Across the world: Alumna’s passion for art spans three continents

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Guido Alvarez, Ph.D. (M.F.A.’04/A; Ph.D.’15/H&S), teaches typography, motion graphics, visual expression and studio skills at Wenzhou Kean University in Wenzhou, China. He’ll be taking over VCU Alumni’s Instagram the week of May 29, giving you a look into what it’s like to teach and live in the city of Wenzhou.

What sparked your interest in art?

Well, my father is a professional watercolorist and was a professor of architecture at the University of Cuenca [in Ecuador]. He also served as dean of the schools of architecture and arts at the university and founded a local school of design.

I grew up in an environment where art was always present and that pushed me to attend a painting academy as a child.

What was your journey to VCU from Ecuador?

When it came time for me to choose a career, I wanted to become a photographer but, to this day, there are no schools of photography in Ecuador The closest professional path to follow was architecture, but after a semester of studying it, I decided that it wasn’t for me and transitioned into studying design and English at the University of Cuenca.

I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in 1999 and was given three program choices: the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Chicago told me I didn’t have the skills, and Yale told me I didn’t have the money, but VCU said, “Come over and have a partial scholarship.” That was enough for me, so my wife at the time and I packed what we owned and moved to the States. I arrived to a city I knew nothing about and a university completely unknown to me in a country that I loved but knew nothing about except the language. Little did I know, it would become such an integral part of my life, education and identity.

What was your time at the university like?

Odd, weird, strange and unique in its own way. My first semester in the M.F.A. program was rough. I knew what I was capable of, but I wasn’t ready for the different expectations. Each professor was unique and challenged me, helping me transform from a designer and computer operator to a design thinker, culture-maker and conceptual thinker.

Outside of the classroom, things weren’t easy. Money was scarce, and we often had to live off of credit cards. We had our first child during my first year in the U.S. and trying to live within the salary of a teaching assistant was hard. However, the experiences I had in Richmond and the people I met made a radical difference in our lives. I still consider Richmond to be my true home. It’s where I met the people I call my American parents, Bob and Wilma, who embraced me and my family and gave us unparalleled generosity.

I moved back to Ecuador for five years after completing my master’s degree and worked as director of the design program at a transnational university, but it wasn’t the right fit for me so I returned to VCU for my doctorate [in media, art and text].

My second time at the university was much more demanding. From writing with the rigor of academia to commuting two hours a day from Louisa County, where I took care of a property and two lap dogs in exchange for living space for me and my family, it was extremely different. I left Richmond in 2006 to teach at St. Olaf College in Minnesota but returned to VCU twice to defend my Ph.D.

Where did you go after earning your Ph.D.?

Well, during the time it took me to defend my thesis I applied to jobs all over the world. When I was finished, I moved back to Minnesota to be close to my kids, and while I was there, I was offered a position at Wenzhou Kean University. Without any other options, I said yes and flew into the unknown once again.

Being in Wenzhou has been an extremely transformative experience. It wasn’t an easy path, but it was worth pursuing. China is a beautiful country, with a rich culture and great food. The problem is that many aspects of the country are unknown to the rest of the world, and I wish that were different.

What projects are you working on now?

When I’m not teaching, I’m learning Chinese, word by word, character by character. It’s a beautiful language, yet nearly impossible to master.

I’m also preparing a presentation for the World Design Summit in Canada this October called “Typography Education with Multicultural Perspective,” where I plan to show the gaps between Western and Eastern cultures from the perspective of visual communication and, particularly, graphic design.

I’ll also be back in Richmond starting in June conducting research at Cabell Library while preparing for an exhibit of my drawings that will take place in Ecuador in July. It will integrate a robotic drawing device with my handmade work with the subject matter being China, of course.

How has VCU made an impact on your career?

It made everything possible. I recently got a red paper dragon tattoo on my arm while in Shanghai, a first for me. I’ll get my next one while in Richmond, and it will be “VCUarts.” It means that much to me.

An interview with Anna Journey, author of ‘An Arrangement of Skin’

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When Anna Journey (B.F.A.’04/A; M.F.A.’07/H&S) was a student in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she attracted international news coverage for her discovery of an unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath in the archives at Indiana University. The poem, “Ennui,” was published in November 2006 in Blackbird, an online literary journal of the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc.

