UAlbany MFA Student Wins $7,000 Thayer Fellowship

A person with short black braids, a tan jacket, white button down and black slacks stands against a white wall in between two lightbox portrait outined in red and orange and covered with text.
Sean Desiree, a recent graduate of UAlbany’s MFA program in Studio Art, poses next to their exhibit, "Let’s Call It What It Is," which went on view at the University Art Museum this past spring. (Photo provided)

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 14, 2024) — Sean Desiree didn’t really think of themselves as an artist until 2020. A year earlier, the Bronx native had been working as a furniture maker in Albany and considering ways to support the community when they got the idea to harness their woodworking skills for a public art project.

“I try to figure out how to use whatever I’m doing in my life to support community,” they said. “And I wanted to do a fundraiser to give out a grant to people living in public housing in Hudson. And that got me thinking about 2D art as something to sell in order to raise money.”

Desiree constructed two-dimensional, wood-based aerial views of seven public housing units in Hudson. The finished collection, titled LIFTED: Public Housing, An Aerial Perspective, was housed at MINNA in Hudson and proceeds went toward a grant for a local artist living in public housing. Not long after, Desiree was accepted into More Art’s Engaging Artists Residency program, which focuses specifically on public art.

“That’s when I first started thinking about art as a way to leverage resources in order to support community and that was also the first time I started to identify as an artist and think of myself and my projects in that way,” they said.

Desiree, now 40, just graduated from UAlbany’s MFA program in Studio Art after winning a $7,000 Thayer Fellowship from the State University of New York. The fellowship, established in memory of SUNY Board Trustee Jeanne C. Thayer, is awarded each year to outstanding students preparing to graduate from a SUNY school and pursue a career in the arts.

An art installation on the UAlbany campus features rectangular colums covered in plexiglass mirrors.
Sean Desiree's "The Earth Can Absorb It" was installed in UAlbany's East Garden this spring (photo by Sean Corcoran)

Desiree was selected as a finalist from over 40 visual arts candidates and received the fellowship from a finalist pool of four talented SUNY art students studying in various disciplines. They were honored at an award ceremony on April 30, along with other top SUNY students, for their achievements in the arts.

“Art has the power to bridge divides and build connections,” said UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez. “As we confront global challenges and work to educate the next generation of leaders, these connections are more important than ever. I am very proud of the work of our University at Albany student artists and grateful to our SUNY and state leaders for recognizing their important contributions. Congratulations to all the students being honored this year for their achievement in arts, particularly this year’s Thayer Fellowship winner and UAlbany MFA candidate, Sean Desiree.”

Desiree was drawn to UAlbany’s MFA program because of the practical support it offers artists, including dedicated studio space in the Boor Sculpture Studio, faculty support and peer connections.

“I liked how it was structured, having access to professors, doing tutorials with them and studio visits, that's where I got the most benefit,” they said.

As a conceptual artist, Desiree cares less about the medium and more about the ideas behind their art, which explore social engagement and disruptive interventions that counter biased societal structures.

Flourescent gaffers tape create a path on the University Art Museum floor. Several pieces of tape travel up a white wall and lead to three lightbox portraits of individuals covered in text.
Sean Desiree's "Let's Call It What It Is" on view at the University Art Museum this past spring. (Photo by Sean Corcoran)

One such project, Let’s Call It What It Is, uses a “choose your own adventure” format that asks participants to investigate themselves in relation to issues of white supremacy and allyship. The immersive installation, which went on view at the University Art Museum (UAM) this past spring, has participants follow a path made with fluorescent gaffers tape based on their answers to a series of questions and concludes with a lightbox portrait and personal story related to one of the prompts.

Another project called Nonsus (No Ordinary Love) features sculptures of men’s basketball shorts which have been hardened and lined with crystals and stand opposing each other. The exhibition, which was also on view at UAM this spring, invites viewers to consider ideas of closeness and intimacy - and what sort of touch is deemed appropriate or not - through the hyper-masculine lens of the NBA.

Basketball players hug on a large video screen inside the University Art Museum. Two sculptures of basketball shorts stand nearby.
"Nonsus (No Ordinary Love)" (photo by Sean Corcoran)

Community care and support also continue to be major themes in Desiree’s work.

Let Us Keep You Warm, an interactive sculpture Desiree made for Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, utilized sustainable building practices and recycled materials to generate and emulate heat. The piece was intentionally designed in opposition to the rise of hostile architecture, an urban design strategy that aims to make it uncomfortable for people to linger in public spaces.

“I created a term called conducive architecture, and its aim is to provide structures that are supportive or nourishing,” they said. “And that’s a major component of what I want to do in my art.”

After graduation, Desiree will be heading to Maine for a two-month artists residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

"The arts are an essential part of SUNY, a crucial form of expression and a means of communication that foster a connection between artist and audience, pushing them to reflect upon and appreciate the meaningful details in the bigger picture," said SUNY Chancellor John B. King, Jr. "Across SUNY, we have thousands of artists on our campuses expressing themselves through creativity. I congratulate every awardee as we celebrate artistic diversity and excellence across SUNY."