LCAD MFA Work on Display: Reflections of Resilience at LAM and Emerging Masters at LCAD Gallery (Part II)


On April 26, we introduced you to three of this year’s Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) MFA graduates (click here for that story). Today, we bring you the final four. Now through August 25, Laguna Art Museum (LAM) is showcasing a rich sampling of work by these up-and-coming artists. An additional exhibition, Emerging Masters, opens this week at the LCAD Gallery on Ocean Avenue.

Reflections of Resilience is an apt title for students grappling with today’s shifting world. COVID disrupted their education. Rising housing costs put the American dream out of reach for most of them. Climate change threatens their childhood homes, while others have been displaced from their homeland by politically oppressive regimes.

The graduates we previously profiled focused their artistic lens on interrogating standards of beauty (Janaise Sanchez), confronting death (Ryanne Phillips) and exploring vulnerability (Amber Foote).

Their contemporaries profiled today investigate notions of home, displacement and climate change. Some accomplished this through architecture, both structural (Kevin Yaun) and physiological (Eric Theodore). Others through symbolism (Sara Khakpour) and magical realism (Cara Baxter). But the umbrella of resilience binds the thematic strands of their work together.

The graduates invited Stu News inside their studios and inside their process, and their advisor – Professor Peter Zokosky – joined me to talk about their work.

Kevin Yaun reimagines the definition of home

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Photo by Ryan Howard

Kevin Yaun at work in his studio

Home may no longer hold the same meaning it once did. Especially for young adults just entering the work force, realizing the American dream isn’t as attainable as it once was.

But they’re not all wholly discouraged by the idea. Instead, some are choosing to reinvent the notion of home. Rather than planting backyard gardens, this generation invests in potted plants they can take with them from place to place.

Searching for Home sprang from Kevin Yaun’s nomadic lifestyle. Prior to entering LCAD, Yaun worked as a graphic designer and traveled the world, living in Amsterdam, Singapore, London, Thailand and elsewhere. “Travel allowed me to experience living in a lot of different places and learn what I thought was important,” he said.

But settling in Southern California made Yaun realize that even as we yearn for home, it’s not always financially feasible. “I’m looking at architecture from the point of view of a serial renter,” he said, noting the daunting reality of home ownership. “How can I showcase that idea in a way that shows positivity? There’s still a lot of beauty in Southern California, so it’s finding that balance.”

He strikes that balance in his use of light. Are the glowing windows an inviting promise of comfort and security? Or are they a mocking reminder of The Great Gatsby’s unattainable dream?

Incorporating elements of Rothko and invoking ideas from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”), Yaun’s paintings pay homage to architecture while indicting the systems that conspire to keep swaths of our population from obtaining it.

“Like Carroll’s book, which was a sequel for Alice in Wonderland, ‘Twice as Fast’ was intended as a sequel for ‘Houseplant.’ It shows a ghosted figure, engulfed by traffic lights, and even further disconnected from the distant homes. I chose soft warm sunset lighting to create a colorful but haunting mood,” Yaun wrote.

“Kevin already has a gallery. He’s got shows lined up. He’s achieving the kind of success that validates being in one place for a while and finding a home,” Zokosky said.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Twice as Fast,” oil on canvas, 2024

Cara Baxter’s whimsical waning world

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Cara Baxter inside her studio with “Prophet” (2023)

Growing up on the floodplains of Eastern Texas gave Cara Baxter a front row seat to climate change. Intense hurricanes have battered that region for decades. They increase in both frequency and intensity each year, even as many Texan residents resist the science of climate change. Witnessing what’s happened to her homeland gave rise to Baxter’s latest series and the subject of her LCAD thesis, The Flooded World.

But Baxter is an optimist, and it shows in her paintings. Using mythical figures like foxes, bears and snakes, Baxter responds to her anxieties about our climate and her own loneliness using the language of fantasy. “I graduated from college just as the stay-at-home orders happened. It’s been a journey, processing that loneliness and anxiety while remaining hopeful, which is why I love the title, Reflections of Resilience,” she said.

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Baxter’s thesis chronicles a childhood overshadowed by the threats of a storm, curled in a bathtub with her sister, waiting out Hurricane Rita in 2005. Her sister frequently appears in Baxter’s paintings. Her mother is represented by a blue bear, a constant protective companion. A childhood rabbit that died suddenly lives on in her work.

