2023 MFA Exhibition features 6 student artists

Carrying on a tradition that began in 1970, six School of Art graduate students presented their work in the 2023 Master of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition in collaboration with the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

The exhibition, with three installations in UAMA and three in the school’s Joseph Gross Gallery, ran from April 15 to May 13 at 1031 N. Olive Road. An opening reception was held April 20 at the school’s atrium.

This annual exhibition, the culmination of the MFA Studio Degree, is presented during a graduate student’s final semester in the three-year degree program. During the last year of their coursework, graduates work closely with faculty to develop a body of original art to present to the public in lieu of a written thesis. The result offers visitors the opportunity to see new, cutting-edge art in a variety of mediums and styles.

“This is the next generation of artists who will be going out and impacting the discipline and thinking about what their next chapter looks like,” School of Art Director Colin Blakely said. “We encourage our students to be bold and experiment and take ownership of their process. This exhibition is a fantastic manifestation of all of those qualities.”

The MFA Exhibition featured installations by Alain Co, Mariel Miranda and Gabrielle Walter in the Joseph Gross Gallery and Emily Kray, Jesus Sanchez-Alvarez and Jandey Shackelford in the UAMA Gallery.

“Each artist in this exhibition took a unique path in their work, demonstrating their research, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and ambition,” said Chelsea Farrar, UAMA’s curator of community engagement. “Collectively these works represent the rigor, the quality and the breadth of study of the U of A School of Art.”



• Bio: Alain is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Sculpture. Originally from New Orleans, they received their Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art with a concentration in Sculpture from Southeastern Louisiana University. They have works installed on sites ranging from the Tucson high desert to the Ozark foothills.

• Thesis title: Ever, Always Are

• Artist’s statement: My installation is a response to strong dissociative tendencies. When dysregulated, my grasp of reality becomes fragile and I don’t trust my thoughts or perceptions. Memories become slippery, mutable, and easily influenced. When in that state, working with materials brings clarity to an oppressive fog — if I can touch it, I know it is real. Adaptation has driven me towards object-making in all its forms, and I relate this survival strategy to natural phenomena.

Many studies of Earth systems (ecology, climatology, geology, etc.) use extracted core samples from different substrates, like pencil-thin specimens from living trees or massive cylinders removed from the Antarctic. They are used as analogs for recreating past climate and ecological data. Using condensed layers of debris, scientists can paint pictures of the past, solve ecological mysteries, and posit conditions for the future. The sculpture objects I create are formed through accumulation and reformation.

Each is an experiment that incorporates an array of materials, using a range of techniques. Strata of texture and color are displayed together in an arc with individual arrangements acting as samples of the core materials. Fragments, residue, and debris that is gathered, donated, or remnant from previous projects are assembled, deconstructed, rearranged, combined, dismantled, and assembled again. This body of work and the experience of my being are grounded in the constant bending, breaking, and reforming of matter through living systems on our planet.

• Instagram: @a.co_thealien


• Bio: Emily Kray, is a visual artist working primarily with watercolor and book arts to investigate the complexities and fallacies of memory by manipulating our attachment to nostalgic and familiar forms. He began his artistic career by living and working in Las Vegas and received his BFA from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2020. That same year, he began his MFA at the University of Arizona. He has participated in group shows nationally since 2016 and has had solo shows across Nevada and in Arizona. Since then, Kray continues to make art with a focus on community involvement and volunteer work with a goal to graduate with his MFA in the Spring of 2023.

• Thesis title: You Can Only Turn Left

• Artist’s statement: My installation investigates the blurry state between sleeping and waking where memories fade into dreams, and reality feathers into the fantastic. The expansive nature of our unconscious rivals that of the mysteries of deep space and the depths of our oceans, and reveals to us the limitless potential of our own humanity. Dreams throughout history have been the vehicles for new discoveries, spiritual awakenings, divine interventions, and a place to revisit the absurd theater of life. By untangling and studying my own dreams, I have compiled a personal lexicon of the symbols that appear and reappear to me, referencing my personal truths, absurdity, and the beautiful mundanity of my waking life.

