Creating space, defining themselves: Elon’s art seniors push boundaries in thesis exhibition

“Odds,” the 2024 senior thesis art exhibition, is the culmination of a year of research and self-exploration and the starting point to artists’ careers

“This is me creating a home for myself.”

Jillian Shor ’24 stands beneath her handmade chuppah — a canopy used in traditional Jewish weddings that symbolizes the homes created by new families — in the center of Gallery 406 at Arts West. Held aloft by oak limbs foraged from Elon’s campus, a multi-colored, multi-textured patchwork quilt represents the intersectionality of her identity she came to know and name while at Elon.

artwork displayed on the walls and floor of Gallery 406
Danny Gutierrez’s “Cuerpos 23-24” explores the loss of spaces for marginalized people and his identity as a trans man and Mexican-American at a predominantly white institution.

“My goal was to better understand myself and the facets of my identity, how they are connected and separate, and ground myself in that,” said Shor, who will pursue a master of arts in art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall. “I’m Jewish, I’m queer, I’m intersex, I have a chronic pain disorder: There are things you don’t see just by looking at me, and I’m navigating how I show those to the world.”

Shor is one of nine seniors graduating with degrees through the Department of Art whose senior thesis works are on display at Gallery 406 through commencement. Students’ works range in media, from Shor’s patchwork fabrics, to paintings, sculptures, papier-mâché and street-art collages, to interactive mixed-media displays.

These works are the result of a painstaking, yearlong journey taken by each student graduating with a bachelor of art or bachelor of fine arts degree. That journey allowed them to find themselves and their creative voices through the art program’s senior thesis. The two-semester thesis process mirrors those found in master of fine arts programs, with mentored research and multiple rounds of required critiques from faculty and peers throughout before they exhibit and then defend their thesis in front of a committee.

A woman with a microphone in front of artwork
Emily McCarthy ’24 introduces her artwork based on the trauma of sexual assault at a May 3, 2024, reception in Gallery 406 at Arts West.

“They constantly navigate all of this sometimes very disparate feedback. It helps them think deeply and be very clear in what they want to create and achieve,” said Samantha DiRosa, professor and chair of the Department of Art.

“This combination of studio art and academic research prepares them for future careers as professional artists or graduate study in the arts,” said Assistant Professor of Art Ryan Rasmussen, who led this year’s senior seminar.

It’s more than an academic and pre-professional exercise. The deep reflection allows space for Elon students to refine their values, express hidden emotions and define themselves.

Megan Spina’s “People Pleasing” begins whimsically. The observer steps through a portal of refrigerator doors into a small room filled with armor, chainmail and pulleys that reveal soft images like a reclining fawn, alluding to the fawning trauma response that leads to people-pleasing.

An upside-down mannequin and chainmail armor on a wall
Part of Megan Spina’s thesis project, “People Pleaser,” in Gallery 406 at Arts West.

Emily McCarthy explored her experience as a survivor of sexual assault through a series of works that reflected the stigma and trauma women experience after being assaulted. The centerpiece is a sculpture of shattered glass surrounded by sketches of 90 women representing the 90 percent of sexual assault victims who are female.

Danny Gutierrez, an Odyssey Program scholar and Communications Fellow majoring in art and communication design, is a first-generation college student and is Mexican-American. He reflected on his gender transition, the freedom LGBTQIA+ people find in nightlife and spaces they create themselves — even as gentrification threatens to eliminate those spaces — into a sequence of pieces overflowing the gallery’s northeast corner. “Cuerpos 23-24” features a door, a wall of flyer- and graffiti-inspired art with wry phrases overheard at clubs, and a Mexican flag scrawled with the words, “I want you to know how I feel.”

Two people point at and discuss art in a crowded gallery
Danny Gutierrez ’24 and Professor and Chair of the Department of Art Samantha DiRosa at the senior thesis opening in Gallery 406.

“I use my work to remind myself there are spaces that exist in the world for me, and they allow me to connect with other intersectionally identified people,” Gutierrez said. “I chose public art because marginalized people have space insecurity, and I want to make art that’s accessible to them. All of my work is about community.”

Rasmussen reflected on the growth he observed in Gutierrez and the department’s eight other seniors graduating May 24.

“What impressed me most was their ability to articulate the conceptual underpinnings of their work and situate it within contemporary artistic discourses,” Rasmussen said. “Their work challenges viewers and expands the boundaries of what constitutes art.”