Absence Breathes

May 9 - July 14, 2023

St. John’s University’s Department of Art & Design is proud to announce the opening of Absence Breathes, the 2023 BFA Thesis Exhibition. This exhibition is organized by the Department Art & Design and the Yeh Art Gallery. The exhibition will be on view from May 9 – July 14, with an opening reception on Tuesday, May 9 from 4–7pm. The exhibition features artwork by BFA senior thesis students Anjeanette Ang, Carrington Bailey, Alicia D. Edwards, Hayoung Lee, Caroline Shedlow, Allison Shortell, and Isaiah Sylvain.

Absence Breathes brings together seven artists working across painting, drawing, illustration, and bookmaking who all engage in deeply personal forms of storytelling that speak to broader societal conditions and notions of shared experience across cultures. This exhibition points to how the power of absence, loss and adversity can compel artists to develop new stories that emphasize the essential, symbiotic nature of both absence and presence in artmaking. The underlying presences of the artworks presented in this exhibition, are inseparable from notions of absence in and surrounding them.
Incorporating influences from a broad range of material such as graphic novels, films, children’s books and playing cards, the works in Absence Breathes take shape in varied forms—from intimate coming-of-age stories about childhood and depictions of everyday life to science fiction and mythological games.

In Carrington Bailey’s works depicting the everyday lives of black people, the artist accentuates the nuances of skin color through the choice to highly render the figures, but leave the backgrounds only rendered in lines. In Allison Shortell’s paintings and artist’s book, the artist directly addresses coping with mental health issues through the visualization of anxiety alongside images of techniques to soothe anxiety. Alicia D. Edwards and Hayoung Lee both confront the complexities of childhood and family through quite different approaches to narrative and material choices, while Isaiah Sylvain presents a story dealing with notions of isolation caused by a catastrophic environmental occurrence. Anjeanette Ang presents a constellation of characters that combine aspects of Filipino mythology with American card games and Caroline Shedlow exhibits a suite of paintings that look at the psychological states of interior spaces found in classic films exploring dark themes.

Participating Artists: Anjeanette Ang, Carrington Bailey, Alicia D. Edwards, Hayoung Lee, Caroline Shedlow, Allison Shortell, and Isaiah Sylvain

Artists’ statements: 

Anjeanette Ang //  BABAYLAN
BABAYLAN is a multi-format, multimedia project that introduces the audience into a world that fuses Filipino mythology and history with American nostalgia of playing trading card games. The execution evokes modern Asian games that fuse stylization with a painterly touch. Growing up with games such as Pokémon piqued my childhood wonderment to learn about different cultures, languages and even animal behavior. Those crumbs of trivia formed the eternally curious person I am today.

The project title refers to the Filipino term for pre-colonial shamans, regardless of tribe, and is the occupation of the project’s three protagonists, Malaya, Mutya, and Hiraya. Large wood panels painted with acryla-gouache depict scenes pulled from their roles in the narrative. Smaller panels of the same medium frame the large scenes, isolating key elements for viewers to focus on while providing labeling for later inquiry. This painterly expression plays with brush strokes and bold color placement in order to create vivid scenes with characters that leap from their panels as if from a stage play or walls of ancient ruins.

Trading cards reference my childhood inspirations as well as fuel the project beyond the exhibition limits. Its core purpose is to take the overload of information from this project, and turns it into something more condensable, like a mythological flash card. Keeping in mind varying levels of viewer connection to games, these cards are intended to be collected and traded, and to motivate a search for rare cards based on the significance of the monster or deity depicted. With each card obtained, the viewer slowly absorbs the multiple Filipino pantheons one figure at a time, whetting their appetite to learn more.

While the paintings breathe on the walls and the cards as mementos, the heart of the project lies in the concept art book. It contains not only my sketchbook chronicling the entire evolution of the project, but also includes my research, citations, and personal commentary. These creative decisions echo throughout the entire project, including the paintings and trading cards.

I only ask one thing from the viewer:

                                    Approach with an eager mind.

Pursuing a single thread that intrigues you will bring you alongside my characters’ adventures far better than any dense information could.

