Senior art students get raw with upcoming show

Work by four USAO senior bachelor of fine arts candidates Ted Conley (left), Aubrey Van Tassell (center), Michelle Birdwell (right) and Vaunda Knapp (background) will be on display during the upcoming show raw. The show opens with a reception beginning at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Third Floor Art Gallery of Davis Hall.

Senior art students get raw with upcoming show


Four graduating art students will exhibit their work in an early fall senior bachelor of fine arts show titled raw.

An opening reception is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 in the third floor Art Gallery in Davis Hall.

The event is free and open to the public.

The graduating artists participating in the show are Michelle Birdwell, Ted Conley, Vaunda Knapp and Aubrey Van Tassell.

Michelle Birdwell

A native of the Ponca City area, Birdwell graduated from Newkirk High School in 2008.

While her passion has always been for drawing, Birdwell came out of high school with some specific goals in mind.

“I wanted to move into the digital realm as quickly as possible,” Birdwell said. “I needed access to technology and instruction to make that happen.”

Birdwell found her first home in the digital media program at the Tonkawa branch of the Northern Oklahoma College. She said her time there introduced her to the pressure of constant deadlines, an experience that has served her well ever since.

“Our director, Brad Matson, drilled into us from day one that time is money to the client,” Birdwell said. “We worked under exhausting deadlines the entire time I was in the program but it made me a much faster artist.”

Birdwell graduated with an associate’s of applied science degree in digital media animation and design.

After graduation, Birdwell knew she had the technological expertise she had wanted but felt that she had gaps in her drawing technique. Her quest to continue improving her art led her to USAO in 2011.

“I could see the problems but I didn’t know how to fix them,” she said. “Jackie [Knapp, associate professor of art] helped me so much. Not only did she give me the artistic tools I needed to take my drawings to the next level but also she gave me the freedom as my adviser to explore.”

Birdwell’s work in the show demonstrates the many facets of her abilities, often blending graphite drawings with digital manipulation for a result that looks like neither. Her pieces, which focus on the human form, are grounded in realism but have a surreal quality that is both thrilling and slightly unsettling.

Birdwell is looking into internships with advertising firms in the state with one eye toward placing work in gallery shows.

Ted Conley

Conley comes from a family of artists but was the first to pursue it as a career. A native of Altus, Conley gives credit to the school system that he attended for nurturing his talent.

“I still believe that Altus has one of the best school systems in the state,” Conley said. “I was able to benefit from a fantastic art curriculum all the way through my senior year, when I basically spent half of the day in my own studio space.”

After graduating in 2001, Conley entered the painting program at the University of Oklahoma but put his studies on hold after a couple of years to test his accrued skills in the work force.

By 2009, Conley found the urge to paint impossible to ignore and began exploring his own interest in the highly technical painting style of the Flemish school of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Conley entered a piece in USAO’s 2010 7 State Biennial art competition. The piece, titled Five Cherries, took the first place prize.

While many would have seen this as validation that further training was unnecessary, Conley saw it differently.

“I remember staring at the piece thinking, ‘What’s next? Five apples? Five oranges?’,” Conley said. “You can only self-teach so much, and I wanted to push myself technically and conceptually. After meeting with the faculty at USAO, I knew these were people I could learn from.”

Conley, primarily an oil painter, said he benefitted greatly from his instructors and newfound community of dedicated artists. He credits the art faculty with helping him to refine and expand his techniques and increase the speed at which he was able to create.

He also found conceptual inspiration in the interdisciplinary studies curriculum.

“The focus on world religions helped me find conceptual focus in my work,” Conley said. “I had always had an interest in iconography and religion but the IDS classes helped me better understand the philosophy and social ramifications of those beliefs.”

Conley’s work in the show distills these interests into works that demand the viewer’s attention. One series features children’s candy dispensers, rendered in a smooth and hyperrealistic style, against a stark white background, effectively transforming these disposable objects into icons. Another series juxtaposes similarly realistic paintings of American cultural figures with iconographic styles more commonly associated with Byzantine and Medieval religious paintings.

