On The Ground Grants Support MFA Student Projects

The School of Art’s “On the Ground” grants typically support travel-based research by graduate students. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the School reconfigured these grants to support art making in Pittsburgh during the semester. Here are how MFA students used their grant funds:

Rosabel Rosalind , 1st year MFA
The On the Ground funding supported a body of work in which I explored the Jewish Deli as a culturally secular space that performs Jewish identity through the history of oppression, emigration, and humor. On a more practical level, the funds paid for unstretched canvas, rolls of rag paper, gesso, oil paint and oil mediums for the purpose of recreating the theatricalities, delicacies and intricacies of the deli. This work supported an unexpected conceptual evolution of my exploration of Jewishness, leading me to recognize that the deli is more nuanced than pastrami on rye. With the support of the On the Ground funds, I’ve been able to think critically about my relationship to these sites of gathering in the Jewish community. As I write this summary of this semester’s body of work, I am grateful to have had the financial support and thus the opportunity to push the boundaries of autobiography and personal memory as it relates to the sensorial experiences involved in cultural identity.

Petra Floyd, 2nd year MFA
With my On the Ground @ Home funding, I was able to attend Pig Iron School of Theatre’s online Introduction to Physical Character course, taught by Brett Robinson. Over three weekends in October, our class developed original characters through elemental abstraction, costume and props, and observation under Brett’s enthusiastic and thoughtful instruction. I used my training to further develop 4 Tina, a new video piece wherein I become an icon of my own making, a cut and paste Crayola clown diva chasing Tina Turner’s image. Before Brett’s course, I was compelled to enter this work as a performer, but I felt stuck on how to do that in an authentic, grounded way. I now have more tools to cultivate more characters from my studio explorations. This course was a valuable and timely opportunity to form intentional relationships between my body, my work, and my audience, while connecting me to an online performance community fluent in a performance language I’ve been searching for.

Matthew McGaughey, 2nd year MFA
My On the Ground funding enabled me to build a set for a live performance entitled Big Shoes to Fill, which was streamed over Twitch this Fall. Creating this environment for my character was integral to his actions and provided invaluable research toward determining the direction of a new body of work. Working/freestanding doors made the execution a central prompt possible.

The set will be used again for subsequent re-performance in which related movements and actions occur. It further functions as a foil to other “real” locations where similar performances are repeated and expanded. The dialog between environments is as essential to the project as the character’s movements and the centrality of the set works to simultaneously enforce and undermine the other spaces’ structures.

Nathalie Moreno, 3rd year MFA
Early on in the fall semester, Petra Floyd (MFA ‘22) shared that she would be participating in a Pig Iron Theater Workshop on Physical Character Building led by Brett Ashley Robinson. With support from On The Ground, I was able to join Petra, and a group of five other actors from around the country, and take the three-week class to play around with physical acting techniques. Because of Brett’s silliness, understanding, and skills, we all found ways to make ourselves vulnerable on Zoom, which I can say was challenging at first. Even when we were acting as fire, animals, or people we’d been told to closely observe, we managed to perform for each other genuinely and generously, two traits of any effective performer. And it is because of the class that I have developed some of the character building skills necessary to create a new video work for the 2021 MFA Thesis Exhibition.

Brett Ashley Robinson is a Barrymore Award winner and Golden Tassel Jawn nominated theatre maker based in Philadelphia. And Pig Iron Theatre is a Philadelphia based ensemble company dedicated to the “creation of new and exuberant performance works”.

Huidi Xiang, 3rd year MFA
My current thesis project focuses on blurring boundaries between play and labor in today’s context. On the one hand, I am interested in how play is becoming increasingly laborious and work-like. On the other hand, I am curious about the phenomenon of gamification in our workplaces. Does the merge of play and labor make both more efficient, effective, and fun? Or do both get spoiled? My research aims to understand the messy and complex compound of play and labor we are facing now.

For the past semester, I have been mainly focusing on how play is becoming more laborious. Using video games as my research sites, I collected data from my own gaming and “grinding” experience in various games and facilitated conversations with other gamers and game designers. For the following semester, I plan to make sculptural installations to present my research process and outcome. This semester’s On-the-Ground funds enabled me to conduct my research, test material, and produce prototypes for objects I plan to make for my thesis project.