Artists in Our Midst

The lives and works of faculty and students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts

painting by Isabel Montoya

This fall marks a new chapter in the arts at Tufts, as the students, faculty and staff of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts begin the academic year as members of the university community.

The SMFA officially became part of Tufts School of Arts and Sciences on July 1. Now called the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, or SMFA at Tufts, the school is distinguished in that it is situated within a major research university and affiliated with a world-class museum.

The acquisition of the SMFA reflects the university’s long-standing commitment to the arts—in fact, it took place at a time when funding and support of arts programs is dwindling nationwide.

The relationship between the two institutions goes back more than 70 years, when the Museum of Fine Arts and the university established a joint degree program to educate art teachers. Tufts has offered liberal arts courses, as well as accredited bachelor and master of fine arts degree programs, to SMFA students, while the SMFA has offered studio art classes to Tufts students pursuing a variety of majors. The two institutions have also offered a joint, five-year, combined-degree program in which undergraduates earn both a B.A. and a B.FA.

“The acquisition of the SMFA heralds a renaissance for the arts at Tufts, and will create myriad opportunities to enrich our fine arts curriculum and to infuse our community with new energy and perspectives,” says Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco.

Arts education is essential at a university like Tufts, says Nancy Bauer, dean of the SMFA at Tufts and an academic dean and philosophy professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. “Artists show us how to be progressive, communicative and provocative,” she says. “My vision is to take what they’ve already done at the Museum School for a very long time and give them what they need to soar.”

To celebrate the new members of the Tufts community, Tufts Now talked with faculty and students at the SMFA at Tufts and asked them to share some of their art.



Floor van de Velde, from “Luminous Scores: Reflections on Light in Art & Science”
Full-Time Visiting Artist, Department of Performance and 3D

CLASSICALLY TRAINED VIOLINIST: The daughter of a Belgian conductor, van de Velde grew up playing in orchestras, attending conservatory and training for the career of a classical musician. Taking a break from music, she changed directions, starting a design studio in New York and studying visual arts at MassArt and MIT.

THE POWER OF LIGHT: Combining sculpture, sound and light in a variety of formats, van de Velde draws much of her inspiration from sound, language and science. Her most recent work on display at the Madison Science Museum, Luminous Scores: Reflections on Light in Art and Science, draws inspiration from the research of University of Wisconsin physicist Robert Wood, a pioneer in ultraviolet and infrared photography. 

BIG TOOLBOX: Van de Velde’s work explores the aesthetic potential of sculpture, sound and design. She’s recently taught classes in a variety of subjects: “sonic forms” (sound sculpture), digital fabrication and design, installation art, and video.

FOSTERING CURIOSITY: “There’s no diploma that can declare you an artist,” says van de Velde. “I am interested in fostering inquisitiveness not only in art, but also in life . . . a big part of my philosophy is not what is art, or how do I teach art, but what can art teach us.”

NIGHTHOUSE STUDIO: The name of the artist collaborative that she and her partner, Elaine Buckholtz, established in San Francisco. The studio’s work activates space and transforms environments into large-scale, site-specific, permanent light installations that interfere with architecture and landscape design.

WIN-WIN: Joining with Tufts “will open up new avenues for collaboration between seemingly disparate research areas, which is a unique position for an art school to be in,” says van de Velde, who has a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT.  



Khadine Caines, “Red Onion” Khadine Caines, “Red Onion”
Hometown: Miami, Florida

GREEN ARTIST: In high school, Caines, who grew up in a multi-generational Dominican household where food was an important part of culture, began painting with inks she made out of fruits and vegetables. That left her with bags full of fruit and vegetable remains, and not wanting to be wasteful, she decided to incorporate them into her sculptural projects. From there, she says, she never looked back.

SERENDIPITOUS MISHAP: The piece Layered—for which Caines arranged thin slices of vegetables between Plexiglas sheets—started off as individual slides, but when the slides shifted during transportation so that they overlapped, she rolled with it, deciding that she preferred the layered effect. Now Layered is her favorite project.

NATIONAL HONORS: Caines was a merit award winner in the 2015 National YoungArts Foundation visual arts competition, which she describes as the “highest accolade a high schooler can get.” YoungArts counts actress Viola Davis, singer-songwriter Josh Groban and artist Daniel Arsham among its alumni.

EARLY RECRUIT: Caines set her sights on Boston back in seventh grade, when an SMFA admissions officer visited a class she was taking at the Learning Tree of Arts, a Miami-based organization that helps student artists with portfolio preparation. “Ever since I found out about SMFA, I wanted to go there,” she says.  

