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

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.

Read more.

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

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

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.

Read more.

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

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.

Read more.

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

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.”

Read more.

Combining cultures: Alumnus connects China and America through art

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.

Read more.

VCU student awarded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship

Alex Morales.  Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Alex Morales.
Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Alex Morales, a sophomore fashion merchandising student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, will study in Italy this semester with support from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

“In Europe, fashion is everywhere,” Morales said. “It’s such a global industry. It brings people together, nations together.”

Morales will study at the European Institute for Design (Istituto Europeo di Design) in Florence, and plans to take advantage of every formal and informal opportunity to develop his fashion industry sense.

Gilman scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs. Students work with the VCU Education Abroad office and the National Scholarship Office to develop competitive applications.

Read more.

The art of expression: VCU student gives back to the community through art, activism and service

Angelique Scott.  Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Angelique Scott.
Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

For someone who five years ago had no interest in applying to Virginia Commonwealth University — and hadn’t even heard of its School of the Arts — student Angelique Scott has given much to the university and the surrounding community during her time here.

Scott’s high school art and ceramic teachers had attended the VCU School of the Arts and persuaded her to apply.

“Not only did I not think that I would be accepted, but I also did not expect to receive as many grants and scholarships for my education,” Scott said.

The one thing Scott did know was that she wanted to study ceramics. As far back as she can remember, the Brooklyn native has loved art. Every Christmas, she received some sort of gift that allowed her to explore the world of art — from paint and an easel to a sewing machine and a trumpet.

“Whether it was fashion, painting or music, my passion for the arts has always been there,” she said.

Read more.

Designing Cuba

VCUarts alumnus Cody Huff (B.F.A.'16/A) examines a mosaic mural in Old Havana. The mural features prominent figures in Cuban history and the arts.

VCUarts alumnus Cody Huff (B.F.A.’16/A) examines a mosaic mural in Old Havana. The mural features prominent figures in Cuban history and the arts.

Sara Reed first noticed the posters last spring, scattered on walls throughout the Pollak Building. They promoted an engineering class on design in constrained environments. Reed, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of interior design at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, was curious.

“It sounded really intriguing,” she said. “What I was reminded of was research I had done for my dissertation on Cuban design and this idea of designing within material scarcity.”

The course was to be taught by Russell Jamison, Ph.D., dean emeritus and professor in the School of Engineering. Reed contacted Jamison, thinking she might be able to contribute to his class as a visiting speaker. The two met for coffee.

“I thought that it would be a guest lecture,” Reed said.

It turned into something much bigger than that.

Common threads

Feature photo by Julia Rendleman. Photos by Thomas Kojcsich, Julia Rendleman and Pat Kane.

Feature photo by Julia Rendleman. Photos by Thomas Kojcsich, Julia Rendleman and Pat Kane.

Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., is not afraid to go out of his comfort zone for the sake of students. So when VCU fashion students wanted to outfit him for various work events as part of a special department project, it didn’t take long for him to say yes, despite feeling nervous about being in the fashion spotlight.

“It obviously makes you a little self-conscious … because it’s not your regular role,” he said. “But I do think it’s good for me to have this engagement, this involvement with the students.”

The project stemmed from a conversation that Rao had about a year ago with Patricia Brown, who had just become chair of the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising in the School of the Arts, about selecting clothes to fit different occasions.

“My wheels started turning after that conversation and I started thinking about how much that is a part of somebody’s job when they’re working within the [fashion] industry,” Brown said. “They’re trying to solve a problem, and they’re trying to offer goods that work together in a way … that is appropriate for various occasions.”

Read more.