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More than Beauty

Abby Clemens in her studio

Abigail Clemens’, MFA '23, SMFA studio walls are papered in math equations and mind maps, all scrawled in Sharpie pen. Her writing in permanent marker is a testament to Mrs. Choi, an influential high school art teacher who instructed Clemens to keep notes and to “never to erase a thought” in case it might come in handy later. 

On one paper, the phrases kinship building, dialogue, and experienced language are circled in all caps. This is Clemens' vision for how visitors will engage with the 62-square foot pentagon shaped structure she is building for her MFA thesis. 

She shrugs. “I think that a lot of people seek raw displays of emotion in art, but I have found that I always have to carefully diagram things out. If I’m not methodical and meticulous about detail and construction, then my work doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. I don’t believe that all artwork has to be functional, but in my case, it really does.” 

Clemens, who grew up in the California Bay Area and considered graduate programs in the visual arts in multiple geographies, says her criteria for choosing SMFA were clear. “I needed a dedicated studio space for making work, some type of financial aid scholarship, and the benefits of being based at a larger academic institution.” She’s found all of those resources as an MFA candidate at SMFA.    

She’s also deeply appreciated the ability to take classes at Tufts University outside of SMFA, particularly Introduction to Asian American Studies with assistant professor Courtney Sato. “She was a huge help to my initial research into material studies, and the Department of Studies in Race Colonialism and Diaspora is one of the most unique at the University,” Clemens said. Her practice was also impacted by Professor Hosea Hirata’s class focusing on Haruki Murakami’s works of modern Japanese fiction. 

Clemens points to open floorspace outlined in masking tape out in the hallway and explains, “I had to draft up my square footage for the curators using the math that you saw in the studio.” Next week she’ll use a table saw for the first time and shape lumber into poles herself. After that, she’ll stretch rice paper across the frames that will form the structure’s walls. 

Clemens’ studio table is piled high with giant beige rolls of her handmade paper, hay-like threads of gampi bark and clouds of kozo fibers swirling across them. She explains, “These are essentially two of the most common reedy plants used to make the translucent sheets many call rice paper. The materials themselves don’t carry any kind of cultural association, but by virtue of how they have moved geographically, people create the ethnic identification for the materials.” 

It was to unpack these assumptions that Clemens, who identifies as mixed race Chinese American, chose to incorporate racialized paper  so prominently into her thesis project. The material first appeared in ancient China in the 9th century, but these days the availability of paper and the slow process that goes into its production are taken for granted. She learned and practiced each step in the SMFA Papermaking Studio in the Intermediate/Advanced Papermaking course with lecturer Milcah Bassel

Those entering Clemens’ structure will crouch through an opening in between the walls and floor, potentially joining strangers in tight quarters. Inside, projections of floriography, thorns, buds, petals, and stems will sway and change color in response to a musical score Clemens, a jazz musician by training, is composing. Her sound-art heavy interdisciplinary practice is all about chance encounters in immersive spaces and creating environments where viewers become active participants in building spontaneous community. 

This thesis project is arguably her accelerando in orchestra-speak, the gradual speeding up, contraction, and release of significant previous works all coming together in one last SMFA movement. Clemens is the child of two musicians, and it shows. 

In her first year at SMFA she composed, Eat Before Playing: Visualizations and Scores for all Instrumentalists. Arranged like sheet music, she drew different delicacies to represent unique musical notes. Chocolate eclairs, stacks of fluffy pancakes, glazed donuts, and ice cream sundaes, line up in pencil drawn rows in a mock graphic score for a musician. 

Clemens said, “That project got me thinking about representing sound with individual units of visual bodies. I shifted the units from food to flowers.” In this case, her thesis visualizes botanicals used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.     

Clemens was deeply influenced by lecturer Andrew Hlynsky’s course, Programming for Visual Thinkers  in which she learned how to use to TouchDesigner, a software for programming interactive video installation, projection, and simple robotics. The results were obvious in her subsequent piece, We Have to Talk for the Flowers to Grow, an interactive projection in which viewers were asked to speak into microphones, two people at a time. The vibrations of voices controlled the vivid patterns of flowers projected onto screens in a darkened room. 

She explained, “If no one is talking into the microphones, the flowers fade to black. It represents the notion that if you’re trying to share information about your background, land, or history, nothing can grow if people don’t speak to one another.” 

A strength and an entry point of Clemens’ work is its unapologetic beauty—but it is not just about arranging breathtaking patterns. Clemens is using audio and visual as a way to decipher semiotics and cultivate inclusive dialogue. It’s easy to imagine her thesis as a small study for a much larger installation that brings together audiences in a powerful way in the near future.

Lead image by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University.

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