Courtesy of Lucy Kay Plowe

Lucy Kay Plowe, “Exile,” 66x80,” oil and oil pastel on canvas.

March 19, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Artists in Exile

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I looked forward to being a fine arts thesis student my whole life. I always looked up to senior artists whose status came with studio practices, solo exhibitions and thousands of Instagram followers. I’ve spent the last few years acting as a thesis student, making and thinking about my art in all my waking hours, my apartment filling with scraps of paper and art supplies.

As a senior this year, I finally got my own studio, shared with one of my closest friends, on the fourth floor of Olive Tjaden Hall. At last! Enough space to pin huge stretches of canvas up on the walls, with natural sunlight keeping my plants alive and my colors accurate. The space gave me the freedom to work fluidly, transforming old paintings, ripping and re-stretching canvases and showing and discussing works in progress with other artists.  The best moment of the spring semester was when my studio mate and I swapped roles: Madison (@madchalfant), the sculptress and furniture designer, started painting, while I (usually limited to two-dimensional work) made sculptures. This fluid expression of ourselves as artists happened because of the energies we shared in the studio space, and the freedom we felt to make the work we were passionately driven to create.

Madison Chalfant, “4 bed,” dimensions variable; repurposed leather, Italian alabaster, ebonized walnut, stainless steel.

Courtesy of Madison Chalfant

Madison Chalfant, “4 bed,” dimensions variable; repurposed leather, Italian alabaster, ebonized walnut, stainless steel.

By the beginning of March, I could feel my work taking on a new quality, conceptually coalescing all that I’ve been focused on in my undergraduate work and studies across art history, religious studies and classics. I felt that I had finally reached the point I’d been working towards my entire college career.

But the coronavirus cancellations put a stop to all that. I had a week to document all my pieces, deconstruct my canvases and pack up everything that I was working on.

Most disappointing of all is the cancellation of the BFA seniors’ thesis shows, which would have been the culmination of the work we’ve been making over the past four years. Many of us have had opportunities to exhibit in the past (Tjaden has two beautiful galleries, with new exhibitions by students, faculty and alumni cycling every week), but for many others, this final show would have been the first time showing a focused body of work in a gallery setting. As for the rest of the semester, we’re expected to translate our art practices into quarantine settings, which is challenging when you create large scale paintings or rely on the university’s printmaking facilities to create work.

Michelle Wu, lithograph with watercolor, 11x14”

Courtesy of Michelle Wu

Michelle Wu, lithograph with watercolor, 11×14”

Uncle Boy’s Landscaping, install shot from “Midnight Crisis”

Courtesy of Curtis Ho and Irene Song

Uncle Boy’s Landscaping, install shot from “Midnight Crisis”

Ultimately, I’m thankful for the (almost) four years I was able to spend as a fine arts student at Cornell. I had the freedom to take classes that inform the work I’ve made, including various art history courses, Jewish studies and the anthropology of religion. I was part of an eclectic group of 28 talented, diverse, intelligent artists, all with different interests, passions and ways of art-making in response to the world to which we all belong.

The College of Architecture, Art and Planning is where I met my best friends at Cornell, and I’m so grateful to know these amazing people. I will always remember Aiza Ahmed’s intensely colorful portraits (@aizaahmedart), Sophie Galowitz’s cheeky animated videos (@are_grubs_larvae), Curtis Ho and Irene Song, the duo known as Uncle Boy’s Landscaping (@uncleboyslandscaping) and their unexpected social commentary installations, Vivian Lin’s whimsical plushie mushrooms (@bigsoftfungi), William Demaria’s technical, nuanced printmaking (@william_of_orange) and Michelle Wu’s honest and darkly hilarious illustrations. Even though I couldn’t see everyone’s final work at the end of the semester, I know we will all stay in touch as our careers take us in wildly different directions.

Aiza Ahmed, “Chai-wala (Tea seller),” 24x40” oil on canvas.

Aiza Ahmed, “Chai-wala (Tea seller),” 24×40” oil on canvas.

The last painting I completed at Cornell is entitled “Exile,” as I’ve spent the last few months thinking about the generational trauma and diaspora which is central to Jewish identity. But this week, exile took on another meaning. We Cornellians have been forced out of our homes on the hill prematurely, and now we wander, creating art as a means of survival in this tumultuous world.


Lucy Kay Plowe is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Her work can be found on Instagram @lucyplowe or her website She can be reached at [email protected].