A VCU senior is helping the VMFA prepare an exhibit on art from the African-American South

Jacynth Serrano Rodriguez is researching artists and their works for the exhibition, scheduled to open June 8.

Smiling woman in front of large pieces of artwork.
VCU student Jacynth Rodriguez is working with curators at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art to create an exhibition of artworks by African American artists that will debut in June. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

A senior Virginia Commonwealth University student is working with curators at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to continue research on artworks acquired by the museum in 2018. The works by African-American artists will be the subject of an exhibition opening June 8, titled “Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South.”

Jacynth Serrano Rodriguez, who is majoring in English with minors in art history and media studies, is interning at the VMFA as one of three interns across the country who are part of a new grant program supported by the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

VMFA is one of three U.S. art museums participating in the program, which provides paid internships to undergraduate students of color and helps them gain professional experience in curation, conservation, education, administration and other roles. The other participating institutions are the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Every day I walk in and I can’t believe I get to work there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s insane. The office is so posh; the people are so nice but also so accomplished. It can be hard not to be intimidated, but I just keep thinking about how lucky I am to be in the same room as some of these people.”

In May 2018, VMFA acquired 34 artworks by African-American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting the contributions of artists from the African-American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.

For her internship at the VMFA, Rodriguez is working with Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to continue research on selected works from the acquisition. Rodriguez’s contribution will provide more in-depth information for the museum’s website. Moreover, she will create a traveling exhibition for “VMFA on the Road: An Artmobile for the 21st Century” in the near future. She has been conducting research to familiarize herself with the artists and their work, she said.

“I just finished writing label copy for each of the works in the collection, which is basically just contextualizing material that will go into a database and be on hand for posterity and future exhibitions,” she said.

Following her internship at the VMFA, Rodriguez plans to pursue a career at the nexus of her studies and passions: art, culture and media.

“[That’s] a sort of fancy way of saying I’m not sure exactly where I’ll land, but I think I’ve got a good idea about the direction,” she said. “I love to read and write, (it’s the English major in me) but I’m also deeply invested in popular culture so I’m hoping to find a place where I can engage all of my interests and in the end, write stuff that matters.”

Rodriguez’s time at VCU as a student in the Department of English and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and in the School of the Arts, has influenced and prepared her for her work at the VMFA and beyond, she said.

One of her favorite professors, Tracy Chapman Hamilton, Ph.D., visiting associate professor in the Department of Art History, said Rodriguez was a remarkable student.

“In most of my classes I ask students to push traditional boundaries of art history, both in the material we study and in the assignments they complete,” she said. “Without fail Jacynth took inspiration from, and surpassed, my expectations in both categories — she inhaled the material and produced beautiful, thoughtful, erudite and innovative responses to it.”

Last semester, Chapman Hamilton assigned her class an augmented reality/digital exhibition exercise where the students, through a variety of possible tools — many of them digital — augment the traditional label copy at museums. Rodriguez prototyped an app that takes the user through an exploration of a medieval pilgrimage road, tying in the visual and historical material the class had studied, the essays they read on the topic, and digital mapping to help explain how the landscape ties into our experience of pilgrimage and its material culture.

“I had not required the construction of an app, but by opening up the realm of possibilities for visualizing her analysis Jacynth took it on herself to curate this project in that manner,” Chapman Hamilton said. “Hers is the perfect combination of creativity and rigor. She has an extremely bright future ahead of her and the Souls Grown Deep internship is just the beginning of much more to come.”

Another favorite professor, Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of English, called Rodriguez an “extraordinary and delightful young woman.”

“It’s been my pleasure and good fortune to have Jacynth as a student in three classes [including] this semester in a senior seminar. She, in every class, has been an intellectual leader, driving our conversations with her questions, observations and insights,” Ingrassia said. “She is also a gifted writer — witty, insightful and always a pleasure to read.

“As an undergraduate, she has been operating at the level of a graduate student,” Ingrassia added. “She’s serious about her work, but, at the same time, doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her great sense of style is matched only by her great sense of humor.”

Chapman Hamilton said she is looking forward to seeing the VMFA exhibition that Rodriguez is helping to put together as part of her Souls Grown Deep internship.

“The internship is much needed in our field — and in academia and the museum world in general,” she said. “There needs to be even further growth towards increasing diversity in the future. Mentoring students and providing opportunities to students like Jacynth — who shines all on her own, really — is just part of the way to make those changes.”