RISD Illustration Studio Challenges MFA Students to Become Socially Engaged Artists

Students hang painted fabric in an illustration studio

This fall, the first cohort of graduate students enrolled in RISD’s Illustration MFA program are deepening their practices as illustrators while preparing for their thesis semester in the spring. An integral part of this preparation is Social Engagement and Agency, co-taught by Illustration Department Head Eric Telfort 05 IL, Professor Andrea Dezsö and Assistant Professor Dylan DeWitt 06 IL. In the studio, students are challenged to explore new ways of working while connecting with local community organizations, artists and individuals to become socially engaged illustrators.

“In this course and the program as a whole, we are focused on seeing illustration as a bigger playing field,” says Dezsö. “We’re exploring how artists and illustrators can use their work to affect the world in a positive way,” DeWitt adds.

Irene (Yi Han) Chung MFA 24 IL is combining her background in health science and journalism with her artistic passion by creating work about body image and the concept of “guilty pleasures.” She interviewed women running local businesses in the health and food industries to gather their perspectives and is designing a book she hopes to publish one day.

“This program is really transformative for me,” says Chung. “I didn’t consider illustration as a profession until last year, so I am building from scratch. I really like making picture books and would love to have my own independent publishing house.”

Paintings of local woman owned food business by Irene Chung
Reem Al Ani stands and smiles at a table of her work with paintings hung up on the wall behind her
Above, Irene Chung interviewed women running local businesses in the health and food industries before illustrating a book about body image and the concept of “guilty pleasures.” Below, Reem Al Ani partnered with a local refugee resettlement center and created response paintings to illustrate the experiences of Syrian refugees.

Also working in print is Nina Martinez MFA 24 IL, who connected with Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a New York-based grassroots organization founded and staffed by Filipino workers and labor trafficking survivors that aims to empower Filipino migrants working in the US. Throughout the fall semester, Martinez has been writing and illustrating a printed and digital historical timeline of the organization’s efforts from 2002 to the present day.

“My initiative and self-trust is being challenged and improved upon in this program,” the artist explains. “My prior experience is in freelance work, which requires following prompts from clients. Now I have to be the creative director of my own projects.”

Reem Al-Ani MFA 24 IL, who worked with paint as a mode of illustration, partnered with a local refugee resettlement center that assists Syrian refugees with learning English, gaining citizenship, community building and more. While connecting directly with Syrian families through the organization, Al-Ani asked participants to draw mental maps of the many places they have called home before she painted their experiences in response.

“The thing that unifies us is this ephemeral plane existence that colors our physical environment.” says Al-Ani. In addition to painting, Al-Ani has also created a series of animations that illustrate the transition from one environment to another.

colorful illustrations hanging on strings
Work by Ananya Parekh, who collaborated with residents of a local elder care organization.

“We’re exploring how artists and illustrators can use their work to affect the world in a positive way.”

Assistant Professor Dylan DeWitt

Also working with paint is Ananya Parekh MFA 24 IL, who spent the past few months building close connections with residents of a Providence-based elder care organization. “My narrative is about the things we carry,” Parekh explains. “I’ve been painting on fabric to tell their stories, which will then be scanned into a book that will be a combination of anecdotes and excerpts related to the theme of carrying.” For each piece, Parekh will create an accompanying handkerchief to send back to the resident she spoke with.

While many chose to illustrate the experiences of others, Deanne Fernandes MFA 24 IL asked the people she worked with to draw their own stories. She developed a series of workshops in conjunction with Creature Conserve, a nonprofit founded by History, Philosophy and Social Sciences faculty member Lucy Spelman. The workshops, which she has titled Story Nights, use games, dialogue and illustration as modes of community research. Workshop participants play verbal games and then work as a group to form a cohesive written story. At the end of the workshop, participants use collage, drawing and other art forms to activate the narrative.

After seeing the final projects at a mid-December critique, Telfort, DeWitt and Dezsö were amazed by the growth of the cohort. “The structure of the program allows a diverse range of practices within illustration, which keeps it dynamic and allows people to better place themselves within the field,” says Telfort. “This year, it feels as though the cohort is really growing into their own and smoothly transitioning to their thesis semester.”

Isabel Roberts / top image work by Mara Menahan MFA 24 IL
December 20, 2023

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