Mills Artists Center Resonance and Resilience in Thesis Exhibitions

Oakland, CA—June 3, 2021

A panoramic image of the Mills College Art Museum gallery space centers a wood-paneled wall featuring undergraduate artwork from artist E Daley with exhibitions A culture of curiosity, bold experimentation, and adaptability prevail among the tight-knit cohort of student artists, faculty, and staff of the Mills art program. And this year, as artists at Mills and around the world navigated lives lived in place and art-making in a pandemic, that resilience and innovation has shone through in the end-of-year exhibitions at the Mills College Art Museum.

During the pandemic, the nearly century-old campus museum has adapted to make art accessible, offering in-person low-density viewing reservations for museum-goers while also creating immersive digital exhibitions that replicate the gallery and invite viewers into guided opening receptions narrated by the exhibiting artists.

“I knew that I really wanted to expand what I was as an artist and that Mills would let me do that,” says Marlys Mandaville MFA ’21, a newly minted alum of the two-year graduate program in studio art.

Mandaville came to Mills an experienced painter and portrait artist interested in expanding on sound work. Their prize-winning exhibition work, featured in the Crystal Ball MFA show, focuses on the meaning of community in the era of COVID-19. The mediums in Mandaville’s work range widely, from Zoom window oil portraits, to a series of “painting-sculptures,” to music videos with original audio compositions inspired by their forays into Mills’ electronic music curriculum.Zoom School 2020–21 (Gallery View) by Marlys Mandaville. Photo: Phil Bond.

“As an artist, you don’t have to adhere to what the art world tells you to do,” says Mandaville. “I think that’s the fun of being a creative person: You get to make up your own rules.”

For Mandaville and others looking to blend genres and refine their technique in new forms, the interdisciplinary spirit of the art department and close faculty mentorship was a major draw of the Mills program.

“Before Mills, I was drawing and making collages—I was a 2D person,” says artist Lena Coletto ’21. “And then I came to Mills, and I was like ‘3D is where it’s at.’”

A sculptor, ceramicist, and wood-worker, Coletto, who received her bachelor’s degree in studio art from Mills, focused her thesis work on rebuilding immersive and detailed scenes from her journey with addiction and recovery. Her turn to three-dimensional work, recently featured in last month’s At Length undergraduate exhibition, is an evolution that Coletto credits to the Mills faculty. As she says, “Those teachers and the classes I took with them really opened my mind and my heart.”

“The educators are really solid and a privilege to work with,” echoes Alexander Salceanu MFA ’21.

A global citizen and multimedia artist, Salceanu found what he describes as a “photographer’s dream” at Mills. With access to state-of-the-art camera equipment and individual private darkrooms and studio spaces for graduate art students, Salceanu created a 7.5 x 5-foot photographic piece, “AlieNation.” Shot from the Marin headlands, the long exposure image of the night sky over the Bay Area depicts trails of light, capturing patterns of movement on land, air, and sea that reflect human migration. Texts of US immigration laws Salceanu researched overlay the photo, inviting viewers to reflect on the term “alien” and the systems of exclusion created by language and law."AlieNation I" by Alexander Salceanu. Photo: Alexander Salceanu.

Originally from Romania, Salceanu has since crossed continents, traveling through Italy, the Philippines, and El Salvador, as well as the United States. His experience with migration and assimilation into different cultures after Romania’s 1989 revolution informs his work and were in part what drew him to Mills’ activist legacy. Salceanu says that for him, growing as an artist at Mills “was an opportunity to not only develop my artistic language, but to develop a strong body of work centered around social justice.”

Centering under told perspectives and drawing on both personal experience and research figures prominently in the works of many artists at Mills, including those of sculptor and painter Lauryn Marshall ’21.

“Before I produce any sketches, I do a lot of research work,” she says. For one of her paintings, she traced the lineage of the modern-day custom of “pouring one out”—spilling spirits onto the ground as an act of commemoration—to its transatlantic roots. The practice, she discovered, stems back to libations rituals from places such as Senegal, Ghana, and Mali. To invoke that ancestry, Marshall drew on symbols and color schemes specific to the African diaspora.

“These are things I’ve never seen in a gallery,” she says, adding, “My audience is primarily Black folks because I’m talking about my experience.”

Like Marshall, multimedia artist E Daley ’21 focused their work on the evolution and influence of symbol, centering their exhibited works around their experience as a trans masculine person steeped in the icons of western Americana.

“Being attached to Western wear and cowboy culture, I thought there was already so much gayness interwoven in these identities,” says Daley, whose work explores how these archetypes of American masculinity—rugged individualism and the freedom of the open road—were adopted and adapted by tobacco and oil industries to promote consumerism and propagate environmental degradation.

“America’s both working in these angles of what makes people feel cool and sexy and looked at,” says Daley, “and how can we exploit disaster, what archetype can we build that will sell and also be so timeless that they never go away.”

Impermanence, meanwhile, lies at the heart of the work of Laura DeAngelis MFA ’21. Her place-based art, inspired by and created with natural materials from her home in the Santa Cruz mountains meditates on natural cycles and human-made ecological volatility.

“A lot of the pieces have this kind of ephemeral quality to them,” says DeAngelis, whose artwork was awarded the Jay DeFeo prize. Among her works are a mandala created with sandstone that will be returned to the earth at the end of its exhibition, slowly fading paintings made from avocado dye on canvas infused with wildfire smoke from the late summer fires of 2020 (among the largest in California history), and cyanotypes of lone chimneys, the only remnants of houses burned down in those wildfires.Temporal Body No. 3 by Laura DeAngelis. Photo: Phil Bond.

“I don’t know that there’s anything teachable about it necessarily,” DeAngelis says, speaking of her work and the reality it represents, “but I think that it’s something that holds great meaning, and I think resonates within all of us in some way.”

Ultimately, it is this note of personal resonance and resilience in the face of adversity that unites the works of Mills’ 2021 exhibiting artists. Each piece opens windows into worlds and invites the viewer’s eyes, ears, and empathy.

As artist and recent Mills graduate, Coletto says, “The whole thing is cathartic. Seeing each other reflected in our own struggles, that’s important to me.”

About Mills College
Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a nationally renowned independent liberal arts college for women and gender nonbinary students, with graduate programs for all genders. Ranked one of the top-tier regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, Mills is also recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the Best 386 Colleges in the nation. As one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, Mills has a strong record of academic success with first-generation students, students of color, Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, and other underrepresented students. The Mills experience is distinguished by small, interactive classes, one-on-one attention from exceptional faculty, a culture of creative experimentation, and cutting-edge interdisciplinary learning opportunities which empower students to make a statement in their careers and communities.