Senior spotlight: Alex Mihalski, Craft/Material Studies

From the moment she could hold a pencil, Alex Mihalski has been interested in art. For years, she says, that interest was focused in traditional modes of artmaking—classical portraiture and representational work—and she assumed she would follow the track of a traditional painter.

After taking a few classes in the VCUarts Craft/Material Studies Department, her plans started to shift. She discovered etching and fibers—“the two things I just can’t get out of my brain”—and decided to pursue a major in the department, as well as minors in Painting + Printmaking and Art History.

A semester abroad, interrupted by a global pandemic, solidified the change. In London, she experienced a different model of learning. Rather than working through a series of weekly assignments, her classes were open-ended and self-driven. Then, when her semester abroad came to a halt due to COVID-19, she says the uncertainty of the pandemic further pushed her toward abstraction.

“It was similar to how many artists stumbled into abstraction in times of confusion and stress,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to represent anymore, because I didn’t know what was going on. A more abstract practice helped me work through a lot of the stress of the past year.”

Her process also became more free-flowing. She relies less on detailed sketches and plans—instead, she embraces uncertainty and trusts her instincts. This approach is particularly evident in her recent work, which introduces textiles into her printing and etching process. Using a thickened dye, she fills a bottle and draws on a 10-foot by 12-foot muslin. Once she begins a dye line, she can’t stop until the line is finished.

“I did a sample beforehand, but I did not plan it out at all,” she says. “I just have to trust that all of this time and all of this work you’ve I’ve putting into art will get me to the end. It’s kind of freeing and also a little bit reassuring that I can do that.”

One day, Mihalski was working alongside Peter Skudlarek, who was dyeing silks. They each were interested in the other’s work, and Mihalski had the idea to pull a print on silk. They applied for and received a VCUarts Undergraduate Research Grant to further explore how their practices could work together.

The project was also an attempt to understand the challenges of life during a pandemic, and the anxiety of approaching graduation. The recontextualized the myths of Persephone, Icarus, and Narcissus through the lens of 2020. They wanted to see how the young characters survived hard times, and what today’s students could learn from their stories.

Mihalski and Skudlarek presented their work during an exhibition, All That is Lovely, in the FAB Gallery this spring. They drew parallels between their own creative process and the trials of the protagonists in the stories that inspired them. Every plate, print and silk, they said, was a visual representation of the battles won and lost, and a celebration of their perseverance.

“We were really big on this idea of talking about how do we, as young people, navigate this?” Mihalski says. “How do we grant ourselves more grace? How do we forgive ourselves or be a little bit easier on ourselves and recognize that everyone goes through hard times?”