Reflections of Resilience, work by LCAD MFA students, on display at the Laguna Art Museum (Part I)


Photos by Jeff Rovner

Every year, two of Laguna’s biggest art institutions come together to showcase emerging California artists. Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) will graduate seven students from their MFA program this spring. Now through August 25, the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) is highlighting the works of those artists in a show that’s both personally revealing and universally appealing.

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“Reflections of Resilience: LCAD MFA Exhibition” is on display at the Laguna Art Museum through August 25

Like so many LCAD shows, Reflections of Resilience gives viewers intimate access to a new generation of artists and the issues that weigh on their minds. I sat down with all seven artists and their advisor, Professor Peter Zokosky, for this two-part story (check back in the coming weeks for Part II), and was immediately struck by both the common themes of identity exploration and the radical individualism of each artist. Some grapple with their countries of origin and the meaning of home. Others come to terms with their own sexuality, beauty and the societal expectations imposed on women. A few wrestle with aging loved ones, death and loss. But they all bring their own unique artistic lens and experience, making these familiar topics feel new and original.

Janaise Sanchez redefines beauty

Two life-sized charcoal figures dominate LAM’s California Gallery, demanding the attention of viewers as they enter the room. These are the works of Janaise Sanchez, who uses an understated medium to create an unforgettable centerpiece. “What Was I Made For?” (Versions 1 and 2) are amalgams of four full-scale self-portraits including the artist posing nude, in lingerie, in street clothes and in unadorned underwear. After completing the charcoal drawings, Sanchez tore the portraits apart and reassembled them into two collages that interrogate traditional notions of beauty in our hyper-sexualized western culture.

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“What Was I Made For? (Versions 1 and 2), center, and “On Letting Go,” far right, by Janaise Sanchez

“I was reflecting on beauty rituals and how women – especially with the rise of social media – are taught to hyper-fixate on their bodies,” Sanchez said. “Not on their whole body, but singular aspects of it.”

Look closely and you’ll notice the collage is reassembled using staples, surgical thread, grommets and pins. Sanchez wants the pieces to serve as a sort of indictment of the cosmetic and plastic surgery industries.

“The embellishments came about when I was thinking of ways to add further visual interest, but also further narrative,” she said. “The pins are used specifically for the clothing. The grommets mimic some of my piercings that express my individuality.”

Don’t miss “On Letting Go,” a smaller graphite piece nearby. The self-portrait portrays Sanchez expelling the heads of several swans. Note her own hands and feet are now the webbed appendages of the birds.

“I use a lot of symbolic imagery, like swans, because they have deep history as symbols for beauty and transformation,” she said. “This work shows me letting go of these assumptions about beauty that no longer serve me and, in doing so, I am becoming the swan itself.”

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Janaise Sanchez inside her studio at LCAD

Professor Zokosky found Sanchez’s work extremely successful. He attended the show opening and watched as several teenage girls examined the self-portraits. “They were completely captivated, talking among themselves and discussing her work,” Zokosky said. “They decided to go to the Museum on a Thursday night – when there are so many other things high school girls could be doing – and see the work. It really connected with them. This idea that we’re all fragmented, but that fragmentation doesn’t mean you’re incomplete. It means you’re made of many parts.”

Ryanne Phillips grapples with death, immortality and loss

Pushing Up Daisies, a four-foot-tall charcoal and white chalk drawing, is both beautiful and heartbreaking at once. A young woman lies supine in her own grave, a bed of blooming flowers surrounding her body. The model is Ryanne Phillips’ younger sister who, we can happily report, is very much alive. But Phillips’ inspiration came from a much darker place.

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“Pushing Up Daisies” by Ryanne Phillips

“Last year, two of my grandparents passed away. Then my cat passed. Every three months, someone died,” Phillips said. “I was scared to go down that rabbit hole, but I wanted this to be an exploration of death and beauty. That’s why I created the piece.”

Phillips’ sister proved the perfect model, partly because she was experiencing the same losses and because artists need willing subjects who work for free. But Phillips is in awe of her sister’s beauty. She was interested in depicting death through an aesthetically pleasing lens.

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“Death can be beautiful,” Phillips said. “With death comes change and rebirth, hence the flowers and butterflies that are very much alive. That’s a big part of the drawing.”

Relying on bird’s eye photos and the “Procreate” app on her iPad, Phillips assembled all the elements she needed for the image. It took over five months to create the work.

Alongside Pushing Up Daisies is Ivy, which was created during the same period. “It’s important for my process that I bounce between different pieces. Sometimes pieces get stale and I’ll mess them up. So, I need other outlets.”

Ivy gave Phillips a chance to explore her own anxieties. Having earned her undergrad degree in 2020, and having her graduation interrupted by the pandemic, Phillips grappled with losses of her own.

“I wanted Ivy to show this overwhelming sense of anxiety and tension. It’s choking her, it’s overwhelming her like a parasite. But this figure brings a sense of calm within this tension-filled space.”

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“Ivy” by Ryanne Phillips

Zokosky responded to Phillips’ ability to portray inner strength emanating from physical beauty. “Ryanne expresses feminine beauty and feminine resilience at the same time by drawing women she views as tough and formidable, but also beautiful. And she fabricates these round, old panels and frames. There’s a strong sense of presenting the familiar and the unfamiliar in a lovely balancing act which makes it quite interesting.”

Amber Foote: Exploring beauty in an aging beast

While beauty and aging are recurrent themes in this exhibition, the way these artists explore the subject matter varies. For equestrian lover Amber Foote, her beloved stallion Halo provided the door into the topic.

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Amber Foote’s quadriptych study of “Halo”

Halo, a retired thoroughbred racehorse, turns 29 next month. It’s an advanced age for a horse whose typical lifespan is between 25 and 30 years. “When he rolls, I often look at him and wonder, ‘Are you going to get up?’ Because that’s a hallmark of older horses. They have trouble getting up.”

In a departure from traditional equestrian portraiture, this quadriptych examines the horse from every angle, taking a magnificent thoroughbred through positions of extreme vulnerability and physical compromise.

“He’s got such an interesting, older face,” Foote said. “Lots of wrinkles and veins. And painting him upside down was a challenge. I’m not used to painting a horse from that angle. I had to break it into shapes.”

Initially, Foote rejected the idea of using Halo as a subject. “LCAD is a figurative school, so I thought I should focus on portraits or the human figure. But Halo is here now. I can use him,” she said, implying that won’t always be the case.

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Amber Foote inside her studio at LCAD

“Because of her intimacy with horses she sees behavior in them that the rest of us wouldn’t,” Zokosky said. “For example, I don’t know about horses rolling in the dirt and then regaining their footing. That struck her as something significant maybe because of the horse’s advanced age. She’s not drawn to the traditional saddled horse with the proud rider and beautiful landscape. She focuses on the horse as an individual entity and personality.”

Coming out of COVID, Reflections of Resilience seems an apt title. A few of these artists received their undergraduate degrees in 2020. That interruption informed some of this work. But each artist followed their own path.

“I’m very pleased with the people I’m graduating with and how we’ve all revealed ourselves through our art,” Phillips said. “We’ve been able to interpret a lot of our traumas, our personal thoughts and feelings in a visual medium.”

Though the work is personal, there’s a lot the public will relate to in this exhibition. Check back here for Part II as we dive into the work of Cara Baxter, Sara Khakpour, Eric Theodore and Kevin Yaun.

For more information, visit LAM’s website by clicking here.

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