes their photography “as experimental and queer.”

A photo of a man from the waist up. He is standing next to a photograph hanging on a wall
Isaiah Mamo

“My creative process is always a process of addition and subversion. … The people I photograph and stories I tell with my work are often uninhibited and prideful expressions of queerness,” they said.

Mamo specializes in long-exposure photography, specifically light painting, to recontextualize the environment by “adding an often futuristic and mystical look, which have become elements central to my visual aesthetic,” they said. “I started shooting long-exposure self-portraits in my bedroom in high school as a way to experiment and teach myself how to use a DSLR camera, and that experimentation paved the way for the work I’m making now.”

Mamo looks at photography as a synthesis of “my life experiences and a portal into the fantasy worlds in my imagination,” they said. “Making people feel empowered in who they are, while also presenting themselves in ways that are larger than life, is very important to me. Photography to me is documentation, a visual legacy and archive of queer stories and people.”

Rebecca Oh

Graduate student in painting and printmaking (VCUarts)

Painting is a meditative activity for Oh, a Baltimore native who said she finds motivation almost anywhere.

A photo of a woman standing next to a painting.
Rebecca Oh

“I have so many muses. Video games, Dungeons and Dragons podcasts, anime, movies – they all inspire me to make,” Oh said. “Seeing beautiful colors inspires me. Having a kind interaction inspires me.”

Oh focuses more now on sculptural paintings — “composed paintings done on three-dimensional wood constructs that I make myself,” she said. “My painting themes are currently about the Korean-American experience, specifically the processing of mental illness, sexual identity and religious trauma. These, sometimes heavy, themes are all packaged neatly in beautiful images.”

Oh will use the fellowship to help fund a research trip to Korea this summer.

“I’ve started using cultural iconography from my ancestral heritage in my work this semester,” she said. “I’m hoping to see these artifacts in person and see as many museums and galleries as possible.”

Tyna Ontko (Cy Twombly Graduate Fellowship)

Graduate student in sculpture and extended media (VCUarts)

Ontko’s interest in sculpture stems from growing up in and around community theater and dance and spending time backstage, where she helped build and paint sets, ready props for shows and pull rigging during performances.

A photo of a woman behind a sculpture.
Tyna Ontko

“Through my involvement with those spaces, I developed a sense of how lived experience is shaped through our interactions with objects and materials,” she said.

Ontko is currently working with objects and materials that pull from her everyday experiences. Growing up in the rural Pacific Northwest, she had exposure to wood carving as a medium.

“I do a fair bit of sculpting wood with power tools, an angle grinder being my tool of choice, and I use a chainsaw on occasion. The carvings end up being installed among other items that are collected on walks, in my daily routines and given to me as gifts,” she said.

“I am interested in looking for ways to redeem the tasks that capitalism has made mundane,” Ontko added. “Lately I’ve been working food into my practice, which has allowed me to see going to the grocery store or farmers market with a fresh perspective.”

She describes her work as a “reflection of a life I want to live. Nurturing my ability to continue learning, growing and staying curious is a main priority for me.”

Levi Mason

Freshman in the Art Foundation Program (VCUarts)

Mason’s photography ranges from landscapes to street photography. “I wouldn’t say that I specialize in anything yet. In my opinion, to specialize in something you really have to be an expert in it. I’m still figuring it out and learning,” he said.

A photo of a man from the shoulders up.
Levi Mason

Mason, who grew up in Arlington County, sees his photography as an exploration into the beauty of a personal connection with the environment and “all living things around us … and also to invoke new understandings surrounding ongoing issues that face our world,” he said.

Art is how Mason most effectively expresses himself. 

“Without it, I don’t know where I would be,” he said. “So in a way, I need it as a way of expression and communication. There is also so much in this world that is overlooked and overshadowed. Photography is a great way to look back on what we might have missed.”

Laneecia Ricks

Junior in photography and film (VCUarts)

Ricks, who grew up in Suffolk, uses photography to explore the intersections of race, gender, identity and sexuality within the African diaspora in America.

A black and white photo of a woman from the chest up. It is a profile view of her, and she is facing the right.
Laneecia Ricks

“I seek to create imagery that celebrates and uplifts the beauty of Black culture and its community,” said Ricks, a past VMFA fellowship recipient. “My work seeks to confront stereotypes and normalize conversations around Black sexuality and racial oppression within the Black community.”

Ricks specializes in fashion editorial photography “because fashion is so unique and doesn’t have boundaries. I always ask myself how these garments live on a physical body but also how they live in a space, an unconventional space,” she said. “It gives it a different meaning, and certain aspects would have a powerful significance regarding props, location, garments, etc., just to keep creating authentically.”

Photography “is everything” to Ricks. “It captures life authentically, it can be manipulated, it can be structured, it can be built, it can be physical,” she said. “Photography is something that is just unique to everyone.”