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Maine art students mourn the loss of their senior theses

Bates College art graduate works on a series of self portraits in her studio. Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen

When Grace Smith visited colleges four years ago, she happened to show up at Bates College the day the senior thesis exhibition opened in the campus museum. She was impressed the museum showed respect to graduating seniors by displaying their work and treating them as professional artists, and decided that day to enroll. "I was so inspired by the opportunity for studio majors to show their work in the museum," she said.

That's why she is so disappointed that she and her peers won't have that same experience, because of the coronavirus. Instead of a museum exhibition, they get an online exhibition, which is on view until June 7. The exhibition shows the work of 15 graduating seniors, and includes artist statements and a downloadable exhibition brochure. It's a nice online display, and Smith said she was grateful for the effort of the art department to present and preserve the work online. But it's not the same.

"The senior thesis art show is something we all had been looking forward to for four years. I think the show was bigger than graduation," said Smith, from Williamstown, Massachusetts, who will get an online graduation, too, on Sunday.

"Reflection #1" by Grace Smith.

Art students from colleges and universities across southern Maine are missing out on the experience of showing their art in a professional setting as part of a senior thesis or similar end-of-year exhibition. Nearly all the shows are online, and some will have catalogs. But the opportunity to talk about individual pieces of art with friends and family and to give studio tours – to be an art star, at least for a day – is gone forever.

Like everyone else at Bates, Smith left campus abruptly the second week of March. When she learned the school was closing and the show would not open, she gathered the self-portraits she been working on – traditional paintings on panel and others that combine sewing, embroidery and applique on muslin – and hung them for one afternoon in an impromptu manner in the hallways of the art building and invited campus friends to come see it. Two days later, she and her art were at home in Massachusetts.

Daniel Ruff's matchstick painting, "United Youth," upon which he based a 1-minute that won first place in USM juried student art show. 

Demel Ruff, a graduating senior from the the University of Southern Maine, also missed out on the experience of an in-person show at USM Art Gallery in Gorham, the annual juried student exhibition open to all art students. Ruff, a digital media and design major from Saco, won first place for his piece "Fires Burning." Demel created a one-minute video that explores his interest civil rights and African-American history with an art technique that involves the controlled burning of matchsticks over spray paint on wooden panel. He calls the process matchstick painting. For the piece in the video, a matchstick painting called "United Youth," he used 10,000 matches on a board that's 7 feet long and 3 feet tall.

"Art is something that I switched to as a major a few years ago, and most of my family and friends, they haven't seen the artwork I have made. For me, it was super important," he said of the exhibition. "Not having the show was a big letdown."

Winning first place helps ease the disappointment. Other winners were Rachel Spigel, "The Young Master," second place; Emma Lang, "The Tiny Red Giant," third place; Anna Labbe, "Beef Stroganoff," fourth place; and Maxwell Carter, "Force to Trip a Tree," honorable mention.

All of the student work in the show is online, said Carolyn Eyler, director of exhibitions and programs at USM. The juried exhibition introduces students to a professional process, where they learn to prepare art for a gallery setting, get feedback and show their work to the public, she said. When the coronavirus hit, the art department shifted focus so students would learn to effectively photograph art at home and upload files – good real-world art skills, Eyler said.

At Maine College of Art in Portland, instead of a traditional thesis exhibition, the school will publish a catalog of the work of MFA, BFA, Salt and master of art teaching graduates. A digital version will be available in June and a print version will be available in the fall. Meanwhile, MECA's 2020 graduates will have a virtual ceremony June 6.

"With the guidance of MECA faculty and staff, our students successfully completed their spring semester – their work is captivating, provocative, and creative, and will serve as a visual journal of these times. This is a moment in time that is like no other we have experienced and the creative response is heartwarming, poignant, and an inspiration to us all," MECA president Laura Freid said in a statement.

University of Maine graduate Arturo Camacho explores his analog youth and digital adulthood in her art work. Courtesy of Artura Camacho

In Orono, the 2020 Intermedia MFA thesis exhibition would have opened in Lord Hall Gallery May 15. It also has moved online, and includes the work of six graduating students: Arturo Camacho, Rachel Church, Josh Couturier, Reed Hayden, Aylah Ireland, and Anna Martin.

Camacho, 26, grew up in Mexico, came to the United States at age 18 for college in Boston and later enrolled for graduate work at the University of Maine. He used his MFA exhibition opportunity to explore the roots of his Mexican culture with his assimilation into American culture through popular media like video games and computers. "I had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood, because of the jump start I got moving to the states," he said. For this exhibition, he created functional computers and toys that bridge his worlds.

He, too, laments not being able to show his work in person. He is glad it can be viewed online, but his creations are complicated, layered and precise, and demand that people get up close to look inside to appreciate the logic of the construction. "If people want to spend an hour with it, they can. Or they can spend five minutes with it," he said. "Losing that opportunity was very sad. I worked pretty hard, and I couldn't really see my work going out into the world. It's hard not to feel bad about it, but under the circumstances what can we do?"

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