The art of a new normal U of M fine art students hold first graduate exhibit since pandemic began
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One of the first assignments a fine art student at the University of Manitoba completes is a self-portrait. It’s a straight-forward job, at least at first glance, but peel back the layers of it: these artists — still developing their approaches and only beginning to become the people and creators they want to become — are told to show their teachers and classmates not just what they look like, but who they are, while they themselves are still figuring it out.
Morgan Traa remembers hers. The graduating BFA honours student sort of shivers thinking about it. “I loathed my self-portrait,” says Traa. “Not only are they going to look at me, but I have to look at me? Uhhh.”
Four years later, Traa, 27, is standing in a room at the school’s ARTLab, surrounded by her final pieces from school. Around the building, all of her classmates’ work is on display as part of the BFA Honours Graduating Exhibition, the end of a years-long road that felt much longer thanks to a certain unwanted guest who arrived in March 2020 and won’t seem to leave us alone.
Although most students created their final projects in the image of other people, of other things, of other places, and of abstract concepts they are still reckoning with, Traa doesn’t think their last project is all that different from their first.
“I think this is also a self-portrait,” she says. “As an artist, no matter what you do, it always becomes a reflection of you.”
But for the last two years, no matter what those reflections illustrated and showcased, graduating students were unable to show their final work — the culmination of years of study and practice — in a gallery setting, owing to the pandemic. Instead, family and friends likely saw their paintings, digital installations, and ceramic work through a computer screen. It was still visual art, but the pixels couldn’t quite capture it. It’s hard to ask the artist what they intended to do when they can’t even show their art the way they intended.
It hurt, say faculty members Holger Kalberg and Freya Olafson, who work with the graduating students on their final projects. For many students, the final exhibition was something they’d thought about endlessly since their first weeks on campus: it’s one of those landmark moments that caps off a university career.
And what a career it’s been. In the best of times, students such as multi-disciplinary artist Abby Gatbonton, 23, would have had to face untold hurdles on the way to graduation day. But the last two years have been far from the easy times for Gatbonton and her fellow soon-to-be-alumni.
“It’s been a long, long year,” Gatbonton says as she walks through classmate Rachel Goossen’s exhibition. “There were times when it was absolutely, extremely tough, but we pulled through.”
Last weekend, the school hosted an opening reception for the final exhibition, attended by nearly 300 people. It was a surreal experience, Gatbonton says. For half of their university careers, events such as that hadn’t been possible. Until the exhibition started, students were still preparing for the possibility that they’d be the third consecutive graduating class to have their big week of showing their work to the public cancelled.
So when the exhibition actually happened, William Steele, 23, was floored, a feeling that hasn’t dissipated in the days since, as strangers trickle in to see what he and his friends have made. “It’s been touching and moving to have this type of support,” he says in front of his final student work, a series of digital illustrations blending fantasy, religion, spirituality, nature, and queer ideology. “To see the support, and the eagerness of people after two years of not being able to see artwork, it really meant a lot to me.”
Not far away, Goossen’s aunt and uncle marvel at their niece’s work: a series of prints that depict scenes such as the view from her window, the family cabin, and a waterfall, using a striking blend of colours, shapes, and textures across the gallery walls, almost like a visual puzzle. “I’m just really proud of her ability to do what she has dreamed of doing,” Paul Goossen says.
The aunt and uncle have logical questions, too. “So what happens with all of this work?” one asks of the piece entitled Sandy Bay. “Your house is not big enough for this one!”
As the students wander from room to room, a recent BFA honours graduate — whose final exhibition was disrupted by COVID — makes the rounds before approaching a few of the graduating students to compliment them on some great work. “I’m a little sad because I wish we got to do this too,” she said. “But I’m so, so happy for you guys.”
Whatever sadness and absence has defined the last two years of these students, the exhibition has done what it’s supposed to do: give the students a chance to reflect on their work, and on themselves, as they leave one world and enter another.
“I’ve been so proud of us,” says William Steele.
The exhibition continues until Wednesday at the ARTlab at 180 Dafoe Rd., at the U of M.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.