Anjeanette Ang, BABAYLAN Cards I, 2023, Watercolor and sumi ink on watercolor paper, 12 x 18 inches

Carrington Bailey // This is Our Life
This is Our Life is a multi-medium project including drawings and paintings on diverse surfaces and focusing on the everyday lives of black people. The skin and hair color of the figures are the only things rendered fully in each one of the works. As these features tend to be the first thing noticed when looking at black people, I chose to emphasize that by drawing in the background with simple black lines. The use of a solid color in the background is also a vital element of the composition as a way for the figure, and more specifically the skin, to be the thing you notice first. Every color I used was carefully chosen to set the figure apart from the surroundings. The material I paint and draw on is also carefully considered. Almost half the project is done on an object representative of what the individual is doing. Every reference used was of candid moments from life. These moments are meant to invite the viewer to have a look into the lives of black people and appreciate their differences and similarities.

People have always been a fascination of mine for as long as I can remember. From the way that we look to the way that we move and interact with our surroundings. We are the same and vastly different at the same time. We come in many different colors and body types, yet many of us are judged by how we look. “Black” can be used as an “umbrella” term for anyone of African descent. In my work, I have Louisiana Creole people, Afro-Latinas, Biracial people, and people who don’t know where they came from. The most important thing for me was that everyone identified as black. As a black woman, I wanted to accentuate the array of colors among black people while also showing that we do the same things as others, yet we are judged first and foremost by the color of our skin.

Carrington Bailey, Am I Still Black with No Color, 2023, Charcoal on Paper, 20 x 30 inches

Alicia D. Edwards // Progeny Cycle
Progeny Cycle is a comic duology exploring the coming of age from the expectations put in place by family. The story follows a colorful cast of humans and Druids united by the same palettes and divided by the same betrayal brought upon by humans. This tale is what happens when one steps outside their boundaries to grow into their own.

We all eventually grow into our own. Just as colors, no person is ever the same. This project is a culmination of a digital approach that emphasizes limitation, inspired by digital and traditional works, from older references of game franchises of the 90s with a limited palette vs the full tonality in much of contemporary digital art. By restricting the palette to one color’s hues, the scene is manipulated within those limitations, and we see how color can drastically alter or challenge our perception of the tale. Being able to challenge or play with one’s association leaves the viewer with a unique experience, giving them their own tale to impart from this.

The gradual shift from colors is tied to the floral themes to convey changes in the protagonists across the narrative.
                        An anemone blooms brightly despite a forsaken love.
                        The asclepias run against the winds in search of freedom.
                        The protea's crown stands tall in the face of change.
For each protagonist they must start as a sprout before blooming into what they are. In presenting this tale in a limited span of colors, the relationship of these colors can vary on the reader’s perception. The palette is an invitation to experience growing up with this cast witnessing such changes in how they experience their chosen path. Similarly in life, you’ll never know what you’ll become until you experience it. Your growth is uniquely yours to claim.

Alicia Edwards, Progeny Cycle- Book 1, 2023Digital Illustration, 8.5 x 11 inches

Hayoung Lee  // Giruhgi-Appa (Goose Dad)
Giruhgi-Appa (Goose Dad) is a children’s book that is heavily inspired by my own background. Growing up, I lived separately from my father for a decade due to his working situation. The story is from the perspective of a child having a hard time relating to her father when he comes back home, but also wanting to talk and share every possible moment with him during the limited stay at home. It touches on the complicated feelings of a child living in the USA and having difficulties talking with her father because of cultural difference and lack of moments shared together. This book is meant to resonates with many in similar situations and with children who are having a hard time opening up to their family members.

Every page of the book is built on a fabric background with colored fabric pieces and illustrations on them. The book intends to convey the cultural struggles and complex feelings of many throughout their lives using fabric with simple shapes and patterns with minimal color palettes. One of the few moments I treasure sharing with my father is when we sit down to fold laundry together and have a long conversation. The warmth coming from the laundry and having a simple task in a relaxed atmosphere created the space to help me understand my father better. I want to capture this precious and warm moment through this book using myself as a character, and hopefully create a safe space to encourage families and share in their moments to understand each other.

Hayoung Lee, Goose Dad, 2023, Cotton Fabric and Fabric Marker, 10 x 20 inches

Caroline Shedlow // Characters in the Walls
One of the most important aspects of cinema is the set. When watching a film, the set brings the movie together, creating the mood. Oftentimes, the set is so integral to the film's plot that it is like another character in the plot.