In these artworks, as in dreams, the observer is riddled with the question of agency. The interactive narrative included in the exhibition explores this notion as it simulates the liminal hypnagogic state before one’s body falls asleep. The hallucinations experienced within this simulation force the player to bounce between different states of consciousness while tossing and turning in bed. Both the player and the character lack control in this scenario, thus offering a challenge to be a mentally flexible dreamer and an attempt to achieve lucidity.

The subjects represented in this body of work appear from the black abyss. Dense, inky mist distorts and emphasizes their form. They are hidden and uncovered simultaneously, offering both questions and answers. Each work is a morphing riddle, or a liquid puzzle. By resisting the urge to impose our credulous desires upon these dreamy experiences, these symbols can exist in a realm detached from logic. The subjects within these works offer opportunities for new perspectives, new possibilities, and instances to practice nonattachment to our logical tendencies.

• Website: emilykray.com/emily

• Instagram: @troctopus


• Bio: Mariel lives and works in Tijuana and Tucson, where she is an MFA in Studio Art candidate at the School of Art and the 2021 Marcia Grand Centennial Sculpture Prize recipient. A sociologist and visual artist, she is co-founder and director of the International Festival of Photography Tijuana (FIFT), a feminist platform created for the undisciplined reflection on the image and its current modes of production.

• Thesis title: The dust, or the wind, perhaps

• Artist’s statement : My work presents a speculative fiction installation invoking radical utopias founded in a Science Fiction workshop that I co-hosted with my brother, neighbors and friends in Las Cumbres, my barrio in Tijuana, Mexico. Together we planned how to defend our loved ones against a narco pest and the alien thieves that are causing the running water to dry out in our homes. We challenge the use of our land as a junkyard and undermine the presence of a factory that works for the neocolonialist corporations Tesla and SpaceX — thriving on profit from the old Mars colonization fantasy while relying on extractivist practices and of our manual labor.

In my neighborhood, I have been weaving the tactics of resistance embedded in our collective work and ability to imagine, transform and create with what is available. The years involved in the process of creating a communal library in the front yard of my house as the making of photographs, collages, oral histories, interviews, videos, essays and workshops have allowed me to use art and education as excuses for the mobilization of desire and affective places for the night. In a moment of history, where triumphant narratives depend on our sadness and pessimistic belief in the future’s end, in Las Cumbres — as in many other territories — our fight is for solidarity, joy and life: The South are us.

• Website: marielmira.com

• Instagram: @mariiel.mira


• Bio: Jesus is a graduate student in painting & drawing at the School of Art, where he has been a teaching assistant for the “Elements of Drawing” course. His current drawings and paintings attempt to revive historical decorative designs foreign to our fast-paced society through a world he invented consisting of characters who grow ornamented lifeforms through music.

• Thesis title: Embellishment Intimacy

The presence of ornamentation in this work represents the extension of the natural world beyond where it ordinarily grows. As a result, many decorative components take on organic shapes. Ornament in these renditions can be found on the vestments, architecture, wings, trees, plants, and seeds. The large, decorated, egg-like shapes are the seeds which bloom into elaborately designed plants. The nature in these settings grows upon the playing of musical instruments found in the series’ universe.

By combining nature and ornament, two different visual dialogues emerge. The realistic representations of life forms communicate spontaneity, as nature grows unpredictably. On the other hand, the decorative components embody repetition and idealization. Thus, I seek for my work to be a union between realism and idealism, as well as spontaneity and recurrence.

• Artist’s statement: Creating a sense of intimacy with natural forms and ornamentation is the driving force behind my pen and ink drawings and watercolor paintings. My definition of natural forms encompasses plants, human beings, and animals. Studying the diversity of organisms on our planet evokes within me an attraction to fantastical and other worldly imagery, such as hybrid beings. In my view, a hybrid being is a living composite of multiple life forms such as fairies, centaurs, and angels. I view nature as an enchanting place, and I seek to magnify this perception through creating new types of plants and creatures.

