Graduate Students: The School of Fine Arts’ best kept secret Part 2


The second part of this two-part interview series examines the work of three Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate students; Erin Koch Smith, Claire Stankus and Jelena Prljevic.


Erin Koch Smith

Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Smith completed her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University before moving to Ithaca, New York with her small family. A part-time job, renting a space in a chicken-factory-turned-artist-studio and coincidental reunion with a close friend from high school later, Smith realized making art was “essential” to who she is, she said.

“I love painting. I think that I’ve been in love with painting since I was little,” Smith said. “I think that part of it is the stories and part of it that there’s something about painting that can’t really get away from your hand, and your eye, and your observations and your thought process that makes it just incredibly human.”

Smith said she constantly looks for ways to fall in love with what she’s looking at and painting because she wants to feel this love driving her work. This driving force becomes more complicated when considering the reception or interpretation of her work by others, and it is something that she thinks about often.

While Smith wants her pieces to be communicative, she wants them to be informative in a way that is out of her control, she said.

“The dangerous part that I worry about it is that there is that part of you where it feels good when people like your work,” Smith said. “To make work so that people like it, feels really tempting. I try to push against that a lot.”

This conflict is not new to any artist and is often seen as being inherent in making creative work because it exists to be seen and considered. To remind herself of where her practice stems from, she remembers a second hand quote she read from writer David Foster Wallace about how he viewed writing.

“He’s talking about writing, but I think it’s true about how I view making work, is that there is something that has to do with love and that making work out of a place that loves, rather than out of a place that wants to be loved, and that’s really hard to do… to know the difference,” Smith said.

For these reasons, Smith said she aims to make work that has “a life beyond me being with it.”

Smith works mostly as a painter but a sculpture and a group of drawings by her are also featured in the MFA Exhibition tomorrow night at the Benton. Across mediums, Smith’s work contains the element of existing in what she calls “in-between spaces.”

“There are times when the things seem fairly recognizable to me but not to other people and there are times when it’s the opposite,” Smith said. “I like that sort of ‘in the middle’ place of this (that) is sort of caught in the act of transforming into something else that is really interesting to me. This is a thing that can be recognizable and nameable, but also not.”

In Smith’s work there’s “a questioning of the veracity of things and also of being okay with poking holes in that,” she said.

Smith cites her own resistance to making distinct conclusions about what is true and what is fictional as another driving force behind her practice.

“My inability to connect those dots, that uncertainty, seems to be where I go to when I’m making my work,” Smith said. “It’s what keeps me interested.”

Claire Stankus

Stankus hails from the suburbs outside of Albany, New York, and received her bachelor of fine arts in painting at Syracuse University in 2012.

Currently, Stankus is focused on not overthinking. Still, her process involves collecting sources of inspiration to eventually abstract these forms in a way that is compelling, she said.

“If it’s too legible, that(’s) when I want to make it a painting and try to break down that legibility with abstraction and color and form to give people a little bit of familiarity, but it’s sort of ambiguous too,” Stankus said. “Then that way you can relate to it more because I didn’t just paint a puppy, I painted this weird shape of chairs.”

This process of abstracting an image while retaining a sense that it is something familiar or recognizable prompts viewers to stay longer with a piece, she said.

When Stankus worked more representationally in the past, she enjoyed her work but felt viewers received the information too quickly, Stankus said.

“It wasn’t a very lasting moment. There wasn’t a lot of reason to look at the painting when all of the information was given, and that wasn’t what the paintings were about, because I wanted them to be about the slower, quiet moments, and I wanted people to sit with them a little bit longer,” Stankus said. “So, abstraction snuck in in a way to get people confused, more like a trick to get them to ask more questions about the painting and what they’re looking at.”

To push this idea of quieter, more overlooked moments, Stankus said she limits her palette to mostly neutrals, grays and pastels with pops of bright color.

“I think overall, (this decision) aligns with the subject matter and the overlooked and the quiet, because even right around, there are neutrals and grays happening, but we’re going to remember and look at the saturated or the contrasted,” Stankus said. “I like that paintings do the opposite of that and give you these neutrals and grays to try and find the subtly happening.”

Even Stankus’ decision to work mostly on small square canvases is informed by this desire to keep things abstract or slightly unconventional. Unlike taller or longer canvases, squares are not so easily associated with portraits or landscapes, she said.

Square canvases not only allow Stankus to rotate the canvas without altering the horizontal or vertical association, but working on a square canvas also forces things to be “tight and awkward,” she said, further pushing it away from something easily taken in.

Jelena Prljevic


Prljevic is from Serbia and finished her undergraduate program in painting there at the Academy of Arts in 2013 before coming to Connecticut in 2015. Throughout her graduate experience, Prljevic’s work grew beyond painting as she became interested in animation and performance.

Prljevic’s work focuses on movement, light and the idea of the process of transitioning from one thing to another, she said.

Prljevic said this is particularly true with her recent two-year animation project where each frame is a drawing. Primarily through redrawing and erasure, she examined the history of making marks on paper as a way of looking at memory, specifically one from her childhood.

Prljevic said her most recent work includes a traditional hand-drawn animation called “Sisterhood.”

“The animated film Sisterhood uses an abandoned house from childhood as a metaphor of home and stability,” according to Prljevic’s website. “The story, written in a form of a dialogue between sisters, as signifiers of past and present, describes an intimate experience of early maturing from a child’s perspective. The bond between sisters freezes time, capturing the emotional transitions that shape the landscape of a dissolving country.”

“Why I’m drawn to erasure as a technique is that it makes all the marks visible, like they are not informative enough for you to create a clear picture, but they are there to show you the process itself, and then the process becomes more important than the actual result,” Prljevic said.

Because of the themes and methods of Prljevic’s practice, her work is like a memory work, she said.

“We remember, un-remember things and are forgetting,” Prljevic said. “So all these changes I’m now seeking for, the change of light, (are) change that happens within the erasure, like how we are moving forward and all these kind of mechanisms we use to understand time-frames. It’s more about this kind of healing potential traces that are staying after something is considered as past experience.”

By using erasure to create each frame, Prljevic must get rid of the previous work that she’s done, she said. She appreciates the work that goes into each drawing and realizes that it must be drawn, exist and then be erased in order for the next frame to be made.

By using both erasure and animation to create a piece about a memory, Prljevic ends up with a work that not only presents a compelling narrative but also subtly explores time’s impact on memory, she said.

The animation is then combined with lighting and sculptural aspects so that the viewer cannot observe the whole thing in one take, Prljevic said. They have to spend time with the complicated, multi-faceted piece and turn their body to see everything.

Prljevic said she does this to further emphasize that with memory comes the conflict of multiple perspectives. Even in learning history, whether it’s the history of a person or country, you’re exposed to multiple truths. It’s this thinking, observing and rethinking process that Prljevic embraces in her thesis work.

Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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