Drawing inspiration from Aesop’s Fables, Baxter anthropomorphizes these creatures to add both symbolism and levity to the work. “In my paintings, snakes slither and coil, their bodies entwined with hidden meanings and whispers of the ancient knowledge they hold,” she wrote in her thesis.

“One of the things that makes Cara’s work resonate is its duality,” Zokosky said. “This world is coming to an end, but there’s this magnificent adventure unfolding.”

“My characters’ journey through this place is not bleak or hopeless,” Baxter wrote. “They are pulled by the same mysterious yearning I feel for the unknown, to bask in the strange beauty of a disrupted reality.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“The Journey,” acrylic on canvas, 2023

Escaping the past with Sara Khakpour

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Sara Khakpour inside her studio with “Female Warrior” (2023)

On September 16, 2022, a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, was beaten to death by Iran’s morality police after improperly wearing a hijab. The 22-year-old woman’s murder inspired an international protest over the treatment of women in Iran. Sara Khakpour responded with art.

The title of Khakpour’s thesis, For Freedom, came from an Iranian song of the same name written in reaction to Amini’s murder. “Having grown up in the oppressive environment of Iran, I felt constrained, yearning for more freedom,” Khakpour wrote. “At 27, I made the difficult decision to leave behind my homeland and cherished loved ones to emigrate to the United States.”

Khakpour’s The Suitcase contains the relics of her past life, carried with her to the U.S. Stuffing her youth into the compact case mirrors Khakpour’s feelings of confinement in her homeland, now tumbling out as she discovers her newfound freedom. “I want my paintings to reflect my inner turmoil yet show how I have emerged with a spirit of resilience.”

Shears of Liberation (an image of Khakpour’s own daughter) depicts a young activist, standing defiant while cutting off her hair, willing to risk her life to liberate herself from an oppressive regime. Khakpour’s use of color – dark shadows blended with bright and vibrant hues – invites the viewer inside the immigrant experience with its oppressive yet nostalgic past and its promising but unknown future.

“In societies where artistic expression is restricted or censored, symbolism can serve as a way for artists to convey messages or critique societal norms without being overtly explicit and allows artists to communicate ideas indirectly, often escaping censorship or persecution,” Khakpour said.

“I don’t think Sara wants her work to be [restricted to an Iranian audience,]” Zokosky said. “I’ve known Iranian artists who don’t post their work and don’t want it seen because it could create problems for their families if it’s political. But Sara uses symbols that are widely accessible. That might be part of her motivation.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“The Suitcase,” oil on canvas, 2023

Inside out with Eric Theodore

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Eric Theodore inside his studio

Desire comes in various forms in Eric Theodore’s work. But it’s always visceral. Skyward Longing represents athletic desire, sexual desire, a desire for an ideal physique and a kind of freedom that might only be found inside a perfectly executed dive.

Theodore decided if he was going to paint divers, he needed to become one. After coming to LCAD, he discovered the Marguerite Aquatics Complex in Mission Viejo where numerous Olympians (including Greg Louganis) trained. Once he became a diver, he found the experience only enhanced what he could accomplish with his art.

“The sport showcases the body in just such a beautiful way,” Theodore said. “I was trained to paint anatomy. Diving reveals that. All those different diving positions I find really beautiful.”

Inspired by Caravaggio, da Vinci and Michelangelo, the masters taught Theodore about the perfect human form. But the metaphors in his work are all his.

Theodore expertly captures the male gaze and what it wants. “There’s a longing for an ideal,” he said. “There’s a bit of mystery in there. There’s a yearning for these figures in the sky, but is it a yearning to be with them or to be like them?” The answer seems to be both. “He’s so focused on that ideal, not realizing there’s the viewer outside the painting looking at him, maybe in the same way.”

Theodore manages to capture the sensual alongside the serious introspection required of diving. He describes the athletic body as a “poetic composition, charged with emotions that are universal yet deeply personal.”

Perhaps it’s common to harbor both the fear and desire to fly. Diving comes close. “There are all these metaphors in athletics – breaking the surface, taking a leap of faith, stepping out of your comfort zone – that are transferable to the larger world and existence itself,” Zokoski said. “Taking risks and making something beautiful out of it is what happens when you go off the diving board. But also, when you embark on a creative life.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Skyward” (2023), “Divers on the Deck” (2024) and “Passengers” (2024)

Reflections of Resilience will be on display at LAM through August 25. For more information, visit their website by clicking here.

Emerging Masters will be on display at the LCAD Gallery through July 14. For more information, visit their website here.

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