I Blinked and I Graduated with My MFA in Photography

How did I get here?

This time seven years ago, I was, to put eloquently, a Total Fucking Wreck™.

I was finishing my senior year of high school, less than two weeks from graduating, and I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do with my life. I didn’t get into the school of my dreams, which meant I didn’t get into the program I longed for: Classical Archaeology.

There were things I knew I liked doing, like writing and taking pictures. But the summer before I started my undergrad career, I didn’t pick up my camera once. I lied in bed, staring at the wall, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. I was 17, confused, depressed, crying a lot, and completely uninspired.

I would like to tell you something inspiring, some sort of turning point in my life where I decided I wanted– no, needed– to become a photographer, but that’s just simply not true. Taking pictures was a lot of fun to me. I was good at it– it was the first thing I had a natural knack for– but I didn’t think I wanted to make my life out of it. About halfway through my first semester at MSU, studying English Lit, I was on the phone with my mom and I said, “I miss making art.”

It was a gentle admission, a passing comment. I was collaging by then, making sketches in my sketchbook and all that, but it wasn’t like high school, where every weekend was marked by a crazy photo shoot with my friends and praises from my teachers. I just kinda missed it, so my mom suggested I get a minor in art or take some classes. It wasn’t until my sophomore year– now pursuing a BFA in Studio Art– that I took my first college-level photography class and realized:

Fuck, I want to do this for the rest of my life.

I knew after that first semester that I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer or a portrait photographer, but that I wanted to teach photography. I loved critique, I loved the theory and the history, and I loved learning. I wanted to pass my knowledge to others. I also knew that the photography I liked doing wasn’t photography in the traditional/commercial/profitable sense, but more academic. I am so, so lucky that I knew what I wanted to be at 19 years old.

What I also knew was I needed an MFA, and that getting into an MFA program was Serious Business™.

When you find your passion, you delve head-first into it. And goodness gracious did I embrace it. I stopped denying that I wanted to be an artist (oh no not an artist how will I eat) and decided to, as I would say in 8th grade, “go balls to the walls.”

My weekends and weekdays were photo shoots with friends. I carried a camera on me at all times. Summers were spent taking photographs every. single. day. It was surrounding myself with people who liked photography as much as I did, browsing forums online and gathering inspiration for my next big shoot. I was submitting to galleries, exhibitions, museums, magazines, anything to build up my resume for graduate school. When the time came to apply, I bused all around the country, visiting schools, interviewing, meeting with professors to go over my application, checking my email every five minutes–

I got a full ride to Columbia College Chicago.

And, somehow, two years later, I have my MFA in Photography.

Holy shit, what a ride.

But I wouldn’t be here without a few people. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my art teachers in high school, or my friends in both high school and undergrad who let me dress them up/make them stand naked in the woods in February/carry my heavy things. My homies who drove me around, let me use their backyards, drag them around zoos in animal masks or get stopped by the police– if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have gotten this far. All the professors who wrote me letters of rec, who taught me how to be a better writer, how to take better pictures and challenge me to think more deeply, to ask the hard questions, them too.

My mom for saying “Why don’t you get a minor in art?” or my boyfriend for all of the countless hours of driving, setting up light stands, cramming balloons in his car or me snapping at him because “I’m in the zone Mitchell shush.” My friends for letting me bitch at them about critique or something some critic said about my work, or those nights when I would be up late crying because “I don’t know what I’m doing how on earth did I get this far?” and their words of encouragement (“Shut the fuck up, deo, ur a great photographer fuck the haters.”) The friend who read my essays and statements and applications and was absolutely brutal in the best way. My cohort for the time spent debating theory (lol or crying about it,) the whiskey bar in Ireland, challenging me and making me think in new ways, showing me how to do things and inspiring me to be better. All of these people helped.

I thought about all of these people as I was hooded and received my diploma case on May 14th, 2017.

 

So, if you ever helped me, no matter how minor, thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, I’m off to go make some waves in the art world with my Masters of Badassery™.

Happy Shooting!

MFA Thesis Exhibition: PERSIST

For the last few months, I have been so busy preparing for the MFA visual thesis exhibition. The exhibition is, in short, the culmination of my work in Columbia’s Photo MFA program. I have spent countless hours preparing and putting up the installation of my work, and in true deo fashion I gave myself way too much to do.

Leave it to me to go into a Photo MFA program and come out as a mixed media artist. My pursuit of the question “How do I photograph trauma?” led me to this point, because I figured out that different mediums can convey different things. Photography can be a mediated experience of trauma. Installation could use more than just our sense of sight, but also smell and hearing and touch. Video, found objects, and performance all have roles to play as well, and as a result my final exhibition became a gallery of different ways to reflect on childhood sexual abuse. My goal was to make something for everyone.

For my readers who couldn’t make it, I’ll give you a little walk-through of the space I constructed (with help– I had a lot of help!)

The installation was two rooms and the exterior walls. On the outside, next to the entrance to the bedroom I created, was the artist statement and my signature book. To the left of the doorway is my piece X Days and Counting, which is a series of Fuji Instax photos of bed sheets I have been collecting. This is only half of the piece, as I had the actual bed sheets in the bedroom (which you will see later.)

X Days and Counting is a project where I have been collecting one bed sheet for each day since I was molested as a kid. I need over 5,000 (and counting) at this point, so I have a bit of catching up to do.

The entrance to the bedroom was marked by a rainbow bead curtain, made with bear and heart beads. But I’m not showing you the bedroom yet– first imma show you the other exterior walls.

YAY TOUR VIA THE INTERNET!