• Website: wixsite.com/jernestoart

• Instagram: @j.ernesto.art


• Bio: A multimedia artist from Gillette, Wyoming, Jandey received her BFA from the University of Wyoming and studied abroad in Australia, where she focused on making work about the objectification of women.

• Thesis title: Imprint

• Artist’s statement: My work raises questions and sheds light on persistent stereotypes, gender roles and forms of oppression that persist. Specifically, it is a reflective examination of the impact that a space, particularly a home or house, can have on its inhabitants. I utilize a combination of my own footprints and those of others to explore these concepts. The footprints serve as tangible evidence, presence, and memory of the impact that this space has had on those who occupy it.

These large drawings were created through a process that employs bodies, space, interaction and physical manipulation of roofing paper. The material was subjected to a system of imprinting, tearing, arranging, and careful mending with fibers to represent the foundation of a home and the chaos that can exist within it. Through the combination of construction and craft materials, I seek to express the experience of living in a space characterized by a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. The act of creating these drawings represents an effort to transcend the space of sadness from which they were born.

• Instagram: @jandeyshackelford


• Bio: An MFA candidate in Illustration and Design, Gabrielle is a visual artist that makes anything and everything sequential — and work about her relationship with her body, anxiety and womanhood. All mediums are of interest to her, but she mainly uses drawings, cyanotypes, and digital illustration to create her projects. In the past, she has worked in both public and fine art spaces, producing the design for Bill Walton’s chair at University of Arizona basketball games as well as work for Lubbock and Tucson galleries.

• Thesis title: Fireweed

• Artist’s statement: My installation is inspired by a 2022 trip to Juneau, Alaska, where I reconnected with my body through place. An artist book, illustration series and animation incorporate cyanotypes gathered during this journey to tell the story of a fictional protagonist in conflict with herself and nature. As this young woman goes for a walk, she fixates on the beauty of the landscape, spurring a thought spiral about her aesthetic and physical worth in the vastness of her location.

Alaska’s native fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) becomes a catalyst for change as the defeated protagonist finds similarities in her own journey and this weed’s ability to survive. With this work, I was able to ask how the body affects our navigation of mental and physical spaces.

Set to the backdrop of a cyanotype mountain range, I sought to capture the role nature can play in this relationship as it forces us to acknowledge our bodies through physical exertion and witness the beauty found in harsh conditions. Fireweed is an ode to the endurance of the human form and the relationship between femininity, resilience, and the body.

• Website: gabriellewalterart.weebly.com

• Instagram: @gabriellewalterart

As honors flow, Macias hopes to expand border discourse

For years, Alejandro Macias shied away from using his experience growing up on the Texas-Mexico border as the subject of his figure paintings. “I felt everyone around me knew this experience,” he said, “so why speak on it?”

But during his first residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2016, Macias witnessed other young contemporary artists drawing inspiration from their life journeys. “This gave me the confidence and validation to speak on the bicultural experience, assimilation, acculturation, and use sociopolitical subject matter to exercise my voice,” he said.

Now, the University of Arizona School of Art assistant professor is being honored for embracing that voice.

Not only did Macias land a prestigious three-month CALA Alliance residency this summer for Latinx artists, but he also received the Lehmann Emerging Artist Award from the Phoenix Art Museum and saw his “Man on Fire” painting acquired by the University of Arizona Museum of Art for its permanent collection.

Alex Macias, School of Art Assistant Professor

Macias will focus his residency work on the U.S.-Mexico border, including systems of repression, oppression, erasure, disappearances and stories of migration.

“It’s content that I’ve been wanting to investigate using multimedia approaches, such as painting, drawing, printmaking and video,” said Macias, who plans to interview people across the borderlands, collaborate with local organizations and research statistical data.

“I’d like to explore this content with sincerity, and I’m hoping that my work can do these experiences justice and expand the U.S.-Mexico border discourse,” added Macias, who said the project will exhibit in yet-to-be-determined spaces in Phoenix and New York.

Macias is sharing the Lehmann Emerging Artist Award with Yaritza Flores Bustos, who migrated from Mexico to Phoenix at a young age. The two will be part of a joint exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, starting July 19, along with Fronterizx Collective, the Scult Artist Award recipient.

