Lizzi Alarcón

Jennifer Frank

Nieko McDaniel

Matthew Russo

Cindy Warshaw

Matthew Russo, exhibition view

Milked encompasses a shared feeling of disruption and disinterest through a pandemic, moments of political upheaval and social unrest, and ultimately demonstrates the artists’ persistence to remain creative. 2020 MFA graduates interrupted during their final semester reconvene to see how ideas around their work have changed (if at all), and how it fits into what they are doing a year later. Although their creative juices have been fully milked, the show must go on.

Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and MFA class of 2020.

Amy: Let’s start by talking about the arc and timeline of wrapping up your MFA thesis work – did you know all along you would have an in person exhibition?

M: We knew we were going to have a show, it was just bounced around as to where, when, if–at the museum or a different venue, in lockdown, or postponed, which it was.

C: We were allowed to install in person, but it wasn’t necessarily open to the public.

M: There was this night right before we got the email saying we couldn’t go to our studios, so everybody showed up at like 10 PM and grabbed everything in their studios and packed it all into their cars. I just felt that that night was one of the funniest, weirdest nights we’ve ever had.

N: In retrospect I can see now how that was entertaining, but at the time I was hysterical and thinking that everything was falling apart. I was so upset and trying not to be emotional. Everyone had their car, except for me because I don’t have a car so I packed everything I could into a friend’s car. I took what I could, but there was a ton of stuff left over. Literally last month I flew to DC to take care of that. I had to get access to my studio–sent a lot of stuff back, threw a lot away, and now they’re working with me to ship the rest of the stuff back. That was a very nerve wracking experience.

J: Something about the spirit of our cohort is that we have always been super supportive of each other. Right now, just being with them is the best feeling. 

Nieko McDaniel, WOW!, 2020. Acrylic, cardboard, charcoal, tape, toy car, yarn, 120 x 144 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist.

How valuable was it for you to realize your ideas physically in that space?

J: It was fortunate to get photographs in such a beautiful setting and a high art venue. It was incredibly important to have that environment for our pieces.

How did you divide or consider the space and how much of the overall exhibition planning was collaborative?

N: I was the coordinator for the current exhibition, but also the lead for our first year thesis show and last year’s show until they cancelled it. Then Matt took over and did the virtual exhibition and now since it’s back to physical it’s back to me. I was also an art preparer at the museum so it just made sense for me being the point of contact. We met with one of our graduate instructors and he came to us with a calendar and two possible lay out options for our work. At the same time, there’s another person who isn’t here at the moment who is part of our graduate cohort (Basmah Alhumaid), but she isn’t here since we haven’t been able to get in contact with her since graduation. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to be part of this exhibit, so in a way that freed up more space for our work, but we would have liked to have her part of the exhibition. It was pretty simple in terms of the layout. The only switch that occurred was between Jennifer and I because we have more installation and sculpture-based work. It’s easy enough for me, but I don’t know about everyone else. Communication with the museum was easy enough, but the back and forth constant emails for every little thing could get annoying.

J: To add a point about us as a cohort, we’ve always collaborated really well whenever we work together in shows. It’s not a struggle; we all seem to comfortably fall into our places. 

C: The one challenge for me, because of the nature of my piece is that it was really hard to understand how it was going to look in the space. I wasn’t going to know until I built it .That was nerve wracking because there were so many unknowns. But thankfully it came together and the museum staff were really helpful in letting me be there during the day as much as I needed to be and in making the time available. 

Cynthia Warshaw

Can you briefly each share what you hope viewers will take away from your work and what you hope to communicate?

M: For me, I’m trying to look at objects and trying to build objects that somehow have a life to them that drift between the ambiguity of just being a thing but also of being something that has potential or trajectory to it that kind of allows for a new read on that object, while also trying to bridge that materialist and medium variety kind of artist I enjoy being. I use abstraction as language to process these and talk about these kinds of thoughts, while also really being tied to the real work and craft that some of these objects require.