Today, Journey continues to attract attention, but it is her writing rather than her research that is the source of her renown. Journey is the author of the essay collection “An Arrangement of Skin” (Counterpoint) and three books of poems: “The Atheist Wore Goat Silk” (LSU Press), “Vulgar Remedies” (LSU Press) and “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” (University of Georgia Press), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have drawn praise from such luminaries as the film director David Lynch, who called Journey’s poetry “really magical,” and the poet Erin Belieu, who said Journey “brings me surprise after surprise in language so vivid, peculiar, truthful, and moving, that I gulp the poems down, a glutton for their strange energies and observations.”

Journey holds a B.F.A. in art education from the VCU School of the Arts, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. “An Arrangement of Skin,” which was published in March, is Journey’s latest work. In his praise for the book, Mark Doty, the National Book Award-winning poet, said Journey “might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet’s lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye.”

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A SHOT OF COLOR

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Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, lectures during a class at the Depot.

Commuters and pedestrians at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets often gaze up at the gravity-bending Institute for Contemporary Art. Now, those stuck in traffic have something new to admire thanks to the VCU Green Walls Class.

The low-key building shared by VCU RamBikes and the Office of Sustainability has been transformed with vertical planters — commercial, stick built and even made of recycled and adapted materials — in the culmination of a class meshing students from the School of the Arts, School of Engineering and College of Humanities and SciencesDepartment of Biology.

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Theater professor honored with Tony nomination

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“Jitney.”
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Toni-Leslie James didn’t cry 25 years ago when she received her first Tony Awards nomination. She did today, however, when she received her second.

James, associate professor and director of costume design in the Department of Theatre in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, walked into the theater department this afternoon as a newly minted Tony nominee for Best Costume Design in a Play for her work on “Jitney,” the critically praised revival of the August Wilson play. She immediately encountered such an onrush of congratulations and genuine elation from her colleagues and students that she broke into tears. She couldn’t help herself. They seemed about as happy about her honor as she was.

“I’m so lucky to work with the people I work with,” James said. “The kids are so excited. We’re basically having a lovefest over here.”

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Fulbright scholar engages the politics and poetics of space and place in Johannesburg

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Levester Williams.

Levester Williams (M.F.A.’16/A) experienced racial profiling firsthand when police stopped him and a friend as they drove to Atlanta.

“They wanted to search the car, and they didn’t find anything,” said Williams, who received his M.F.A. from the VCU School of the Arts in 2016. “They didn’t find any traffic violations … they didn’t find any drugs. And my friend was like, ‘Well, you all just pulled us over because we’re black.’”

It’s easy to be undermined in such a situation, where others have control, Williams said.

“What agency did I have within the space? What rights or what capacity do I have to exist within that space?” he wondered. That question stayed with him and influenced his application for a Fulbright Student Scholarship to study in Johannesburg.

Since November, Williams has been creating sculptures and installations that engage with the politics and poetics of space and place in Johannesburg during its ongoing transformation into a post-apartheid city. He is exploring themes such as identity, memory and community in Johannesburg’s urban landscape.

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A decade of searching: Hadeer Omar finds her sweet spot among cultures and art

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By Anthony Langley

“I’ve had a passion for art ever since I was a little girl,” says Hadeer Omar (B.F.A.’10/A; M.F.A.’16/A). “Following that passion and coming to [Virginia Commonwealth University] has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

In 2006, Omar was finishing high school in Alexandria, Egypt, when she was encouraged by her mother to enter the VCUQatar Design Competition. The annual contest awards five cash prizes from $200 to $1,000, and the winners are eligible to compete for two Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned Scholarships for Creativity, which provide a full, four-year scholarship to attend VCUQatar.

For the first part of the competition, where she was challenged to create a design that communicated the theme of building, cultivating and maintaining bonds, Omar produced a winning design conveying various world cultures and the bond between their past and their future.

She competed next for one of the two scholarships by creating a design based on the theme “Making a change” and won a full ride to VCUQatar. It was a fitting theme as moving to Doha, Qatar, gave Omar the opportunity to explore multiple career paths.

“I want to educate people around me about my culture and where I come from,” says Omar, who worked as a graphic designer in Qatar after she completed her bachelor’s degree. “Being in a multicultural environment allowed me to adapt and accept others and shaped me into who I am today.”

Feeling a responsibility to raise awareness about how artists use their creativity in the Middle East, Omar returned to her home country during an uprising in 2011 where she filmed and produced her first complete production, “Ouda w sala,” a documentary about the Egyptian revolution.

The following year, Omar opened Kroki Design Studio, a nonprofit online art studio with a twofold mission: to provide a portal for artists to collaborate and experiment with one another and to educate the public about the importance of art in culture.

