Graduating seniors studying visual arts at Columbia College and the School of General Studies have broken away from the traditional artistic confines of the gallery space at the department’s virtual thesis exhibition, presenting artworks ranging from a fake life-sized public statue of Christine Jorgensen to community-oriented photography and portraiture projects.
Overcoming challenges such as studio closure, remote work environment, and a lack of tools and resources, the visual arts cohort produced a diverse virtual experience wherein artists engaged with contemporary issues ranging from transphobia in local communities to reflections of musical representation in an archaeological context.
Despite various resources such as the print shop, the metal shop, and digital laboratories for their senior projects, students struggled to realize their grand visions remotely and were forced to reimagine their final presentations. The remote studio workshops also made it more difficult for the senior cohort to connect with each other. Vivian Mellon Snyder, CC ’21, expressed her frustration over not being able to engage with and learn from her peers.
“I think visual artists having proximity to other artists is so important because art is mostly a self-taught thing,” Snyder said. “Most of your growth is from your peers and seeing what they’re making and watching how they do things and asking them questions. In a virtual space that’s impossible. I’ve definitely felt like I’ve grown less.”
Nevertheless, the visual arts seniors managed to overcome these challenges and put out an exciting exhibition that displayed a high level of ambition and experimentation. Here is a look into some projects from the graduating seniors in this year’s exhibition.
Julie Belle Bishop:
Inspired by her background in music and interest in archaeological anthropology, Julie Belle Bishop, GS ’21, presented a multimedia thesis project which she classified as “planned excavation” to investigate the presentation of musical records in archeological context.
“I started thinking about [how] in the archaeological record, it’s really difficult to locate music. If you’re lucky, you might find an instrument. In more modern archaeology, you might find sheet music, but in ancient archaeology, it’s difficult to locate musical traditions,” Bishop said. “What I wanted to question was what are the other ways that music can be visualized, other than sort of just like sheet music and things that we’re used to.”
Across various mediums—including a light installation featuring an array of dotted light anagrams, cyanotype anagram prints on fabric, and photographs of colorful light and shadow projections—Bishop provided bold artistic visualization of a piece of music she composed based on a 1983 song by Mötley Crüe.
The anagram shapes that visually unite all works in the series were inspired by digital MIDI files of the music which serve as a map of the notes. Through the project, Bishop aims to challenge the viewer’s perception of what they see and the meanings it carries.
“I would love for viewers to take the idea of opening up your mind to wonder, and say, ‘Hey, the data and the information that surrounds me in my environment might be telling me more than I realize, to have that idea, that openness and willingness to learn from our environments,’” Bishop said.
Presenting works from three different series, Michael Morgan, GS ’21, showcased his mastery across a diverse range of artistic mediums, including printmaking, collages, and sculpture in his senior thesis presentation.
In his most recent project, “Christine Jorgensen,” Morgan paid tribute to the prominent transgender celebrity who led a bold lifestyle and lived for 15 years in his hometown of Massapequa, New York amid the Lavender Scare, a period in the 1950s when LGBT individuals were dismissed from governmental posts in large numbers.
Believing that Jorgensen deserved public recognition for being an icon for the LGBTQ community and one of the most famous residents of his hometown, Morgan applied for a historical marker to recognize her through the town’s historical society. Unfortunately, the application was rejected by the town. This inspired Morgan to create a life-sized public statue of Jorgensen—painted in the manner of the Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park—to be displayed publicly in his hometown.
“It’s supposed to be a critique on communal dialogue and communal history and to also challenge authority, but then also show that there’s no threat to authority in the sense that being queer doesn’t have to be political; it won’t affect anybody,” Morgan said.
Through this project, Morgan felt a connection to not only his own queer identity but also the broader moment that demands attention and activism to help other members of the queer community.
“The point is that if someone else grows up as gay or trans, then they feel a little less weird for being queer, knowing that someone who is so famous and so liberated by those exact same social fears, also got to just be stream of conscious themselves,” Morgan said.
Vivian Mellon Snyder:
In her project “American Taxidermy,” Vivian Mellon Snyder, CC ’21, provided a visual and historical reflection of the taxidermy practice and its underlying connotations. Combining the vulnerability she felt due to being sick over the past school year and her childhood memories of animals, Snyder reexamined taxidermied animals in a critical lens— through artistic spectacles and scientific statements in the exhibition hall.
Through digital collages, in which she took images from the American Museum of Natural History and pieced them together with other imagery of landscape, animals, artworks, and historical records, Synder aimed to create new visualizations of the museum space that reveal the toxic history of colonization buried underneath.
Synder also drew a connection between the technique of collage and the practice of taxidermy, especially in their appropriation of materials in a new context.
“I started to think of collage as a kind of taxidermy … because taxidermy is [when] you take a body, and you empty out its insides, you put it in this decorative glass case with a backdrop, you create a new scene out of the idea of an original, and that’s kind of what you do when you make a collage,” Snyder said. “You cut up pieces and you try and make something, and none of it is really what it is supposed to be, but there is an element of someone who is supposed to receive this as a coherent piece.”
Caro Varela, GS ’21, aimed to pay tribute to their family and local community through their senior thesis project after spending the entire year living in their home community of Queens.
In “Fotos Gratis,” Varela recorded and celebrated community members through vibrant photographs and colorful illustrations. Growing up in Jackson Heights and currently living in Corona, Varela felt inspired by their diverse and resilient community. In making this project, Varela was able to go to their neighborhood and engage with people through conversation, which contributed to a stronger connection with their community.
In their other project, titled “Loteria Familiar,” Varela recreated a classic Mexican board game called Loteria. By illustrating digital portraits of their family members and integrating each image into the board game card design, Varela paid tribute to their cultural heritage and honored the past experiences of their family members.
Through these projects, Varela aimed to inspire viewers to reflect on their family and community experiences:
“I want people to see it and think about their own families, and their own memories and just be nostalgic towards the past and your ancestors, and like the stuff that has motivated them to move forward and to pay homage to their communities,” Varela said.
Having overcome challenges posed by the pandemic, the visual arts graduating seniors presented a powerful and diverse display of artworks to celebrate the culmination of their artistic achievements throughout their Columbia careers before further continuing on their respective artistic journeys.