Art to See, Hear, and Touch

IRL once again, the 2022 MFA Thesis Exhibitions feature work from 25 graduating students

After more than two years of COVID, can art help us feel safe, comfortable, and welcome in a public space? Andrew Cain wanted to try.

“During the pandemic, we’ve all been wary of touching things,” said Cain, who is about to graduate with his Master of Fine Arts from SMFA at Tufts. For his thesis project, he wanted to create objects that gallery visitors would be drawn to touch or hold. It was a challenge, he said, to come up with materials that would overcome the urge to keep our hands to ourselves.

He ended up tufting and felting his sculptures to give them appealing textures, and choosing bright, enticing colors. These soft objects, he says, represent his own emotions, which he hopes will put viewers “in touch with the feeling of safety, or belonging.”

Some of Cain’s soft emotions are on display as part of the 2022 MFA Thesis Exhibitions, You’re on Mute (May 5-15) and Forever in Ten Days (May 21–31). The shows, held at the Tufts University Art Galleries on the Medford/Somerville campus, feature work from 25 MFA students graduating from SMFA at Tufts this year.

During their time at Tufts, the students honed their skills but also embraced new materials and ways of making art, branching out from printmaking to sculpture, as Cain did, or from photography to installation pieces.

They used their art for conversations about race, queerness, cultural entanglements, and environmental challenges. Some drew on the social movements happening in the wider society, while others turned their gaze inward to uncover more personal truths.

“For a while, my work was doing more topical issues,” said Nikki Silva. “And I think once the pandemic hit, I just couldn’t keep up anymore. It was too much to keep watching, reading everyone's opinions, everything being said. So I’ve been doing work through a more internal lens, about family.” She has explored Italian American immigration in her own family and in her home state of Rhode Island.

Family was a source of inspiration for many. Isaac Zerkle used a collection of Baltic amber, passed down from his great-grandfather and symbolic of preservation and encapsulation, to “grapple with family and culture, legacy and inheritance.”

With their brother, Jorge Gomez-Gonzalez recreated a traditional Mexican terracotta pinata from their childhood, a proxy for the intergenerational trauma they experienced as a genderqueer, gay person of color.

Alonso Nichols juxtaposed archival and personal family photos with images of Smoketown—Louisville, Kentucky’s oldest Black American neighborhood. “Some of the members of my family are actually people who have built this neighborhood literally with their hands,” he said.

Like all MFA students, his work is steeped in research; he spent a month talking to archivists to understand the historical context of the images he found. The result is an exploration of gentrification, segregation, and Black American space.

Several of the artists focus on the mind. Flor Delgadillo, who started on a medical journey after a seizure at age four, suspends translucent cross-sections of a brain in a color-filled video installation. Priya Dave shows the branching and connecting of neurons in a mapping of the brain’s physiological architecture “to help audiences understand the brain’s creative processes and the importance of mental health as understood through neuroscience.”

Despite the frustrations of the pandemic, the artists showed that they could still create intriguing works, with lots to see and hear—and even a few things you should feel free to touch.

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