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Close But Not Touching: The 2022 MFA Thesis Exhibition

Featuring thesis work from the 2022 graduating cohort of the Stamps School of Art & Design’s Master’s of Fine Arts program, Close But Not Touching is more than a clever title for an in-person art show during a pandemic.

Walking through the exhibits — on display through April 30 — parallel themes of displacement and immigration; the natural and the unnatural; and dreams, memory, and place all butt up to each other, while stopping short of overlapping.

Nick Azzaro

Nick Azzaro’s thesis project uses accessible materials — primarily paper and wheat paste — to take aim at systemic flaws in public education stemming from normalized racism in America. Undoctrination includes a large-scale sculpture of a desk made from white paper. Sections of the desk have cutouts for eyes and a shape similar to a Ku Klux Klan hood. On a wall behind it, a large poster of an American flag is peeling away in layers to reveal the Pledge of Allegiance underneath it and the Confederate battle flag beneath that. 

I’m hoping to challenge people who look like me: white Americans who exist in this country, not with malicious intent, but unaware of privilege,” Azzaro says. 

Before coming to Stamps, Azzaro taught photography to high school students in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He’s hoping to get back into the classroom now that his MFA is complete. That’s where the most change can be made,” he says. That’s when the most impact can be felt.”

Martha Daghlian

In a thousand circlets… Martha Daghlian offers a cut-up style presentation of poetry, art, and philosophy collaged together to make viewers imagine a possible history of our current times. Inspired by the environmental-dread of the Industrial Revolution and Europe’s Romantic Period, the exhibit features saturated mashups of natural and manmade forms printed on floor length tapestries along with stuffed and sewn fabric objects and is accompanied by written and visual poetry via printed handouts and video installation.

As she writes in the accompanying poem: I consciously have injured, but still loved and then tried to construct some point of view a foundation for transcendental truth,’ As an invisible world — unheard, unseen, A hole, or gap, … opened up by the image; yet shifting …like an old fashioned cranky set pieces, artifice, and layers of a world that mirrors our reality.”

Fabric art by Martha Daghlian

Razi Jafri

Documentary filmmaker Razi Jafri has spent much of his time at Stamps exploring the lives of a group of Yemeni refugees living in South Korea. In particular, he’s been working to learn and tell the story of Omar Alwahaishi, who has lived there on a temporary visa and separated from his family in Yemen for several years. Through his visits to Korea, Jafri has become friends with Alwahaishi, while also getting to know his parents, who live in Dearborn, Michigan.

I immediately became friends with him,“Jafri said. We had a lot in common, and we immediately had a lot to talk about, from politics to his situation and what life is like living as minorities — as Muslims — in a foreign country.”

Through Alwahasihi’s story, which now includes their friendship, Jafri hopes to raise awareness about the everyday struggles of refugees around the world, as well as locally in Michigan.

Despite living in a wealthy country, like South Korea, there are a lot of struggles and challenges, because a lot of countries, including the United States, have very restrictive policies around refugee rights and the asylum process of how to become a refugee,” he said.

Natalia Rocafuerte

For her Dream Machine Archive, Natalia Rocafuerte created a psychodynamic tool to analyze the dreams of immigrants and their different ideas of home. Based in Jungian dream theory, Rocafuerte collected dreams using a hotline people could call to record their dreams and then created audio-visual pieces around them using distorted sounds and sights, including manipulated voices, bright colors, and images from a collective unconscious” of nostalgic TV commercials, all filtered through a palette of glitchy, analog media.

I use these technologies as a way to create texture in a sense of memory in both video and audio,” she says.

Callers responded to the prompts: How old were you in the dream? What language was the dream in? In what country was the dream? How did you feel? The resulting collaborative pieces are displayed with headphones or landline telephone receivers for listening.

Rocafuerte came to Stamps from Texas to work with Associate Professor of Art & Design Phoebe Gloeckner, who she says has been her greatest supporter. As director of the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY), she’s now preparing for the annual event coming up in June and looks forward to continuing to live and work in the Ann Arbor area.

Ellie Schmidt

For her thesis work, Ellie Schmidt created a viewing room for an endurance film” she made with footage of tidepools taken in Southeast Alaska last summer. Furnished with 20 tie-dyed hammocks, a few bean bag chairs, and a couple of working fountain-like sculptures and scored with minimalist piano music by Schmidt’s friend, viewers are invited to sit in the comforting darkness of the Tide Pool Room: A Love Story and reflect on the gentle lapping waves that bring underwater scenes in and out of focus for 6 hours and 13 minutes — the span of time between low and high tides.

The piece is meant to be very therapeutic and calming,” Schmidt says. Going to grad school during the pandemic was difficult, just from a mental health standpoint. So I trended toward making very therapeutic art for myself and including calming moments in nature.”

Schmidt’s work is also informed by time spent in Sitka, Alaska, with a good friend who grew up there and has struggled with mental health issues, and the exhibit includes printed zines telling the story of their friendship.

Kristina Sheufelt

Also exploring her place in nature, Kristina Sheufelt’s thesis work consists of a series of kinetic landscape sculptures — a meadow of gently swaying reeds in a wood and metal frame, a rocky lake bottom lapped by waves inside of a steel box. A Wind From Noplace uses robotic elements to replay patterns in nature” — patterns recorded from Sheufelt’s own brain and heart with electronic sensors while interacting with similar environments.

By reanimating the landscapes of memory,” Sheufelt hopes to explore the land as an object of affectation, a surrogate for emotional relationships with humans absent from our lives.”

I consider many of these sculptures to be poetic failures, because no matter how hard I try, I am never going to be able to explain to anybody what it feels like to have this relationship to the land,” Sheufelt says. But, hopefully, what I can do is show them that it’s possible and encourage them to find it in their own language.”

Georgia b Smith

Combining her background in dance and metal fabrication, Georgia b Smith’s Cavernous Bodies” is a research experiment in wearable silicone objects that inflate and expand using soft robotics techniques. Set to a droning, mechanical soundtrack and the clicking sounds of her robotic pieces, her exhibit includes the organic-looking pieces, as well as videos showing them in use on a human body

Inspired by butoh and the notion of transforming bodies into inanimate material, Smith says she worked backward from those ideas to create her pieces, which attempt to breathe life into inanimate objects as a way to approach thoughts about the relationship between humans and the built environment. It’s a relationship Smith sees as less separate than we make it — the unnaturalness of the natural and naturalness of the natural” — as she describes it.

It’s a concept with a real-world allegory for Smith, whose rural childhood hometown she describes as being displaced by a Lego themed amusement park, a plastic-world notion of childhood,” which, for many people, is equally nostalgic.