CROSSING OVER: Caines’ portfolio often explores the world of plants, which she will delve into more deeply by taking botany and biology courses in the School of Arts and Sciences.



Isabella “Izzi” Montoya, “Lantanas”Isabella “Izzi” Montoya, “Lantanas”
Hometown: West Palm Beach, Florida

CONNECTING THE DOTS: Montoya, a first-generation college student whose Colombian family speaks Spanish at home, knew she wanted to be an artist since the day she discovered face paint at a soccer game with her brother. Soon after, she was applying five to seven layers of cross-hatching and dots to her friends’ faces, inspired by the tiny brushstrokes of French painter Paul Cezanne. Her goal, she says, was to “represent family, friends, things in our culture, specific points in life. Things that mark you.”

MIND OF SCIENCE: Montoya’s interest in art is matched by an interest in biology, which took root in seventh grade when a frustrating life sciences class drove her to do her own reading on the subject. “Something about the intricacy of life is really appealing,” she says. “These tiny things that are alive, that work together to make us—it’s just crazy.”

PERFECT FIT: At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, “everything around me revolves around biology and art,” says Montoya. “This was my dream all along—to study what I want.”

WEAVING THE STRANDS: Montoya uses leaves to make prints, and paints DNA helixes on her face using red for her mother, blue for her father and purple for herself. At Tufts, Montoya hopes to study cells and use their structures in her art. She also wants to become a biomedical researcher.



Mary Ellen Strom, “FLOW,” a large-scale video installation projected onto the outside of the historic Story Mill grain terminalMary Ellen Strom, “FLOW,” a large-scale video installation projected onto the outside of the historic Story Mill grain terminal
Professor of the Practice, Media Arts

REGARDING THE PAST: “I have a deep interest in history as well as art history and the environment,” says Strom. “I also deeply appreciate the privilege of working with and getting to know people in different communities.”

SCENES FROM AN INSTALLATION: For a 2003 video installation, she worked with members of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations. The result was a haunting work. As a train barrels through the Bozeman Pass in Montana, a ghostly herd of buffalo appears. The white silhouettes run toward the train, then disappear. The train also passes a dozen figures frozen on a hillside—railroad workers stopping a landslide, just as they do in an 1872 photograph.

EXPLORING CONNECTIONS: Teaching video installation and contemporary art practice at the graduate level, Strom helps her students understand that art is connected with the people, places and disciplines around it. “The artist is a producer of visual language, but also a scholar, a knowledge producer, a writer, a curator,” she says.

PRACTICAL RESULTS: “One thing that young artists in particular learn to do is to be lightning rods for ideas of great consequence to the planet,” Strom says. “In art classrooms, we’re challenged to think of inhabiting the world in a different way, to develop an artist’s ethos and think about the ways that art contributes to the planet.”



Tyler Villa, “No Connection”Tyler Villa, “No Connection”
Hometown: Needham, Massachusetts

WHY ART SCHOOL: Villa performed in school plays as a kid. In high school, having already designed unique dresses for friends, he began working backstage as an assistant costume designer for town productions of Les Misérables and Once Upon a Mattress, among others. As graduation neared, “I had my heart set on being a fashion designer and running away to New York,” he says. His eureka moment came when his high school art teacher pointed out that his dresses—which included offbeat materials such as playing cards and sometimes featured 3-D felt details—were actually sculptures. “Up until that point, I didn’t really consider myself an artist.”

MIXED INTERESTS:  Sculpture, painting, drawing, collage, ceramics, photography, videography and poetry. “I usually just say that I am a philosopher, because all of my pieces stem from a concept,” he says.

THE LANGUAGE OF ART: “I like to view the drawings and paintings as sentences and paragraphs rather than just abstract shapes,” Villa says. “They could be read like a story, with a beginning and an end.”

INSPIRATION: His family, particularly his parents, who divorced, remarried and recently divorced again. Here’s how he describes his sculpture No Connection: “All of those little cups are upside down, so all their contents are spilling out, and there are two entities standing alone along either side. Whatever your baggage is, you bring it to the table whenever you are talking to someone else, and you end up with a cluster of baggage between you.”

UNEXPECTED UPROAR: The reaction to his piece Getting to Know the Wall. SMFA students can sign up to create art on a particular wall at the school as long as they agree to paint over it before the next student’s turn, and when it was time for Villa’s turn, he decided to chip away at the wall itself, revealing layers of previous art and leaving a colorful pile of debris. “The piece was a lot about an excavation of time,” he says. Some at the school praised it, while others argued it was a mess that disrupted the hallway. He stopped work on it when administrators said he would have to pay if the wall needed new panels. That pushback made the project one of his favorites.



