With final exhibitions derailed, graduating fine arts students and faculty improvise

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Katie Murphy spread her arm toward a large abstract painting in her garage, “On and Ever Onward.”

“This painting is about the feeling of desperation after being displaced, and so I wanted it to capture the energy of panic and fear after a realization of not being able to go back to one’s home,” Murphy said Monday. It also sums up the kind of experience Murphy and her fellow graduating fine art students at East Tennessee State University endured as they saw the exciting and joyous senior capstone exhibition season melt away.

A collection of Murphy’s paintings, the capstone work of her bachelor of fine arts degree, would have been on full display at ETSU’s Slocumb Gallery this month.

“Mama Bear” is one of the large-format paintings from Katie Murphy’s capstone project.

“It has been a heartbreaking season of loss to not get to show the work that I’ve been working towards for the past five years,” said Murphy, a mother of three who left teaching to pursue her art degree and was a part-time student.

COVID-19 restrictions prevented the major exhibition for Murphy and her fellow studio BFA grads, along with the final exhibitions of a couple of master of fine arts students. Those grad students included National Guard veteran Ross Byrd, whose final installation, titled “Silly Trip Wires,” loses a great deal without interactivity.

“It’s meant to kind of mimic a building in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Byrd said of the 35-foot-long, 14-foot-wide, 7.5-foot-high exhibition currently sitting in a garage in ETSU’s Valleybrook campus.

Byrd served a deployment in Afghanistan as a combat engineer and was part of a “route clearance” crew. “We went out and cleared IEDs (improvised explosive devices, including roadside bombs),” Byrd said.

Those experiencing his installation would have ventured through with cans of silly string, spraying it as a way of discovering trip wires – something soldiers found to be a workable solution around 2004.

“The installation asks people to consider what it’s like doing these sorts of activities every day for a year, under much more grueling circumstances than it can reproduce, and think about why soldiers can have PTSD and anxiety,” Byrd said.

Instead of friends, family and community members having such an experience, Byrd faced the anxiety of all that work feeling as though it had been for naught.

While it was a crushing blow, students and their professors worked up some creative virtual solutions on the fly.

“We wanted to do everything we could to give them, if not all the things they would normally get in graduation, some semblance of that,” said Mira Gerard, chair of the Department of Art & Design.

Those innovations include a paperback book that will include high-quality images of the graduates’ work, as well as virtual exhibitions that at least the faculty could experience. And as long as things are opened back up, they’ll be invited to join the typically smaller fall graduating class in a makeup of the missed public exhibitions.

Two years worth of work

Gerard said fine arts students in a variety of media, including graphic design, spend the bulk of their final two years on the capstone project.

Mira Gerard, chair, ETSU Art & Design Department

“Those capstone programs have a professional component,” Gerard said. “They work their entire junior and senior year, really, developing a portfolio of related work that they’re going to bring out into the world in order to get jobs, in order to move to the next level of their career, and so it’s everything.

“Their entire senior year is all about refining the portfolio that they started before that.”

The final semester includes documentation, extended research and writing and prepping for an oral defense conducted in front of their work.

“This is a huge change for them and it takes away a lot of the experience that they were going to have,” Gerard said.

For her part, though, Murphy is pleased with the collective efforts that have helped salvage her final semester. No, there won’t be crowds of friends, family and community members meandering through Slocumb as she and her fellow seniors stand by proudly.

They’ll be the first class to receive a book, though, and they’ll be able to order additional copies. They’ll have endured a trial that exemplifies what art is about, too.

“I think artists are by nature creative and we’re great problem solvers,” Murphy said. “We’re constantly having to solve problems on the canvas or different media, and so we just had to figure out different ways to communicate.

“I did my BFA oral defense on a Zoom calls and I prepared materials digitally and felt very confident still about the work that I was able to show and present.”

Come fall, Murphy and Byrd both hope they’ll be communicating in person with visitors to their installations. COVID permitting, their works will be interspersed with those of fall graduates at Slocumb Gallery in ETSU’s Ball Hall and at the Reece Museum.

A corner of Ross Byrd’s installation,, Silly Trip Wires, which he hopes will be open to the public this fall.

It will give people a chance to see Byrd’s artist’s statement, as well as letters from veterans explaining the difficulties of returning to society after traumatic experiences in war zones. Visitors to the exhibit will expend their remaining silly string in the installation’s last room, where it will continue to build up and in essence create a new, communal sculpture, Byrd said.

“It’s a metaphor of the experiences and interaction people have in the service, where you might find people from 13 countries at the chow hall in Kandahar. We couldn’t achieve our objectives without help from all the countries involved.”

Gerard said she’s hoping for a great experience for everyone this fall and hopes many of the graduates are able to participate.

“Tons of people come, we have a big reception, we have food and it’s really a wonderful sort of culminating experience for them. And it mirrors what happens in the art world.”

Spring graduates will also have the chance to exhibit some of their work at the Reece Museum on campus after faculty members elected to give up space for an already scheduled faculty show.

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