The Hippo


Aug 25, 2019








Sam Kelly. Kelly Sennott photo.

Annual BFA Student Exhibition

When: May 18 through June 3 daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: New Hampshire Institute of Art, 148 Concord St., Manchester; 77 Amherst St., Manchester; and 88 Lowell St., Manchester
Reception: Saturday, May 21, from 6 to 9 p.m., $25

Grand finale
New grads strut their stuff at NHIA BFA Student Exhibition

By Kelly Sennott

 The deadline for New Hampshire Institute of Art seniors to break down their year-long studio spaces was Friday, May 6 — so naturally, the top floor of the Roger Williams Studios Building was crazy busy that morning.

“We have to be out at 6 today. You should have seen the studio yesterday,” said NHIA senior Isabel Villanueva, who was almost through packing up that morning. “It was insane.”
Some students, like Villanueva, were peeling canvases, images and inspiration from their walls and stashing away creative materials. Others were placing last-minute details on pieces that are part of the Annual BFA Student Exhibition, which runs through June 3 with an opening this Saturday, May 21.
Underclassmen with exceptional work will wiggle pieces in, but for the most part, the exhibition’s about the seniors, and this past year was their first chance to run wild and create content they’re passionate about. 
“The work we do prior to this is technique-based, and also, they’re assignments we only have a couple weeks to work on,” NHIA senior Sam Kelly said during a studio visit. “But this is the first time ever we’ve spent a whole year on one body of work.”
The show draws regional designers, architects, gallery owners and art collectors looking for the next big thing or a good deal, and as such, it presents a tremendous opportunity — in 2015, for example, recent grad Catherine Graffam caught the eye of McGowan Fine Art director Sarah Chaffee, who then displayed Graffam’s work in a solo show, “Trans Pose,” this spring. 
“For a lot of people, it’s their first time exhibiting in a gallery, so it’s a good opportunity for students to put their work out there,” NHIA senior Jessica Allard said.
Personal content
In the far back corner of the senior studio, Allard still had one piece to finish, and she was hoping to squeeze in a few more painting hours before the end of the day. On one wall hung a painting of a girl in a tub, and others depicted that same girl in a hospital gown. 
The pieces deal with memory and trauma, tracing back to the year she spent in a hospital enduring multiple surgeries. It’s a topic Allard was uncertain of exploring; she’d had a brain tumor since age 8, and doctors didn’t take it out because it sat on a nerve that dictated sight.
“If they had taken it all out, I would have been completely blind,” Allard said. “I had always done art as a kind of therapeutic release. It was something that was helpful for me through my medical journey. … If I was having a hard time, I would just paint or draw to get it out there.”
Ten years later, she debated whether she was ready to go back to those memories.
“As soon as you say cancer to someone, they kind of tighten up and treat you differently. But like the whole class was really therapeutic. As soon as I talked about it, people were … really supportive. That really pushed me to be even more vulnerable with what I was trying to express conceptually,” Allard said. “So I’m going back and kind of, not re-creating, but re-engaging with those past memories to try to understand why I remember them, but also think about why the brain keeps certain memories and loses others.”
In the center of the room, Kelly was recreating her grandmother’s living room with her final project, taking upcycled fabric and other materials to construct furniture, plants and relief sculptures inspired by family members. 
“My first week of senior year, my grandmother died. And that changed basically the whole course of my show,” Kelly said. “I was really close with my grandmother. When she died, my mother and her siblings made the decision to sell her house. Her house is kind of this place where I feel like I learned a lot about community and family and tradition. And most of my memories ... are focused and central around that house. So I decided to recreate it both as a way to infinitize her house, but also as a way to continue the growth I felt in that house.”
In another corner sat Timothy Elwell, the only student exploring digital media in the show. His project is presented through a story, told through an illustrated book and 3-D animation video, which will play on a loop across a 32-inch screen during the show. In another room hung Michaela Clift’s three mixed-media pieces made from  acrylic, gesso, pastel, dirt and dried flowers, which tackle female identity.
“I knew I wanted to do the female figure and I wanted to incorporate plants, but I didn’t know why. And then I realized I have been interested or reading up on feminist values and how the female body is portrayed in art,” Clift said. “So these are about objectifying the figure and kind of putting the woman in a powerful position versus a position of reformability.”
Proving yourself
Because it’s the first exhibition for many students, it’s also the first time their families will see their work. 
Villanueva’s family, for example, is traveling halfway across the country to see her multi-media pieces.
“They’ve never seen my work or anything. It’s going to almost be like proving myself. A lot of other students feel that way too. We put all our money, our time and effort into this. We want people to see our effort and be excited about art,” she said.
It’s also an opportunity to sell work. Faculty member and Dean of Undergraduate Studies Patrick McCay said pieces sell for as little as $100 and as much as $2,000. 
“Students will take all the information we give them all four years and focus that energy on something they’re interested in. Some get interested in form. Some take on personal projects,” said NHIA BFA Foundations Chairperson Joel Gill. “In my experience ... I try to steer away from making things people want to buy as the sole purpose of concern.”
The exhibition, the students explained, presents an opportunity for risk-taking and exploration.
“Not everyone wants a painting of someone in a johnny in a living room, you know what I mean? But it’s a decision I made,” Allard said. “Our studio time is sparse, and it’s important to us and meaningful. I might not sell all of these, but that’s fine with me.” 

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