“These artists each explore identity in distinct ways but through a shared lens of life on the borderlands, defined by varying migration patterns and transnational identity,” said Christian Ramírez, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary and community art initiatives.

For Macias, “I couldn’t be more excited to exhibit within such an incredible museum and alongside such esteemed and accomplished artists,” he said.

Macias is also excited about the residency program at the CALA Alliance (Celebración Artística de las Américas), which provides artists with housing, studio space, a generous stipend and future exhibition opportunities. The group’s executive director and curator is Alana Hernandez.

“I truly respect Alana’s mission on making this opportunity a reality for so many emerging and established Latinx artists,” Macias said. “Her goal to uplift Arizona Latinx artists is beyond admirable because southern Arizona is a unique experience within the United States socio-political climate. … I feel it’s a place where many artists are tucked away and go unnoticed, due to the magnitude of the East Coast and West Coast art scenes. Alana is uncovering and contributing to the contemporary Latinx art canon in a regional, national and international way. I’m happy to even be a small fragment of CALA Alliance’s history.”

“Nepal en la Frente” (“Father as a Child)” / 2022 Alex Macias painting

Born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, Macias received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Brownsville in 2008 and a Master of Fine Arts in 2-D Studio Art from the University of Texas-Pan American in 2012.

“Brownsville is full of rich history and is a safe haven for many Mexican migrants and families struggling to survive,” Macias said. “It was an atmosphere and experience that I felt truly enveloped by, especially as a child, because I traversed between Brownsville and Matamoros in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Brownsville has an approximately 94% Hispanic population, and I’m second-generation Mexican American myself.”

One of Macias’ mentors was Carlos G. Gomez, his painting professor at UT Brownsville and a friend who migrated to the U.S. from Mexico City as a young child. Gomez died from brain cancer in early 2016, and Macias said, “the culmination of his teachings and guidance still affect my artistic practice today.”

Macias was a lecturer at UT Brownsville, which later became the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, before accepting a position at University of Arizona School of Art in 2019 as a painting and drawing assistant professor.

“We spent two years actively looking for a faculty member who could make positive contributions to our Painting program while also speaking to the unique experiences of the region in which we reside,” School of Art Director Colin Blakely said. “When we came in contact with Alex, we knew we had found exactly what we were looking for. He brings an important perspective and voice to our programs, and it’s exciting to watch the well-deserved success his work has garnered.”

In addition to Vermont, Macias also participated in residencies at Chateau d’Orquevaux in France, The Studios at MASS MoCA and the Wassaic Project in New York. He’s been a part of recent group exhibitions at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Amarillo (Texas) Museum of Art, Carlsbad (N.M.) Museum of Art, Las Cruces (N.M.) Museum of Art and Arizona State University Art Museum.

Macias held solo exhibitions at Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts in Lubbock, Texas; Presa House Gallery in San Antonio and Tucson Museum of Art, and was featured in the West Issue #156 of New American Paintings, juried by Lauren R. O’Connell, curator of contemporary art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Man on Fire” / 2022 Alex Macias painting

Just recently, the University of Arizona Museum of Art acquired Macias’ 2022 “Man on Fire” painting — a work inspired by his first visit to the UAMA gallery in 2019 and seeing renowned artist Luis Jimenez’s sculpture with the same title.

Jimenez, who died in a studio accident in 2006, was a central figure in the Chicano art movement, known for his small drawings and prints to monumental sculptural works. Jimenez’s “Man on Fire” work, Macias said, speaks on the Spanish colonization of the Aztec empire and the torture of its ruler, Cuauhtémoc, the Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze to protest the Vietnam War, Thich Quang Duc, as well as Chicano identities along the Southwest.

“I felt inspired to … pay homage to such an iconic Chicano figure,” Macias said. “In this case, I am critiquing my own American assimilation through an image of myself burning. The serape Mexican textile, which reinforces my ethnic and cultural background, burns away in the shape of a flame over my head. … As a side note, I am also honoring Presa House Gallery within my T-shirt, a San Antonio art space that centralizes the voices of Latinx artists within central and south Texas.”

