Showcase 2023: MFA Students’ Art Blends Intuition, Listening and Play

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 21, 2023) — Artists are often depicted as solitary figures, wiling away for hours in private as they work to hone their craft.

This is indeed the case for Kelsey Renko and John DeSousa, two graduate students enrolled in the University at Albany’s Master of Fine Arts program, who confess to losing track of time while in the flow of making art, sometimes forgetting basic human needs like eating and sleeping.

Both students are in the final year of their MFA program and gearing up for their Thesis Exhibition, which is part of UAlbany’s inaugural Showcase Day on April 27. The day-long event highlights student research, academic and creative work, uniting UAlbany's existing student showcases and conferences, and expanding to all schools and colleges. Showcase will include poster presentations, research talks, art exhibitions and student performances.

Purple and gold logo reads “UAlbany Showcase Thursday, April 27, 2023” with images of a book, plant, lightbulb, DNA molecule, laptop, barograph, paint supplies and hands holding a globe.

Renko and DeSousa have private studio space inside the University’s Boor Sculpture Studio, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse complete with studios, kilns, a woodshop, metal shop and digital media suite. While much of their time is spent alone, it’s also spent deep in conversation: the students speak to their art, and it speaks back.

Renko — a painter who makes colorful abstracts exploring themes around intimacy, relationships and bodies — says she can often hear what her work needs once she takes a step back following a period of flow.


UAlbany Showcase 2023: Kelsey Renko


“It’s like having a conversation,” she said. “You step back eventually and you look at it and you decide if what you did is correct or not, if it feels right, or if you have to keep working through it.  “And the painting can kind of tell you where it should go and what it should look like, and you kind of have to fight yourself to get it there.”

Sometimes that means a different color or crop, a messier stroke, or a thicker paint application. The process is less exciting than some might think, she said.

“A lot of times it’s just looking at things and just staring and taking it in,” she said.

The process is similar for DeSousa, a mixed-media artist whose current work uses textiles and quilts screenprinted with internet memes and digital collage art. He relies on a blend of intuition and active listening to arrive at a final piece.

“The piece might want something else for itself, or the concept might want something else for itself,” he said. “So it’s listening to what the piece wants and then responding to it in an intuitive way, and having that back-and-forth relationship with what I want and what the piece wants.”

For their Thesis Exhibition, which will be on display in the University Art Museum, DeSousa is planning to show a range of his fabric collages while Renko will show eight paintings made within the last year that range in scale, color and materials.

The work they’re most proud of are pieces that both challenged and inspired them.

In one of her pieces, Renko found and used glitter made from mica flakes to depict the roots of a tree flanked by two figures on a moonlit night. Most glitter is synthetic, so she was pleased to find a natural alternative.

“The materiality within this piece is what I’m excited about, and the way that the materials lined up with what I was wanting to say and what I was wanting to paint,” she said. “The fact it is made up of an earthly substance I thought was really important.”


UAlbany Showcase 2023: John DeSousa


Merging the digital and the physical in unexpected ways is exciting to DeSousa, who likes to make things with his hands and recently learned to embroider and quilt. After getting digital art printed onto fabric and other materials, he will refashion it again — tearing, sewing and resewing until the images and text form something new.

“I'm really excited about quilting,” he said. “It's really funny because it feels like such a grandma kind of craft. And when I'm using or finding digital images that can be very, like, disturbing and violent some of them, sometimes merging the two is just kind of funny or unsettling or it kind of creates this new response for me. It's like playing.”

Showcase events will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Lecture Center Concourse, the University Art Museum, Performing Arts Center and University Library, as well as in the Campus Center and ETEC.

The day is planned as an academic, classroom-free day, and students who are not presenting will be attending or volunteering at events, and in some cases fulfilling assignments for their regularly scheduled classes. Faculty and staff, as well as prospective students, donors, sponsors, legislators, community leaders and institutional partners, are invited to attend.

For volunteer opportunities, visit the Engage UAlbany page.