Art at UTC BFA Thesis Exhibition Reflects Hardship and Hope for Young Artists

Photo by Olivia Ross

By Madison Van Horn, Staff Writer —

The annual 2021 BFA Senior Thesis Exhibition is on display this month at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and many seniors are showcasing meaningful work.

Thirty seniors earning their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees will be displaying their thesis projects at the exhibition, which is divided into two parts. Show 1 ran from April 6–16 and Show 2 is running from April 20–30. The exhibition features student work from four BFA studio concentrations, including graphic design, painting and drawing, photography and media art, and sculpture.

Each show will also feature Artist Talks, where students can share what their work means to them. Artist Talks for Show 2 will be on April 22. 

The BFA seniors have worked toward this exhibition for years, and Andrew O’Brian, interim head of the Department of Art, said that the Art department is excited to host the exhibition after completing renovations on the Fine Arts Center. 

“We as a department are absolutely thrilled to see the return of the BFA Senior Thesis Exhibition to the newly renovated Fine Arts Center,” O’Brian said. “This exhibition, and the years of work leading up to it, represent an important experiential learning opportunity for our students — one that mirrors contemporary practice and emboldens them to take risks and discover their path forward as emerging artists and designers. Their steadfast commitment to inquiry, community, and artistic practice is a model they can now reflect upon and use to gather strength for the next chapter in their lives and their careers.”

Alize Henson, a senior from Murfreesboro, TN, is graduating with her BFA in Photography and Media Art. Her work was featured in Show 1 and she said that she is proud of her fellow classmates for their growth over the years.

“My experience with the exhibition and Show 1 has been really great,” Henson said.All of my classmates have been really supportive of each other and I love to see the growth everyone has gone through, from when we were Foundation students to now, and the confidence everyone has established in their art practices.”

Henson’s thesis project is inspired by her childhood and her mental health journey. She said that the process of building the project has been therapeutic.

“My thesis project, to me, shows the emotional confidence I was able to discover in myself, and the pride I feel in showcasing my vulnerabilities for an audience to see,” she said. “My vulnerability ties into the importance I want people to know about when it comes to mental health and abuse.”

Jonathan Howe is also a UTC senior graduating with his BFA in Photography and Media Arts. Howe said that his thesis project features a combination of objects and images that represent the cultural boundaries that he experienced growing up in the South.

“Oftentimes it can be confusing to navigate life as a Queer person in a region where you are force-fed many different messages about the way you should live your life,” Howe said. “I think it’s important to deconstruct and re-define culture for ourselves in order to create a sense of community and counterculture. This is a healthy way of working through old memories and past experiences in the hopes that other individuals with upbringings similar to my own can relate to my work in some way.”

Howe’s thesis project is a combination of images and objects in the form of a sculptural installation and a magazine. Howe said that he had fun reconstructing the notion of “image” as an object by attaching his photos to other objects or having them printed onto objects themselves. 

While crafting his sculptural installation may have been fun, Howe said that his art has been a source of stress.

“I think COVID-19 has really had a profound impact on all of us, especially artists or people working in creative industries,” he said. “It’s been pretty stressful and all-consuming for me lately, but I’m proud that I was able to accomplish something so important under such unusual circumstances. Ten years from now I know I’ll look back and be proud that I was able to keep pushing through the difficulties of 2020/2021 and show some meaningful work that will relate to this period of time in my life.”

While COVID-19 has put stress on many artists, both Henson and Howe said that their time in UTC’s art department has inspired them to take interest in becoming art professors themselves. Howe also said that the support of his professors and classmates over the years has made a lasting impact on him.

 “It was so important to me that I was challenged and encouraged by my professors to pursue topics and materials I loved rather than being limited,” Howe said. “I hope that someday I have the opportunity to inspire others to do the same in the hopes that the rigid confines of the art world and museum culture can be dismantled and diversified. It’s important to be seen and heard when possible, and I’m happy the staff of the UTC art department has always been supportive of my artistic choices.”

To learn more about the 2021 BFA Senior Thesis Exhibition and the work on display, visit and check out Show 2 from April 20–30.

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