Nayoung Kim, “Sunny Side Up in the Factory”Nayoung Kim, “Sunny Side Up in the Factory”
Hometown: Great Neck, New York

TURNING POINT:  Art was long an interest, but Kim was good in science, too. She didn’t see what one had to do with the other until she was a freshman in high school and met an exchange student from South Korea who wanted to be an artist. “I got to see her portfolio-making process and began to see similarities between science and art,” says Kim. “Both start with the questions, What am I interested in? What do I want to learn more about?”

ANIMAL NATURE: Much of Kim’s work deals with nature, and animals are a recurring theme. “In one project, I drew five lizards and put them on a clock-like structure I had made out of wood,” says Kim. “The lizards were chasing crickets, but also chasing after time.” 

CHICKEN-AND-EGG QUESTION: “I made this really big sunny-side up egg out of paint and glue, and I placed 11 cardboard chickens on top of the egg,” Kim says. “It’s humorous, but if you look at it another way, it’s cruel; the chickens are eating the egg—they are picking at it. It’s interesting to see how people interpret it.”

ADVANTAGE OF A DUAL DEGREE PROGRAM: Not having to choose between academics and art. “Having multiple perspectives, I think, will create artwork that is more personal and more meaningful,” says Kim. 

WHY ART IS IMPORTANT: “For me, art touches the unconscious,” says Kim. “I am able to see what I am thinking more clearly. When I explain my art, I learn about myself.”



Christine Sopata, “Page Two”Christine Sopata, “Page Two”
Hometown: Patton, Pennsylvania

A THOUSAND WORDS: For Sopata, art is not just about images; she has used books and literature as the inspiration for several of her recent projects, including the two works that helped earn her the Springborn Fellowship, the SMFA’s most prestigious undergraduate prize.

THE PHYSICAL: Sopata’s piece Debt Sentence, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, features a mold of her own body fashioned out of packing tape and Styrofoam and weighted down with student loan statements. It’s about being “burned at the stake by the price of our own education,” she says.

THE INTERNAL: What is the Human Body, which Sopata completed in her first semester at the SMFA, is made up of stone, paper, charcoal, embroidery thread, fabric—and even leaves she picked up outside. Each of the seven pages, she says, is based on one of the body’s seven chakras, which are centers of spiritual energy in Indian philosophy. “I didn’t realize until the end that I was making an internal self-portrait,” she says. “It’s by far the strongest piece I’ve made.”

DEFINING INFLUENCE: Sopata, who transferred to the SMFA in 2015 from the Delaware College of Art and Design, grew up in a town of fewer than 2,000 people in the rural central part of Pennsylvania. Her high school art teacher nurtured her talent and encouraged her to go to art school. “In this area, it is hard to be taken seriously” if you want to be an artist, she says. “Hearing the judgment from people telling you it is not practical can start to bring you down. Luckily I have amazing teachers, friends and family who do support me.”



Rachel Shiloach, “Horses Missing His Wife”Rachel Shiloach, “Horses Missing His Wife”
Hometown:  Moshav Ofer, Israel

DANCER’S AESTHETIC: Shiloach started strict, five-hour-a-day training in ballet, tap, jazz, modern dance and choreography at age 10. “Becoming familiar with the art of dance enabled me to observe inspiring aspects of the human body,” she says, a theme that recurs throughout her work.

FINDING HERSELF: Born in Israel, Shiloach served for two years as an assistant manager of a mental health unit in the Israeli Defense Forces. She started applying to art school during her second year. “When it got harder to do art, I knew that art was what I wanted to do,” she says.

EDUCATION WITHOUT BOUNDARIES: Growing up, she attended an open school with no set lessons or schedules, and she sees many parallels between the SMFA and that early education, which allowed her to tap into her imagination and develop a hunger for learning on her own time. “The SMFA offers me endless possibilities,” she says. “When you let someone choose their own direction, it helps them to develop.”

DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES: She has trouble pinpointing a piece she likes better than others in her portfolio. “The process is most meaningful to me,” she says. “A good work for me is a work that touched me or that moved someone.”

SPRINGBORN FELLOW: Shiloach is the recipient of the SMFA’s most prestigious undergraduate award, which recognizes students who have proven themselves to be highly motivated artists.

Divya Amladi, Laura Ferguson, Julie Flaherty, Monica Jimenez, Taylor McNeil and Helene Ragovin contributed to this story.

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