Cardinal Canvas: MFA students celebrate home ‘In the Wake’ of change

At the Stanford Gallery, five graduating masters in fine arts (MFA) students masterfully portray their homelands and cultures through intimately personal styles, mediums and inventive uses of materials. The thesis exhibition, titled “In the Wake,” opened on May 14.

Jessia Monette’s MFA ’24 grew up in New Orleans, and her hometown inspiration is proudly evident as she integrates Mardi Gras beads into several of her pieces. Monette’s art centers her family’s experiences in the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the modern reality of the African diaspora. 

Her work “Sedimentation” best integrates her cultural heritage with an intimate connection with her family. The work is a series of orange-painted canvases, with jutting sculptural work attached to each canvas, reminiscent of Rodin’s sculptures in the Cantor Garden.

I initially thought it was metalwork — when I got closer, however, I realized these sculptures were instead the spray-painted clothes of her and her family. 

Bras, zippers and shorts create eerily captivating 3-D elements that bring “Sedimentation” to life. The disheveled nature of these clothes mimics the ruin that Hurricane Katrina wrought upon the lives of Monette and her family. 

I found the restoration of these clothes into something sculptural deeply inspiring: a reminder of her family’s resilience and the power of community to resist adversity.

While Monette traces her familiar roots through sculpture and hard textures, Yunfei Ren MFA ’24 creatively plays with motion. 

His work “Prevailing Winds” is a 12-inch by 19-inch collection of paper shards, each burned slightly at the end. A small fan lies in front of the work, blowing wind across the papers and creating a ripple effect of movement.

LED lights are projected on this display. Their impact is mesmerizing; I became hypnotized as my head tracked the wave motion of the papers. I found my body swaying, as if I were caught in the wind as well.

Ren uses joss papers, a Chinese ceremonial incense paper, for the piece. The work is meant to symbolize the transpacific movements of Chinese emigrants. “Prevailing Winds” invites the viewer to simulate what it’s like to flow with these currents of migration.

Wendy Liu MFA ‘24, another presenting artist, grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her art profoundly reflects on the everyday lives of those living in this cultural landscape.

Her piece “Scribble” best embodies this. The work is a dinner table that Liu has carved cityscapes and math worksheets onto. Through her carvings, Liu paints a scene of her childhood at her grandma’s apartment, doing math problems at the table. 

“Scribble” transports viewers directly to Liu’s youth. If you know to look under the table, you can see pastel drawings underneath, placed there as if a child drew them. Liu doesn’t advertise this, as the drawings are something only a small child would theoretically see. I only knew to look because my art history class met at Liu’s studio a few weeks ago — some of the scribbles are in fact drawn by me and my classmates.

Fellow artist Pablo Tut MFA ’24 also reflects upon childhood experience in his works. Tut was born in the Mexican Yucatán peninsula, and his art illustrates scenes of his cultural upbringing.

The star of his suite is undoubtedly “Jesus in the operating room,” a paper-mache sculpture of Jesus and several surgeons operating on a patient in a bed. The sculpture is situated on the wall rather than on the floor, with the patient staring straight at the viewer.

Tut thus forces the audience to perpetually see the scene in aerial view. I found it religiously ironic, as if I were God watching Jesus perform a medical miracle. I moved to the side and stared at Jesus’s gaze, focused on his work.

The final artist presented was Joanne Keane Lopez MFA ’24. Lopez’s art is deeply influenced by her family’s practice of constructing and living in adobe earthen homes. Her installation “Batter my heart, three person’d God” is similarly made out of this world-creating adobe.

“Batter my heart” is a bed. I was stunned by its initial simplicity, but as I pondered on the bed as a concept, I reflected on the nuances of the bed as a site. A place of love and intimacy, of recovery.

Yet, Lopez contradicts this comfort of the bed with the United States’ colonial relationship with the Southwest. Lopez uses colcha embroidery, originating from the artist’s home of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to embellish blood stains and Catholic missionaries onto the sheets.

Lopez’s bed installation was enlightening. I found myself oscillating between reading the object label and closely examining every stitch of the linen sheets and molds of the adobe bed.

All five artists intimately depict their cultures. I got swept up in each artist’s homeland, transported into their childhood and upbringings. I urge you all to explore their art and visit the Stanford Gallery (right next to Lane History Corner) before it closes on June 16.

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