 

 

Around the corner was a TV installation titled It Was All Because of the Bear, which featured 23 mins of me destroying a white teddy bear in 10 different ways such as:

  1. in a blender
  2. burying it “alive”
  3. drowning it
  4. slicing it with a razor
  5. setting it on fire
  6. blowing it up with fireworks
  7. dragging it behind a car
  8. hammering it with nails
  9. hanging by a noose in a closet
  10. via table saw

Perpendicular to the television set was over 150 small white bears, tacked to the wall, awaiting their turn.

Shout out to my mom for all of the sewing she did. I love you.

 

Now, around to the other side of my massive sprawling set-up were my still photographs I’ve been creating for the past year. I couldn’t just not include them– this is a photo program, people!

And I really love them. I used a lot of the same imagery and objects in the still photograph that I used in the installation, so their inclusion was apt.

Believe it or not, hanging the photos was more agonizing than anything else. Well, the plans behind them, anyway. You see, when you’re doing installation, you gotta take every last single thing into account. I knew I wanted to hang my still work on the outside, because like I mentioned at the start of this whole thing photos are a mediated experience, but I knew I didn’t want to hang them in a traditional gallery style in a linear line side-by-side. So I went with salon style, like how people hang family photos in hallways and living rooms and such. I went with simple black frames (sans glass) so the frames wouldn’t detract from the image, like with normal-more-ornate frames you find in grandma’s house.

I had to edit down out of like, 50 images, but the 11 that I decided on looked good together.

 

One of my images was even chosen for the promotional material. You bet your butt momma is getting this poster framed:

So, that makes up the exterior walls. For the rest of the installation, there are two interior rooms. The first is a bedroom, complete with bed, side tables, carpet, lamps, bulletin board, and reading nook. I had a few things hidden around the bedroom that hinted at childhood sexual abuse, some obvious like the razor blades and others that you really had to look for, like notes on the bulletin board or the text on the color guard flag. There were also more oblique hints, like the stacks upon stacks of sheets behind the bed (but no sheets on the bed itself, just a gross stain,) or the 160 children’s watches tacked to the wall.

 

 

Super-special-awesome shout-out to my BFF Christine Elliott, also known as Spooky Art Girl, whom I commissioned the wall paper pattern from. She’s amazing and she puts up with my insane demands so you should check out her work!

Here is her facebook!

And her etsy store!

The title of the watch piece is 160 Children Are Molested Each Day in the United States. This was a piece that I’ve been working on for over a year now, when I was like “Huh. Watches. Children’s watches. Broken. Lost time. Time stopped. TRAUMA.” Sometimes my thought processes are really elegant (ha) so I started purchasing watches and did research on how many kids are molested each day. I hung the watches in my studio for the past year, trying to figure out if the piece was just the watches or something more, and the answer was: it’s the watches. Children like to collect things, and adding the collection of watches to the installation built on the already existing anxiety I inserted into the installation.

I mean, massive amounts of things, everything organized in a rainbow, grids, lines… Whomever this bedroom belongs to, the child is obviously a very anxious one with systems of organization to abate the nervousness.

Okay yeah, I was totally projecting myself there.

The final room in the installation was the “closet.” It was much larger than an ordinary closet, but the entrance was marked by a closet rod and some clothing, which led into a dark room with black walls and a black ceiling. In this room played my video, titled A Controlled Performance Portraying an Event That Was out of My Control.

This piece was very difficult for me to create. As an artist, I want to incorporate all of myself into my art-making, and one of my skills that I hadn’t used was color guard. I was in my high school color guard for two years, and also a part of the Spartan Marching Band Color Guard at Michigan State University for 4 years, and a member of the State of Art Independent Winter Guard for a season. I coach this sport to high schoolers, and I love it. But I didn’t see how it worked into my practice.

Then I was like “eh fuck it yolo” and decided to give my body power. You see, my agency was forced away from me as a child. Using forms like dance made me more comfortable in my skin once more. My tale was very difficult to tell, as any tales of sexual abuse are, so I sought out flag and dance to share my story. Mitchell Clark, my amazing boyfriend, composed the music for this piece, which was projected in the dark closet. This was the part of the installation that shared my secret, my trauma, my healing.

I’d like to point out that the sound bled from the closet room into the other parts of my installation, so yeah, while walking around looking at watches and photos, you could hear the occasional sob.

Finally (yes, FINALLY) the last, and maybe the most quietly important part of my work, was the book I created.

Here is the thing about this book. I blogged about it briefly last fall, but then kinda gave it up, because I was told that it was “too much,” and “you don’t tell a stranger your entire life story.” Granted, I was kinda like “whatever I’ll do it anyway,” but I just didn’t make the time for it. However, I made some mock-ups of it and left it on a table during my final review last fall, and one of my professors picked it up and said “This has some serious potential.”

I’m so thankful for that professor (Paul D’Amato, you are a hero,) and to Kelli Connell, who helped me work on the book this past semester. The book will have it’s own blog post about it, but I wanted to bring it up because it is a 364 page biography about my trauma, starting with Kindergarten to when I disclosed the trauma in therapy in 2015. It’s super heavy, but I’m so proud of it as I feel that it is a good centerpiece to the sprawling installation I created.

 

I’d like to thank God, my mom, my Mitchell, my thesis advisors Alison Carey and Greg Foster-Rice, my professors, and Starbucks for helping me pull this insanity off. Special thank you to FeiFan Zhang and Sarah Hiatt for staying with me really late during install, and for my cohort who took this entire mess down while I was off messing around overseas.

OH YEAH THAT’S A THING I’M IN ASIA.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR POSTS ON THAT.

HAPPY SHOOTING!