The University of Connecticut’s Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) program has been called the “best kept secret” studio art graduate program in the country, according to the fine arts website. But what makes this program so unexpectedly great is not that it’s three years or that it’s interdisciplinary; while these things certainly draw students to apply, the most stunning secrets of the program are the graduate students themselves. To many, they’re TAs, or professors or just people we see around but can never place, but they’re actually far more experienced and interesting artists than whatever secret the UConn website is advertising.
This year’s MFA graduating class is Kelsey Miller, Kaleigh Rusgrove, Erin Koch Smith, Claire Stankus and Jelena Prljevic. During five separate interviews with each of these women, I went in with the intention of identifying this well guarded secret, but instead, I came out with a better understanding of these five people as artists. Here are two of them.
Miller was born on the small island of Antigua in the West Indies, where she spent the first ten years of her life before moving to New England with her mother. She moved back and forth between the states and the West Indies until she began her undergraduate degree in art at Wellesley College. After graduating from Wellesley, she took seven years off to make some money, which included working on a boat for about four years, until arriving at UConn.
Moving around influenced her as the foundation of her work depends upon simply realizing her surroundings and taking them in, Miller said. But more than just pushing her work from one stage to the next, her experiences have a greater importance to her practice.
“Eventually, that transition from doing landscape of the sea to landscape around here led to a deeper interest in environmentalism,” Miller said. “Now, I draw inspiration from things like that, (not) just the air outside, but also what’s around me in terms of like news and information and kind of how to process all the information that’s coming at me or anybody.”
Miller seems to be constantly aware of how bombarded we all are with information: Rather than be numbed by it, she uses her practice as one way to process the world around her.
This idea of using a real thing as a jumping off point or just an element of a piece comes in with the recent political work that she has been doing involving newspaper. Since she started using it for a graduate drawing class around the time of President Trump’s inauguration, she hasn’t been able to stop.
Her interest was partly sparked simply by timing, Miller said. But her work was also motivated by an internal drive and interest.
“I think just because of the current political situation, the current administration, I think a lot of people are more politically interested or engaged, myself included,” Miller said. “Because I am reading so much and trying to follow what’s happening, it has just naturally seeped into my practice it’s also trying to figure out how I can use my practice as artist to make some sort of political statement or hope for change.”
She doesn’t just use the literal newspaper articles to point directly at an issue; instead, she uses the language of weather reports to convey deeper concepts.
She explained one example in her recent work with the phrase “storms will intensify.”
“So if you read that on a weather map, that’s just like winter storms, whatever, but you can take it out and put it in the context of a political movement or something like that, and then it’s a different kind of storm, so that’s something that I’ve become really interested in doing,” Miller said.
This is just one example of how the more representative, recognizable or easily processed work of her undergrad work has evolved into a something closer to abstraction.
“Now I try to make things that are more layered or complex that can reveal itself over time like when you spend time looking at it, something that might have appeared abstract at first, may look more informational after you look at it longer,” Miller said.
It’s not enough to look at a Kelsey Miller piece from afar and not consider it; you need to take a step, get close and spend time with it to grasp it’s meaning.
That’s not to say that her work has just one meaning or that she even decides what the official meaning is. The complexity in her work allows each piece to take on more than one interpretation.
“It’s funny because sometimes my political work is just like a protest sign with the word ‘empathy’ on it and that is very clear, and that’s all it is,” Miller said. “Then, I use the words themselves to incite more thought, like empathy isn’t something you would necessarily expect to see on a protest sign which are much more declarative like ‘do this.’ I like the idea of offering information and letting you decide what you want to do with instead of telling you what to do with the information that I give you.”
Ultimately, Miller makes the work that she does to raise awareness not as much for a specific cause, one might say, but to promote open-mindedness.
“Everything we do these days is so fast, and I just want you to stop in front of the piece and look at it, and then think about your life a little bit, or what you’re doing or what you want to do with it. The goal I have is to slow people down so that we can be more intentional with our daily actions.”
Rusgrove grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, obtained her Bachelor's of Fine Arts in visual communications with a concentration in photography from Endicott College, and is naturally soft spoken. Her work, on the other hand, speaks volumes.
Rusgrove combines fictional stories with real world data to craft a unique environmentally driven narrative told through a series of photographs. Neither solely one or the other, her work exists in a “middle space between reality and fantasy,” Rusgrove said.
Rusgrove settled on the environmental theme of her current work two summers ago after struggling to find a compelling narrative. “I heard an announcement on the radio about how we’ve officially moved past the point of keeping the effects of climate change at bay, and we have to switch now to a mode of dealing with the issues surrounding climate change,” Rusgrove said. “For me, that was really striking. I think then I just went onto this tailspin. Then, I was like this is something I really care about.”
But Rosgrove doesn’t intend her work to be focused solely on striking, eye-grabbing images. Yes, the images need to be visually interesting, but a successful image in her mind is one that requires a kind of investment.
“After working on this for two years it’s more like, okay maybe I can hit someone emotionally in a different way or have them really think about what their actions are and how they’re affecting the environment and other people, not just to make them feel guilty, but to really think about what is the state of things now and how is that going to change over time,” Rusgrove said.
The investment isn’t just an emotional one. Through partly fictional and less obviously representative work, she wants to make work that leaves people with more questions that they had prior to taking in her images. She wants viewers to have more of “a moment of self-reflection,” Rusgrove said. This moment is more contemplative, sticks with the viewer and may even be uncomfortable in a way that motivates you to want to do something.
Acting as a “pseudo-anthropologist,” she joked, she uses her photographs to serve a larger purpose.
“I have this great vehicle that is my work and I care really deeply about making work that resonates with people in some way, but wouldn’t it be great if I could also kind of tackle this issue and do it in a way that’s maybe slightly different than how the issues are usually presented,” Rugrove said. “A lot of times the work that I’ve seen has been illustrative of an issue that they’re just presenting like here it is I’m showing you the truth.”
After a panel with journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, Rusgrove was motivated to really dive into this environmental work because she saw it partially as her responsibility not only as a person who is passionate about environmentalism, but as an artist.
“It’s really important for people outside of science fields to be involved with these issues because we are able to communicate them to a general audience in a very diff way. There were all of these students who don’t know how to present their research to an audience so that they understand,” Rusgrove said. “That was very influential to me because I was like I have this way of communicating with people. All artists have a way of reaching people in a different way, we have this different vocabulary, this visual vocabulary that we can present information with.”
Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.