School of Art alumna Olivia Miller (BFA ’05), new director of UAMA, said she was “struck by Alex’s approach. … He was inspired by (Jimenez’s) sculpture, but he created a painting unique to his aesthetic and his personal experience.”

“While it’s exciting to see how Alex’s painting connects to existing works in the collection in provocative ways, it’s also important for the museum to support the perspectives of contemporary Latinx artists in our region,” Miller said.

Those words mean a lot, Macias said.

“I’m happy to hear that UAMA is investing in Latinx voices and continuing the legacy of Luis Jimenez through his influence,” he said. “I’m humbled and honored to be included in a such an important collection.”

Wellesley Fellow Smith latest alum to earn national recognition

When Kaitlyn Jo Smith received a prestigious early-career artist fellowship from Wellesley College, she thanked her professors at the University of Arizona School of Art for “believing in me and my work.”

“Graduate school taught me to think bigger, dream bigger and trust in my instincts,” said Smith, a 2020 Master of Fine Arts graduate in Photography, Video and Imaging whose interdisciplinary art focuses on America’s working class and the implications of automation on labor and religion.

Smith joins a long list of other recent alums and current students in the MFA and Art History/Art & Visual Culture Education programs to earn national recognition and realize their dreams. Some examples include:

Kaitlyn Jo Smith, in front of her “American Standard” installation at Tucson Museum of Art (Photo by Julius Schlosburg)
  • Ricardo Chavez (current Ph.D. student): Tyson Scholar in American Art
  • Kendall Crabbe (Ph.D. ’22, AVCE): Elliot Eisner Doctoral Research Runner Up-Award in Art Education
  • Karlito Miller Espinosa (MFA ’19): Whitney Independent Study Program
  • Tehan Ketema (MFA ’22): First Wave Arts and Education Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Martin Krafft (’20 MFA): Residency at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York
  • Naseem Navab (MFA ’19): Artists in Residence, Art Produce Gallery, San Diego
  • Marina Shaltout (’20 MFA): Residencies at the Creative Centre in Stodvarfjordur, Iceland and at New Mexico State University
  • Alex Turner (MFA ’20): Grand Prize, FOCUS Photo L.A. Summer 2021 Competition
  • Bella Maria Varela (’21 MFA): Early Career Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Kenzie Wells (’20 MFA): Residencies at the Wassaic Project Artist Residency in New York, Oxbow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Michigan, and Penland School of Craft in North Carolina

“Our graduate programs are incredibly strong right now, and there is no better evidence of that than the success of our students after graduation,” School of Art Director Colin Blakely said. “Kaitlyn Jo is a perfect example. She pushed her work in new and truly innovative directions during her time here, and the recognition associated with this fellowship is a great and well-deserved validation of that.”

Kaitlyn Jo Smith’s workspace (ArtConnect photo)

In late April, Smith received the 2023-2024 Alice C. Cole ’42 Fellowship in Studio Art at Wellesley College near Boston. The $35,000 award is intended to support outstanding artists at an early point in their career, by providing the necessary time to develop their art relatively independent of financial pressures.

“The work that I make is a direct reflection of my experiences growing up in a working-class family in rural middle America,” she said. “The fact that these stories resonate with others is validating for me not only as an artist, but as a young adult trying to understand my place in the world.”

Smith is from Sycamore in northwest Ohio, a town of about 800 people, where she joined 4H in fourth grade and took one of the youth organization’s photography classes. “I’ve been obsessed with images ever since,” she said. “I’m extremely fortunate that my parents have always been incredibly supportive in all of my creative pursuits.”

She was just a teen when the housing market crashed in 2007-08, leaving most of the adults she knew out of work. She earned her BFA in Photography from Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio before joining the University of Arizona School of Art’s Photography, Video and Imaging MFA program in its first year of expanding into technology.