Matthew Russo

J: I create large scale installations, and I tend to have a very laborious, repetitive process. I mostly work with industrial materials left over from a work site or being offered up for free or nearly free. These materials have a history of manufacturing labor and context that adds meaning to my work. I’m trying to build something extraordinary out of something that seems uninteresting on the surface; highlighting the most basic and often unappreciated things and also giving the viewer a sensory experience–or just a case of wow and the thought “I can’t imagine how she did that or how that even came together.” My process is a very therapeutic space for me. I get into the assembly line rhythm of it. I’ll do one part of it repetitively and then I’ll transition into the other part of it. I think most of us have projects that changed vastly due to the pandemic and losing our studios. We had to pull our show together from what was completed prior to losing our studios and what we could do without a studio. Then all of us got into our lives after graduation–I am working full time as a teacher. When it was finally time to install our show, a year after graduation, my school district was simultaneously making the transition from virtual to in person learning. I was trying to manage everything at work and wasn’t able to quite take my pieces to the level I had planned before we lost our studios. We had to make our show succeed even though it might not be exactly what we originally dreamed. 

Jennifer Frank, Rodified, 2020-2021. Wooden dowel rods, twine, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

C: My work is mostly about memory, but this particular piece is about psychological weight of memory. It was made at a time when I was going through a lot of things that were in storage, looking at a lot of old things, sending my daughter off to college, and putting things (old clothes, books, etc.)  in bags…it just brought up all these memories and wondering why I was attached to all these things and how to let go. I was thinking about the weight of the things themselves and the emotional burden or psychological weight. I was making choices of what to keep or what to let go both physically and emotionally.

Cynthia Warshaw, Leave It, 2021. Digital prints on archival paper, 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.

I’d never really worked with sculpture and fabric before, so that was interesting to me to start working in that way. I was also making 2D works which resulted in the digital collages. Because we went on lockdown, we had to modify how to present our thesis work in video. There was a lot of time in lockdown where I didn’t know where to go with my work or how to set it up. It was just sitting in my garage. Then I started experimenting by using art exercises in a book I had at home about artist block. I just wanted to keep making things to see if something would come to me and help me figure this out. 

About a week before our Zoom thesis presentation, I made the video that’s in the show now.  The question I had in mind was do we accumulate possessions or do possessions accumulate us? The video just sort of came together. I was fortunate enough to have family support so I had my brother-in-law do the berimbau audio because it was important to me to include my Brazilian heritage to speak to some of the emotional weight I carry as a daughter of immigrants. For the 2D works, I was fortunate enough to be able to rely on my father-in-law who is a photographer. He was really helpful in recommending print processes to me and different papers, as well as how and where to get my work printed.

N: What I would like the audience to get from our show is that we all came together at the hardest time and still persevered. We all had an obligation to each other–not necessarily to the school or the museum, but to make this experience the best as we can under the current circumstances. I know it’s not ideal, but we all still worked together and pulled through. We could still do some incredible things after our thesis exhibition. This is not where it ends. This is not the end all be all. So I wanted to show people that those putting in the hard work during the tough times are the ones who strive forward and feel good about themselves. They don’t need recognition from an outside source. They can say they were going to do something and they finished it. So congrats to all of us for that!

Nieko McDaniel

In terms of my work, I love that Cynthia and Jennifer were talking about the transition change because we lost our studios. Compared to everyone else, and I’m not trying to separate myself, but I had all my major works done by the time we were kicked out. There was a brief three week period where we had access to the studios, but no class or anything. Then we were told we couldn’t be on campus. By that point, I was already planning for the worst. I was documenting all my works in gallery style and anything small I could manage at home. I had a ton of work for my thesis, but the small stuff like drawings I took home and did–especially the writing.

My thesis work was to discover where a lot of our identity comes from. I don’t want to be that person to say I’m not an identity artist, but I realized I am. It wasn’t just about gender, race, sexuality, but more so the experiences I had in childhood and putting those out in imagery whether it was voice recording, illustrating them, making installation works, all to portray these major and minor events in my childhood that basically give you good description of who I am today and why I’m this way. Not “this way” in a bad way, but taking all of me for who I am. 