I have always been an interest in how architecture, interiors, furniture, light, and color can affect one’s emotions and mood. Characters in the Walls is a series of images depicting strong interior stills from films translated paintings. Many objects are omitted from the original film sets, especially people, focusing on certain elements within the stills. I began Characters in the Walls with the intent to design interiors using four different psychological categories: pleasant-arousing, pleasant-unarousing, unpleasant-arousing, and unpleasant-unarousing. The four categories provide structure as to what I should look for in film sources. I found myself gravitating towards scenes that evoked these strong reactions from within myself. Some of the paintings include stills from Taxi Driver, America Horror Story, Volver, and Rosemary’s Baby.

These paintings are not meant to be facsimiles of the stills, nor are they meant to evoke a specific emotion per painting. The paintings are meant to personify the stills, giving life to what is there. This body of work / This series of paintings intends to be thought-inducing and emotionally subjective.

Allison Shortell // Anxious This Way
Approximately 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorder: generalized anxiety, social anxiety, a phobia, etc. (ADAA) Studies also suggest over 310 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder worldwide as of 2019. (“Mental Disorders”) However, these statistics may be inaccurate. Some people neglect to acknowledge their anxiety disorder as they believe ignoring it will reduce its symptoms. In addition, many families and communities stigmatize mental health. These circumstances decrease the likelihood that someone will open up about their experiences and seek treatment when available. Many people are unsure how to cope with their experiences and possibly feel ashamed of their mental health.

I was diagnosed with social anxiety, particularly selective mutism when I was ten years old. Although it is normal for children to be shy, my shyness was more extreme. I would go completely silent. Air trapped in my throat, and words trapped in my brain. Physical symptoms of anxiety disorder began to manifest around 16-17 years of age. It would start as a nonsensical worry and a strange taste in my mouth. It would snowball into an uncomfortable tingling sensation, an increased heart rate, and nausea. If I could not control my anxiety, I would become physically sick. I lived in fear of when the next wave of panic would strike. I was fortunate to receive treatment, but sometimes I rely on other techniques: meditation with breathing and grounding exercises, listening to soothing music and noises, distracting myself with books and movies, etc.

Conversations regarding mental health are stirring up more and more as time goes on. I intend to continue adding to these conversations by sharing my experiences and spreading techniques I use to soothe anxiety. My creative thesis entitled Anxious This Way primarily features a series of six self-portraits painted on 16 x 20-inch canvas with acrylic. Half the portraits visualize the mental and physical symptoms of my anxiety. Anxiety manifests itself in varying ways for each person, but I decided it was best to focus on my symptoms to maintain a sense of sincerity. Each painting of anxiety has a counterpart that depicts a technique I use to soothe anxiety. The ones I chose are the ones that work best for me. Duplicates in a pair are spaced a couple of inches apart from each other and at least one foot away from other pairs. In addition, my thesis project consists of a handmade book featuring thumbnails, notes, and other sketches. 

Allison Shortell, Sleep, 2022, Acrylic Paint on Canvas, 16 x 20 inches

Isaiah Sylvain // Yellow Poncho
Yellow Poncho is a sci-if based narrative that features an installation of comic and text panels serving as a prelude to an extended 12-page story. The story follows Ripley, who's isolated on an island with a lighthouse due to a weather anomaly. She must survive while dealing with being alone, troubled by her attachment to the past, and not knowing if she will ever get off the island.

This story is about someone's humanity and how they deal with adversity. Ripley is in a dire situation and her survival is uncertain. She is in a nightmare scenario amidst a unique phenomenon that left the world flooded. Ripley lost everything because of this anomaly. She lost her home, family, friends, and her partner. All she has left is the yellow poncho she had throughout her life. The story structure is based on Ripley’s video log entries, allowing her world to vividly come to live in text as we follow. We, the audience, become her unknown and silent interlocutor.

The comic panels are a prelude to the story. They elevate the vivid imagery in Ripley’s logs proving a glimpse into her world. The comic panels are done using watercolor and pen and ink to create a style that utilizes texture and a visual noise that is consistent and matches the story. The panels are both chromatic and monochromatic. Color in the images represent that the character is alive, and the lack of color is meant to show the death that surrounds Ripley along her journey.

These comic panels and the story will be featured together in the form of a book.

Isaiah Sylvain, Yellow Poncho - Panel 1, 2023, Watercolor and Pen and Ink on Mixed Media Paper, 18 x 24 inches