“I research a specific idea then translate it into a proposal and then ask others to work with me,” Omar says. “It helps artists to innovate and gives them constructive feedback from their peers.”

In 2014, Omar returned to VCUQatar to pursue a master’s degree in design studies. Her thesis focused on culture hacking and how Egyptians took the increasingly globalized culture they found themselves in after the political protests and revolutions that spread across the Middle East beginning in 2011, known as the Arab Spring, and applied their own cultural tools to create a unique space in the world around them, a process she calls “Egyptianization.”

A photo from Omar’s thesis exhibit on culture hacking and “Egyptianization.”

“I realized I needed to take a step back and look at my position in the world around me,” Omar says. “I have my own questions and observations about the world, and I want to make art that reflects that.”

She currently works as a teaching assistant in the Art Foundation program at VCUQatar. Two days a week, she helps students to find their design process and spends the rest of the week working on research projects and her personal work as a visual communicator and independent filmmaker.

For Omar, having an American institution in the Middle East provides an opportunity to share her experiences with and to learn from students with diverse backgrounds.

“On one hand, I’m able to do research and develop my own methods in academia, and on the other, I can still be a part of the market and complete commercial projects,” Omar says. “Whether it’s sharing my work or sharing knowledge with students, it helps me grow and develop myself.”

Omar took over VCU Alumni’s Instagram last week. Her posts showcase the path she’s taken since completing her master’s degree and the unique perspective that comes from working for more than a decade to find her place in the world around her.

Virtual puppets developed by kinetic imaging professor help older adults feel more comfortable telling their stories

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VoicingElder avatars mimic the motions of users.

Semi Ryu had performed “Parting on Z” — her play about a farewell between lovers — a couple of times before that 2013 night in London. Ryu doesn’t know what made this performance different, but something unexpected happened: She found herself sobbing in the middle of it.

“It was not acting,” she said. “Something was touching me so deeply about it.”

Ryu, an associate professor of kinetic imaging in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, played both parts in the play about a man and woman ending their affair because of a difficult family disagreement. She physically played the female lover and spoke through an avatar, a virtual puppet, as the male lover.

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VCU Libraries exhibition showcases incredible medical, scientific illustrations by VCUarts students, alumni

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Hannah Huddle (B.F.A.’16/A), a 2016 graduate of the School of the Arts, created this study of a beetle specimen found in Virginia Beach.

A new art show at the Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University is featuring medical and scientific illustrations by students and alumni of the Department of Communication Arts in the School of the Arts.

“Intersections II” features the work of 16 students and alumni of the Department of Communication Art’s scientific and preparatory medical illustration track, which requires a rigorous set of science courses hosted by the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and VCU Life Sciences in addition to their art courses.

The exhibition, which opens today, is free and open to the public at Tompkins-McCaw Library, located on VCU’s MCV campus at 509 N. 12th St. Images from “Intersections II” also will be displayed on the James Branch Cabell Library Big Screen beginning Monday, Feb. 27.

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Beatrice Wynn’s election in 1966 as RPI’s Harvest Ball queen attracted national attention

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Beatrice Wynn Bush stands in front of Shafer Street Playhouse, where she spent much of her time as a drama student.
Allen Jones, University Marketing

Beatrice Wynn Bush (B.F.A.’69/A) decided to attend Richmond Professional Institute in 1966 because she was drawn to the theater department. She liked its assortment of courses and knew the program would offer a strong foundation for her to pursue her already avid interest in acting. However, she received a major shock when she stepped foot on campus. The department had not yet been integrated. She would be its first black student.

“When I figured that out, I got a little worried,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out.”

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Combining cultures: Alumnus connects China and America through art

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Wei Dong.

Wei Dong.

Wei Dong dreamed of showcasing his work in the United States.

“I was like many aspiring Chinese artists in my generation, and I dreamed that I would be recognized and exhibit in America,” he said.

In a time when fewer than 1 percent of students were accepted into college in China, Dong attended TsingHua University in Beijing, formerly the Central Academy of Arts and Design, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in arts and interior design.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “This was the opportunity to follow my passion.”

China had just opened its doors to the world in the mid-1980s when Dong was ready to attend graduate school, allowing him to apply to colleges in the U.S. Through the strength of his portfolio, he received acceptance letters from many universities, but chose Virginia Commonwealth University because of its location and the personal outreach he received from his future VCU School of the Arts professor Ringo Yung.

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