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PHOTO ESSAY: Students show stories, lives through art exhibit

In Johnson City, Tennessee, around 50 pieces of artwork were selected from East Tennessee State University students to showcase at this year's Student Honor Show at Slocumb Galleries. The annual show is juried by Jason Hoelscher, an art professor at Georgia Southern University.

"The diversity of mediums, and even the diversity of approaches within each medium, was really impressive through and through--which definitely made jurying difficult," said Hoelscher. "The submissions were so uniformly strong I had a great time looking at everything, and a hard time making the final selections. If the quality of the submitted works is any indication, then it definitely looks like the ESTU art department is operating at a really high level."

This photo essay sheds light on how each artist came to create their work and what that experience was like for them. The exhibit explores a variety of themes: isolation, gender identity, pandemic life, systematic exploitation, racial injustice, popular culture and the abnormal. These themes are expressed through mediums such as photography, sculptures, ceramics, paintings, drawings, jewelry, metalwork, embroidery, graphic design, fibers and mixed media.

Maria Kalis

Sadness Carved sculpture

Maria Kalis, a non-traditional student at the university, explores the grieving process after coping with the loss of her mother. Her professors Angelique Lynch and Shanna Lawson challenged her to use sculpting as a new medium when she normally painted.

“I lost my mom about five years ago and I did not know that she had suffered with depression," said Kalis. "She kind of hid that from me and my siblings.”

She made the decision to go back to school after struggles in her personal life. She felt honored for her work to be recognized by her peers and professors.

“It was actually overwhelming because I’ve been trying to do art for so many years and to have something recognized really meant a lot to me," Kalis said. "I went through a really bad divorce a few years ago and I’ve gone back to school to try to get my degree."

While being involved with arts at the university, she also serves as an executive aid for the Department of Chemistry.


Jackie Cox

Masculinity Graphite

When words failed, art spoke for another ETSU art student, Jackie Cox. Until about eight years old, Cox was unable to speak. He was diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, and it was only through drawing could he articulate what he truly felt.

“I have been into art since he was five years old,” said Cox. “I actually sell art full-time, I sell my paintings and drawings all over the United States right now. It’s how I make a living.”

His artwork is inspired by his two daughters, Hannah and Allison. The piece selected to the honor show is his representation of how as a single dad he has navigated his own masculinity while celebrating the femininity expressed by his daughters.

“It’s about a different sense of masculinity than today, where a real man is not afraid to put pink on at a tea party and fake nails with his girls,” Cox said. “In the piece, we would do a lot of tea parties and they would dress me up.”

Finishing his third year in the studio art program, he has studied photography, painting and drawing. He spoke highly of the professors that have helped him improve as an artist.


Laura Rogers

Mother Nature's Watermelon Product Design

Graduating senior Laura Rogers had work from her display and package design class chosen for the show. Titled “Mother Nature’s Watermelon”, her graphic design work was inspired from her own love of watermelon.

“I did watermelon water just because that’s not very common, I haven’t seen many at any stores,” said Rogers. “Like you could find it at Fresh Market I’m sure, but I actually like watermelon water straight from the watermelon. I just wanted to do something that I would actually want to drink if I saw it in a store.”

Rogers explained that she has had work featured several times at Slocumb Galleries, but it always feels good to have others appreciate your work. Being involved in the show also gives her a chance to appreciate what other students are doing.

“I have always tried to submit work for the student honor show because it’s such a great way to see everyone’s work in the department, especially the ones you don’t have class with,” Rogers said. “You can see what other students are working on and it’s great because we have so much diversity here with the different studio classes.”

Rogers also has a BFA exhibition at Reece Museum, displaying her “PERIODUS” brand that embraces menstruation as a natural process.


Claire Alfonso

Containing Mixed Media

Claire Alfonso, originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, entered her assemblage as representation of natural versus artificial. Each pouch is filled with various items like dried vegetables, flowers and other items.

“That’s just stuff I had around,” said Alfonso.” Some of it is like stuff that is once living, others of it are fake versions of living, so there’s that whole artificial versus natural conversation going on with that.

This particular piece was inspired by materials she had been keeping, specifically plastic pouches from Kroger.

“I’ve been saving those for years thinking I was going to make something with them,” said Alfonso. “They’re like perfect little containers and they’re really cool and I don’t like throwing plastic away. I am working on another piece with them right now.”

Alfonso is an English major with a film studies and art double minor. She intends to graduate Spring 2022 and is excited to finish out her art classes.


Evan Stephens

Twisted Ceramics

Evans Stephens has been throwing clay for over eight years; it all started with his obsession with watching pottery YouTube videos.

It wasn’t long after that had saved up his own money and bought a pottery wheel for himself. In high school he took his first ceramics class, but by that point he had already been teaching himself pottery for three years. Although he started as a psychology major at ETSU, Stephens quickly switched to ceramics and has been actively pursuing it ever since.

“That’s been my about eight year journey of collecting equipment, having sales here and there to now doing it full-time in college,” said Stephens. “Hopefully I will be going onto grad school and becoming a well-rounded artist, maybe even an educator. We’ll see where we end up.”

Stephens drew inspiration for his work from the human body and form. It is a theme he’s explored in his work for a while, but this piece pushed him in a slightly different direction than from when he originally started creating work.

“I was looking at the body a lot and trying to mix it with the vessel forms I had been working with, which led me to really heavy alteration of form and doing a lot of advanced techniques,” Stephens said. “This particular pot has seven individual components that make up the piece that I made and put together and altered. It was also a good collaboration between the work I had started with as a potter moving into the figurative work I do now.”

What started as a work he created during quarantine, Stephens brought it to campus to finish up at one of its most vulnerable stages. The whole throwing, drying and finishing process took several weeks, including several firing days in the kiln.

“It’s also scary because there’s a certain part of the process where you have to let go because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the kiln,” explained Stephens. “It gets to a point where it’s called bone dry and it’s literally the weakest the clay will be. If you flick it, it could just break. It was just a whole lot of padding and getting blankets to try to get it not to move.”


To learn more about the exhibit and upcoming art featured at Slocumb Galleries, visit


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