L: My work in the show came from two bodies of work I developed over my last year at AU.  The series of three prints come from a series I called Ancient Aliens, which I had developed earlier in the year before the pandemic really struck – thanks goodness.  The video piece came from my Model Citizen series, which was the project I was right in the middle of just as we had to transition out of our studios.  The works I made for that project were luckily mostly on my computer and on the web – I had begun working mostly digitally at that point.  Both bodies of work grew from my research about how content about personal experience is engaged and consumed once it has become art.  At its very core, the work is about my identity.  I had been struggling during my first year to understand how to work with presenting a personal experience without making a work read like a metaphor or a riddle with an answer to a question about me.  During my second year is when I began making my personal experiences work like a personal experience for the viewer instead.

Lizzy Alarcón

What is next for each of you, or what would you like to achieve?

M: Currently I’m a studio tech at AU where I maintain the studios, which I’d like to continue. AU has a hybrid model right now, so some students have access to the facilities, but there aren’t any classes meeting yet on campus. I’m the point person on campus too and I was fortunate enough to maintain my studio  after graduation and help when students came back on campus.

I taught last semester after  a professor’s passing (Yarslav Koporulin) and I took over his course. I’ll also be teaching a drawing course at AU in the fall. 

Matthew Russo

J: Currently, I am in my first year of teaching for Montgomery County Public Schools. Teaching elementary art, virtually, is new for me. I’m a single mom. I’m 45 years old. My daughter is in her first year of middle school and supporting her is a huge priority. It was a big deal taking two years off of work to earn my MFA. I must recover financially. I want to get back to a stable position, and then I want to get to the horizon of my artwork. Dedicated studio time, applying to shows, and working towards all the art opportunities my MFA has prepared me for will happen as soon as I can extend myself in that direction. Local art studio and exhibition opportunities in the DC/MD area are what I’ll be seeking. 

C: One of the benefits of being forced to be at home for a while is being afforded time to think about how the MFA program ends and what to do next because there was no culminating event where we all came together to mark the occasion. It just kind of petered out. I was personally stuck with the idea of now I have to keep making, and making in an environment that’s not easy. You’re not going to have these organic interactions of being at shows or exhibits or talking to people. These interactions have to be much more intentional. So in that process, I had to think about what I wanted to intentionally do next. Having done the video for the thesis show, I decided to take a stop-motion class at an organization called Main Media which is great. They recently asked to use one of the stop motion pieces I made in their marketing campaign. So I am following my interest in stop motion. I also put together a dummy book and manuscript for a children’s book based on something I made my first year at the MFA program. I’m currently in the process of submitting and pitching that work.

Cynthia Warshaw

N: I’m a college professor for multiple community colleges at the moment. I have been making work consistently since graduating. I’m glad to say that because I wasn’t always sure how I was going to do that with the pandemic and all these unexpected things. But I’ve made work and I’ve been showing. I’ve had a few shows open recently that I’m in and a few more coming up. I’m in Southern California, which is where I’m from originally. I’m waiting to hear back on some residencies. In terms of progressing my career as a college professor, I have tons of applications out. I have an interview for a full-time position which I’m really excited for. To be up for a full-time position in your second year of teaching is super exciting. I just hope for more good things! But first and foremost, I’m an artist and still working on putting my stuff out there and getting into shows.

L: I’m currently on track to be an adjunct back at AU in the Fall, and I’m very excited about that.  I can’t say the pandemic has been very kind with my studio practice.  I began working more hours for my job in Parks and Rec and working on some large-scale mural projects for them, my partner and I got a dog with severe stranger danger, and we’ve had some family losses in the past year that were pretty tough.  Things are looking up though, and I have plans to apply for some studio space around town and I never stopped taking photos throughout the year.  I’ve gotten really into film photography, and I even got lucky enough to inherit a bunch of equipment from a discontinued photo program at work.

Lizzy Alarcón
Nieko McDaniel details
Matthew Russo details
Inertia Studio Visits