University of New Mexico Master’s of Fine Arts candidate Robbin Bates installed her thesis exhibition on March 16, her artist talk was scheduled for March 25, and a reception for March 27. In the end, only four people saw her exhibition before COVID-19 pandemic measures shut down the show ̶ and the world around it.
Bates still went before her thesis committee with a fast and creative approach.
“Eventually, it just came down to me being able to install the work in the space I had intended so I could document it for myself and for future submissions, but also for a virtual thesis exhibition, which is what I had to pull together in a week to present to my committee,” Bates explained.
Born and raised in Tucson, Bates finished her bachelor’s degree at University of Wisconsin-Parkside before coming to New Mexico where she is a third-year graduate student in the MFA Studio Painting and Drawing program.
“UNM was my top choice for grad school because of how great the Painting faculty are, but also because it was closer to family,” she said.
Bates said her work is inspired by her childhood, her home, memories, and nostalgia from the first 11 years of her life.
“I am inspired by many different parts of my childhood, such as family photographs, objects, toys, patterns, pop culture ̶ more specifically cartoons ̶ crafts, and more. Throughout my time here at UNM, I have explored many different mediums other than painting even though I am in the Painting and Drawing program,” she explained.
The show is a collection of bright and whimsical pieces, such as paving stones inlaid with plastic bead dolphins, a graffitied and beaded banner, and a flag made with puff paint and jump rope handles.
“One thing I think is great about this program is that we aren’t confined to the mediums of the program we are in. For my thesis, I worked with acrylic paint, polycarbonate, wood, fabric, Perler beads, cement, and more. I really tried to expand my material use to incorporate another aspect of my childhood, such as the Perler beads, or using new materials to recreate objects from my childhood or childhood home, like the polycarbonate or the cement to make pavers, that were reminiscent of the ones in my front yard.”
Bates pointed to the Painting faculty as a big reason for coming to UNM.
“Scott Anderson, Raychael Stine, Bart Exposito are all so amazing. Even though he was just hired, my brief experience with John Abbott has been truly great. I have also enjoyed working with Meg Gould, Ellen Babcock, Justin Nighbert, and Ray Hernadez-Duran among others,” she enthused, adding, “I tell everyone I can, take a class Adriana Ramirez de Arellano, it will change your life for the better. I have never had a professor as passionate, caring and inspirational as Adriana. She teaches a number of courses, but she is mainly in the Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies program.”
Musing about the pandemic’s effect on her project, Bates said at first, she was angry, “Very angry. Unfortunately, there is nothing any of us can do but do what is best for everyone. This, after time, put my MFA in perspective," she said. "In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t that important. However, it has been the only thing I have been working toward for the last three years.
"For MFA Studio artists, showcasing our work to the community is one major part of the program. It is how we prove to our committee that we have worked toward and completed the final stages of our degree.”
To finish her thesis exhibition to show to her committee, a virtual video of the exhibition was created by CFA social media manager Nick Griffith, and Bates took installation photographs and created a drive folder for the committee to recreate what the space looked like so they would get as good a view as possible under the circumstances.
The scheduled in-person meeting with the committee in the gallery space was done instead via Google Hangouts after the committee had viewed the work virtually.
“I received great feedback on my thesis exhibition. I always appreciate the suggestions on how I could have made changes in my work that I can take into consideration for the next show or piece. That has been the best thing about grad school and this program, receiving invaluable feedback from faculty who have all lived this experience and have gained the wisdom to share with us,” Bates said, adding that she is graduating on time although she has no celebration plans.
The campus shutdown has presented some daunting obstacles for her work.
“Lately, I have been trying to draw with the limited supplies I have at home, as we are not allowed in our studio buildings on campus. It has been challenging. I usually draw or sketch as a way to work out ideas I have for a larger piece, and not having the materials to make larger works or paintings has made the process bittersweet. I am happy to be able to work from home, but I also miss my studio.”
Looking ahead, Bates said, “Ideally, I would love to be able to support my art practice while teaching art, but I think I have at least 15 years before I will reach that goal.”
Bates’s thesis exhibition Unmade Bed and more of her work can be viewed online.