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Finding Closure 

Former VCU sculpture students get a do-over for their senior projects at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.

click to enlarge “Kitchen #34” by Samuel Richardson.

“Kitchen #34” by Samuel Richardson.

As Virginia Commonwealth University students in sculpture and extended media, seniors are required to organize and put on their senior shows together with no help from the department. Considered a rite of passage, it’s also the equivalent of the students’ theses, the culmination of what they've accomplished during their college careers. For most, it’s the first time they’ve put together a show and presented work outside of school.

But the class of 2020 never got its senior show. And the sense of loss deepened as the students saw life returning to normal and subsequent other students having a more typical finish to their college years. One of those students was Malia Bates, who began working at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design four years ago as a part-time student while attending VCU. Working at the front desk greeting visitors, she became a core part of the museum’s small team once the pandemic hit, handling webinar ticketing and updating the museum’s website. A year after graduation, she’s still working full time as office and communications coordinator, part of the team leading the Branch out of the pandemic.

When Executive Director Penelope Fletcher realized that the Branch would open months sooner than anticipated, she struggled with its upcoming exhibition schedule, which had been put on hold until an anticipated fall reopening. Fletcher approached Bates, curious if her fellow students would be interested in doing their own show, in effect re-creating what would have been their senior show but adding any new current work. Ten students enthusiastically agreed and the result is “Quality Time,” opening at the Branch this month.

“This exhibition feels completely right for our reopening, giving one of our Branch team and her fellow artists an opportunity to have the show that couldn’t be,” Fletcher says. “For us, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate making it through the pandemic and moving forward together.”

What excites Bates most about presenting “Quality Time” is getting to see her former classmates’ new work.

“Everyone’s bringing at least one new piece, if not entirely new works,” she says.

She’s looking forward to seeing how people’s practices have changed, the new concepts they’re thinking about and how they’ve further developed the ideas and techniques that they’d been working on when she last saw them in spring 2020.

“It definitely feels like a full circle moment for me, working at the Branch while in school and now having my own work shown in the galleries,” she adds.

Samuel Richardson attended VCU for photography but wanted to apply to the craft department, ended up graduating in sculpture and is currently pursuing painting. He believes the pandemic pushed him to become the best artist he never knew he could be.

“In the beginning of 2020, I had no studio, a lost desire to fulfill a career in painting and a website that was hanging on by a thread with the weight of past due payments,” he recalls.

Forced to reconsider things when he left a serving job last March, Richardson quickly pivoted to making art. He leased a 350-square-foot space in an old Canada Dry factory, revamped his website and dove into figuring out exactly what he wanted to start producing.

“I'm mostly known for the numerous kitchen scenes I make, most of which were a direct result of the pandemic,” he says, adding that he’d dabbled with a few kitchen paintings in 2017 as bright representations of common interiors. “Making a collective debut in mid-2020, the kitchens became darker and darker, reflecting the heightened apprehension of society’s future.” Of the 37 kitchens he’s produced so far, 34 were begun after the pandemic.

Both artists see advantages to having the exhibition long after graduation.

“All 10 participants have shown how devoted they are to this project, despite not everyone being on board with participating before the pandemic,” Richardson says. “It makes sense now because our commitment shows. It’s the strongest this group has ever been.”

Bates acknowledges that in many ways, “Quality Time” isn't a senior show at all.

“We're not seniors anymore, it's well over a year since we even graduated and most of the work is not from that time,” she explains. “For me, this show is more about closure, a time for my former classmates and me to finally hang our work next to each other, say goodbye to our time in school and move onto the next stages of our careers.”

“Quality Time” opens July 15 and runs through Aug. 20 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. branchmuseum.org.

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