Feb. 15, 2017
Inspired works lead to VMFA Fellowships for VCU students and faculty
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Zephyr Sheedy was at Lowe’s. Jessica Cruz was in Qatar. Jason Ly was in the bathroom. And Alexander Sausen was at a banquet in Indianapolis with 3,500 people dressed to the nines when he learned he was a recipient of the 2017 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship Award.
Sausen’s mom called him at his conference to tell him he had mail from the VMFA and started reading the letter to him.
“My jaw dropped and I didn’t know what to say,” said the Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore. “Initially I thought it was a scam. It certainly took me a while to believe that I had received the award; to this day it still hasn’t really set in that I got the fellowship. However, it certainly was a dream night.”
This year, the VMFA awarded $158,000 in fellowships to 26 art students and professional artists selected from a record 815 applications. Four of the professional fellowships, each worth $8,000, were awarded to VCUarts faculty: Sonya Clark, chair of the Department of Craft and Material Studies; Irvin Morazan, assistant professor in the Department of Sculpture + ExtendedMedia; Bob Paris, associate professor in the Department of Kinetic Imaging; and Jane Winefield, adjunct faculty member in the Art Foundation Program.
Eight VCU School of the Arts students received awards: Sausen, Fashion Design and Merchandising; Sheedy, Photography + Film; Ly, Painting + Printmaking; Cruz, Painting + Printmaking; Abigail Collins, first-year student; Jacob Medley, Photography + Film; Mark Peyton, Photography + Film; and Claudine Reyes, Kinetic Imaging.
A place for research
Sausen was inspired to apply for the fellowship because to him, the VMFA is a space of research.
“I go to the VMFA with the intent to research the extensive body of work with the expectation that I will learn something new every time I go,” he said. “I use that knowledge to grow as an artist and to develop my own work. The fellowship represents an extension of that research, yet allows me to go beyond Richmond to other places to study my inspirations and my ‘to-be’ inspirations on a deeper and well-thought-out level.”
Sheedy had applied for the fellowship last year with a less complete series and felt motivated to try for it again in part because of encouragement she received from her professor and mentor Will Connally, whose guidance played a big role in her artistic development in the last year.
This year, she submitted a series of documentary/intimate portraiture style photos she had taken while getting to know her friend, Ray, and his mother, whom she met in January of 2016 when he was her Uber driver.
“When we first met he shared with me his lifelong dream to become an actor, and I got his contact info so we could maybe work together in the future,” Sheedy said. “This fall, we met again and they welcomed me into their home where I met their three dogs and was able to get to know them a bit better. We talked about politics — carefully — ate food — homemade — and sang — badly, but joyfully. I am still in contact with Ray and we are planning a collaboration soon.”
The process of taking the photos felt casual and comfortable for the trio — and the dogs. Ray and his mother would show Sheedy something they wanted to share, such as a dog standing on Ray's shoulders, his mother’s binder of poetry or how they knead bread, and she would photograph it.
“I am very grateful for how they welcomed me into their home and how we all got to know each other,” she said.
Merging fine art and commercial design
Cruz, a painting and printmaking major, describes each piece in her work as a balanced exploration of color.
“Each shade and shape plays off of one another,” she said. “I am inspired by layers and how they play into our own lives. We may experience one thing in one way and relearn it in another way, but that initial memory never truly disappears. The earthy and neon/pop palette itself is inspired by my own experience with living in urban areas that are always near nature in some way.”
Sausen, who is also enrolled in the Business Foundation Program, has a strong passion for fashion as well as fine arts, but also thinks with a business mindset.
“Knowing multiple facets of an industry makes it easier to climb into a strong leadership role within a company as you will know more about the industry overall,” he said.
“Fashion intrigues me partially because of its reliance on history to revive older fashions — I’m a big fan of history,” he said. “Moreover, I have a fascination with how clothing can be sculpture, it can be painting, it can be drawing, it can be anything. And it’s all based on the human body. It’s also a merging between fine arts and commercial design. The business side intrigues because we, as humans, rely on business and trade to survive economically. You can take a beautiful fashion design, and work with teams and groups of people all around the world to produce it so people all around the world can wear it.”
He started the work that eventually made it into his VMFA portfolio during his art foundation courses. The work for the fellowship came from classes such as surface research, a combination of 2-D design and color theory, and drawing studio.
“The interesting part about my drawing studio class is that it was not what most people would think of when they think about drawing studio; it was not a class centered around naturalistic rendering and perfect proportions,” Sausen said. “It was more conceptual and creative; the emphasis was on the study of ‘what is considered to be good art?’ I emphasized line and density of charcoal strokes, placement of my marks, but all with a conceptual viewpoint as opposed to a technical perspective. This particularly conceptual approach greatly influenced how I produce my work.”
He created his portfolio with very little sleep, with his most forward-thinking ideas often coming to him during the early hours of the morning, he said. Relying on adrenaline to paint early in the morning, his ideas would take an unconventional twist that normally would not happen during the day.
Sausen will use the fellowship funds to travel to places that he never would have gone before — the places that relate to his inspirations for his own artwork.
“So much of my work is centered around understanding other cultures and history,” he said. “I’ll be able to learn about those subjects and bring [those things] forward in my artwork.”
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