Like everyone, Grace Hamilton and Amelia Mendelsohn saw their lives upended when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in the spring of 2020.
Hamilton, then 26, was working in New York City as a graphic designer for a menswear brand.
“I had four roommates and we all went our separate ways,” Hamilton said. “I moved back to South Bend and continued to work (remotely) for the same company. When sales dipped, our whole team except me and one other person were laid off. I was just working nonstop. The pandemic kind of eliminated work-life balance because you were always at home and always working.”
Mendelsohn was a senior at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where she was wrapping up her studies in art history and studio art.
“I was on spring break and received notice that I was not returning to campus and what had been my life up until that point. It threw a lot of things into a gray area,” Mendelsohn said.
While the women were at different points in their lives, they came to the same conclusion: apply to graduate school at the University of Notre Dame.
Both were accepted. Hamilton enrolled into the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in design and Mendelsohn into the MFA program for studio art. The two became part of a cohort of six art and design graduate students.
‘Figuring this out as we go’
Even with plans in place for the fall of 2020, the ebb and flow of the pandemic kept the students on their toes throughout the three-year track.
The MFA programs prepare the students to teach, so Mendelsohn supported Jason Lahr, an associate professor of painting and drawing, as a teaching assistant in undergraduate studio art classes.
“It was definitely challenging coming into that fall semester,” Mendelsohn said. “I felt like there was a new problem to solve almost every day.”
“I was really honest with her. I told her we’re going to be figuring this out as we go,” Lahr said. “We could only have eight students in the studio at a time, 6 feet apart from each other — four on one side and four on the other. And we had to have a weird A-B schedule, so it was difficult to remember which group you told what.”
The pandemic and other circumstances affected the cohort’s exhibitions, too.
Normally, MFA art and design work is displayed at a reception once a year. But at the end of the cohort’s first semester, the New Faces Reception was canceled due to tightened COVID-19 restrictions.
During their second year, a snowstorm closed the University on the day that reception was to take place. A new date was scheduled, but the reception was canceled again due to concerns about the highly transmissible omicron coronavirus variant.
So when Hamilton learned the cohort’s thesis exhibition at the end of their third year would not be held in the Snite Museum of Art, as has been the tradition, she couldn’t believe it.
“I was working as a research assistant at the Snite and they pulled us into a (staff) meeting and said, ‘Soon, the Snite will prepare to move into the new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art and get ready for a building renovation. This is the timeline….’ And I was like, wait a second, that’s when the thesis exhibition is supposed to be here,” she said.
Hamilton confirmed that the cohort’s show would be held in Riley Hall of Art and Design instead.
“It’s not a very big gallery, so to exhibit our cohort’s work, we would have to go in two-week installments,” Hamilton said.
The cohort wanted the opportunity to exhibit in a gallery space at the same time. Hamilton asked her mom for advice and she suggested the South Bend Museum of Art (SBMA).
“The group was really excited about the idea because it’s a museum,” Hamilton said.
Mendelsohn, who has a heart for making art and art education accessible to all, saw it as “a really wonderful opportunity to bring our work outside of Notre Dame’s campus and into the community.”
Hamilton added, “It kind of bridges that space between Notre Dame and South Bend in a really nice way.”
For the SBMA, exhibiting the students’ thesis work is a perfect fit with the museum’s mission.
“We collaborate with education and community members on programming and exhibition ideas that serve all members of the community,” said Krista Hoefle, SBMA’s senior curator.
With a plausible solution in hand, the cohort presented the alternative location to art and design faculty, who accepted the proposal. The MFA Class of 2023 would defend their thesis work in an exhibition held at the South Bend Museum of Art.
“I think the students demonstrated the flexibility many of us learned during COVID — like, OK, Plan A didn’t work. Plan B didn’t work. Now what?” said Lahr, who in addition to being an art professor serves as the director of graduate studies.
“They’ve been a good group. They’ve had a lot of curveballs thrown at them in their three years and they’ve done a good job of adapting. The fact that they initiated this is a real testament to their perseverance,” Lahr said.
‘Happy to end my degree’ at SBMA
As Hamilton and Mendelsohn prepare to defend their theses and receive their MFAs, they look forward to what comes next. Hamilton will join the design faculty at a university in New York City and Mendelsohn expects to instruct in a nonprofit setting.
“I am particularly interested in art education and making sure it’s accessible to underserved communities and people of all ages. I am looking at (job) positions that provide opportunities for people to create and learn different artistic methods and techniques,” Mendelsohn said.
From 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 7, at the SMBA, the six MFA art and design students will proudly attend their thesis exhibition reception, which is free and open to the public. The South Bend Museum of Art is located at 120 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The exhibition will be on display through mid-June. Admission to the museum is free, and gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and on major holidays.
For Mendelsohn, the exhibit is the perfect ending to the past three years.
“I love downtown South Bend and I love the South Bend Museum of Art. It’s very close to where I live. So I am very, very happy to end my degree in that space."
“Our cohort’s thesis exhibition contains work created during our final year in the MFA program. The six of us represent areas of industrial design, graphic design, sculpture, ceramics, photography and painting. Each of us develops a self-directed research focus to guide our thesis body of work.” — Amelia Mendelsohn
Originally published by publicaffairs.nd.edu on April 6.at