“Photorealists take an object out of context and make them bigger than life, realer than real,” Conley observed. “I asked the question, ‘What is the American religion?’ We take people and transform them into objects. They are martyrs to commercialism.”

Conley is setting his post-graduation sights high. In addition to building a line of t-shirts that reflect his conceptual and design interests, he wants to see his work hanging in galleries all over the world.

Vaunda Knapp

Knapp credits her mother with sparking her interest in working in ceramics.

“When I was in the third or fourth grade, my mother bought me a child’s plastic electric pottery wheel from the craft store,” Knapp recalled. “With no training and no instruction, I pretty much ended up destroying the garage but this kind of no-holds barred play was encouraged. Messes could always be cleaned up.”

A native of Ardmore, Knapp spent most of her time in art class working in traditional two-dimensional media, drawing and painting. Her instructor was a USAO grad so the university was on her radar early on.

“Those classes gave me an excellent grounding in what I could expect studying art in college,” Knapp said. “I had made my decision to attend USAO by my sophomore year in high school and had far fewer growing pains adjusting to expectations and teaching methods when I finally arrived.”

Knapp enrolled in a ceramic hand building course her first trimester at the university and felt immediately at home. Learning to work with clay and expressing concepts through it proved to be different experiences that happened on separate time-schedules, Knapp said.

“The first two years, it was about learning the skills that I needed to successfully develop concepts,” she said. “I was a little slow coming into concepts. Part way through my junior work and then as a senior, I have become more comfortable working conceptually rather than technically.

“The thing about concepts is that you can’t be concretely stuck on them. If your work needs to evolve, it’s better to flow with it. By letting it evolve, you can catch the hidden inspirations or new ideas that you’ve turned away before and that can lead you down a completely different or even better path.”

Knapp’s pieces from the show demonstrate clearly her hard-won ability to tackle complex concepts and bring them to life in her work. Pushing the boundaries of working with clay to the limit, the pieces are both textural and, in some cases, mimic the qualities of other materials to startling effect.

In them, she opens herself, and the viewer, to a dialogue about mental illness.

“As a child I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD),” she said. “My work in the show is an attempt to communicate my internal dialogue of what mental illness feels like experientially.”

Knapp plans to work in the information technology field after graduation while saving money to build a home studio to continue pursuing her artistic vision.

Aubrey Van Tassell

Tulsa native Aubrey Van Tassell got her start as an artist at an early age, whether doodling on scraps of paper around the house or doing sidewalk chalk art.

Enrolling in the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences gave her access to quality art instruction, which she started taking advantage of her sophomore year of high school.

After visiting campus a couple of times, Van Tassell knew that she’d found the right mixture of value and academic rigor to continue along the trajectory she had set for herself.

Although she came to USAO’s art department with an idea of becoming an interior designer, Van Tassell said that her experiences in the department steered her toward a less vocational approach to her art.

“I used to think that I had to be on point all of the time and that everything had to be perfect,” Van Tassell said. “Now, I think of creating art more in terms of the process and less about the outcome.”

Despite her turn toward art for art’s sake, Van Tassell’s love of architecture and design carried over into her growing love for painting.

“At first, I was afraid to jump straight into painting a building without trees and grass and people,” she said. “You put a person in there and the painting becomes about the person, most of the time. My work now is focused on the things that attract my eye – lines, reflections, angles, light shining on things. That’s what I find interesting.”

Van Tassell’s work in the show reflects these values, capturing largely empty spaces, often at curious angles that disrupt the openness of the scene and in muted color palettes that recall institutional buildings.

Now with graduation looming on the horizon, Van Tassell is looking at opportunities that will allow her to exercise her creativity and her love of utility.

“Interior design is still something I feel strongly about but I went to shadow at an corporate architecture firm and it didn’t grab me like I hoped it might,” Van Tassell said. “I’m still searching for that internship or apprenticeship with someone who straddles the line between fine art and functionality.”

More information about the show can be obtained by calling 574-1302.