“Kaitlyn entered as a traditional photographer-based artist but quickly pushed the limits of the medium and her own work to compel viewers to feel the despair of the U.S. manufacturing labor market’s waning,” Regents Professor Sama Alshaibi said. “Many of her art pieces involve the use of material that has been altered, replicated, exploited and out of place.”

Added Alshaibi: “I’m thrilled that Kaitlyn’s practice has been recognized by the Wellesley College Art Department as spanning Sculpture through an expansive lens, including new media and deep-learning production, social practice and virtual domains.”

Computer-generated factory workers from “Lights Out,” 2020. See a video excerpt.

Smith calls the graduate program at the School of Art “a pressure cooker of brilliant minds and high expectations.”

“Throughout my entire experience, I felt supported by a group of (faculty) mentors who I genuinely believe wanted me to succeed: Sama, Martina Shenal, David Taylor, Cerese Vaden and so many others,” Smith said. “I miss the intensity of critiques and the space for criticism in a nurturing environment.”

Smith’s “American Standard” MFA Thesis Exhibition project, put on hold until 2021 because of COVID, reflected her roots in the Midwest. She was longlisted for the 2021 Lumen Prize in Art and Technology (London) and received the College Art Association’s Services to Artists Committee Award for her video “Lights Out.”

Her “Fixtures” and “Lights Out” installations, which make the workers and the products they produce visible, are on display at the Arizona Biennial exhibition until Oct. 1 at the Tucson Museum of Art. 

“American Standard pushed me both conceptually and technically,” Smith said. “I’m even prouder of my most recent exhibition ‘Mass Production.’ It was the first solo show I have had since grad school and consisted of four entirely new projects. Since its installation, I have noticed a big shift in the way I see myself — I no longer felt like a student, but a professional.”

“Mass Production” ran from March 19 to April 30 at Bells Projects in Denver. The exhibition connected the repetition of Catholic mass to the rituals of factory production, Smith said.

“Each of my Catholic grandmother’s seven sons has worked in a factory,” she said. “When I think of their collective prayer at her funeral mass, I think of my father and his brothers on the assembly line. ‘Mass Production’ questions whether the learned rituals of Catholicism have conditioned them, and other blue-collar workers, for habitual lives of monotonous labor. …”

“Confessional Kiosk,” 2023, from “Mass Production” exhibition in Denver

During her fellowship, Smith said she’ll continue “to explore the ways that automation and artificial intelligence are rapidly changing our understanding of work and how we structure our lives.”

Smith will take several trips to Wellesley, Massachusetts, but will remain based in Tucson and continue as an adjunct instructor at the School of Art. She’s taught various classes, including Introduction to Photographic Concepts.

“Kaitlyn has been a great asset to our extensive image/photography program because she has the ability to uniquely link established artistic techniques with cutting-edge technologies for relevant purposes,” Alshaibi said.

Smith’s work uses 3D printing and scanning “as a way to visually present the monotony of both automation and skilled manual labor,” she said.

“I love teaching. I love learning from my students,” Smith said. “There is something so inspiring about being surrounded by and helping realize so many wildly different ideas. I’m incredibly passionate in what I do and hope that I encourage that love of exploration and discovery in my students. Art is not easy, but I can think of nothing more rewarding than creating something out of nothing. I love watching my students experience that accomplishment.”

As part of her fellowship, Smith will give an artist’s talk at Wellesley this fall and work with students there. “While many of the subjects in my work have roots in the Midwest and Rust Belt, I believe that a lot of the themes are universal,” she said.

Smith’s work and teaching are important now more than ever because they combine science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, with the arts, Alshaibi said.

“While Kaitlyn produces exquisite and poetic work in photography and found archives, it’s her capacity to fully embrace innovation and creative risk-taking that sets her apart from others,” Alshaibi said. “She has personal experience with what it takes to uphold tradition while developing and inventing for the future.”

As for her own work, Smith said both her “American Standard” and “Mass Production” projects have left her with “more questions than answers, but I think that is why they’re successful.”

“I make art to try and understand the world around me,” Smith said. “I don’t understand it yet; there is more art to be made.”

• Kaitlyn Jo Smith’s website 
• ArtConnect interview

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