York fine arts students bask in the glow of national acclaim

Visual arts graduate student Alex Kisilevich and Jennifer Thai, an undergraduate in the York University-Sheridan Institute Joint Program in Design (YSDN), are adding significant accolades to their resumés even before they graduate.

Kisilevich, who has undergraduate degrees in music from York (BFA Spec. Hons. ’07) and art at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) and has since returned to York for the first year of studies in the MFA Program in Visual Arts, received the national prize in the 2009 BMO 1st Art! competition. His photo Untitled (legs) was selected as the top entry out of 218 submissions.

BMO 1st Art! is Canada’s only national student artist competition and exhibition. A distinguished panel of judges chooses an overall national winner plus one winner from each province and territory.

Left: Kisilevich’s winning image Untitled (legs)

As the national winner, Kisilevich received a cash award of $5,000 and the honour of having his work become part of the BMO Corporate Art Collection, which includes historical and contemporary Canadian masters such as Emily Carr, Lawren Harris and many others.

“It seems for every acceptance or award one receives, there are at least 10 rejections beforehand,” said Kisilevich. “I feel exceptionally lucky to be selected as a winner of BMO’s 1st Art! This kind of attention and recognition has been so unexpected and so appreciated.”

The compelling image of prosthetic legs he submitted explores the line between funny and disturbing, reflecting his fascination with the mixture of tragic and ironic.

“I was creating images for my fourth-year OCAD thesis exhibit, titled …and then you die, when I got the opportunity to photograph the legs. They were offered to several photography students by Kym Pruesse, a professor in liberal studies. They belonged to her father and she wondered if anyone would be interested in documenting them before she donated them. I did five separate shoots with them before things came together for this image.

“Sadly, before I could give a print to Kym, she passed away at the age of 48. I did not know her very well, but I have been deeply saddened, and I donated a portion of my winnings from the competition to a scholarship in her name.”

From music to photography may seem like a long leap, but Kisilevich was following his dreams. “I decided to take a photography course as an elective in my third year,” he said. “I completely fell in love, lived and breathed photo, but wanted to complete my music degree. While in my final year, I applied to teacher’s college (which had been my previous plan) and OCAD. When OCAD offered me advanced standing into third-year photography, I jumped at the opportunity.”

Kisilevich is enthusiastic to return to his original alma mater and is particularly excited for the opportunity to teach in his second year.

His prize-winning work, along with those of the 12 regional winners, can be viewed on BMO Financial Group‘s Web site. The works were exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto from Oct. 7 to Nov. 1. 

As previously reported in YFile on Sept. 3, design student Thai has been receiving a lot of attention with her Sprouted Brown Rice packaging design. In addition to winning the Graphic Designers of Canada $2,500 Veer Scholarship and the student award from Applied Arts magazine, and placing as a semifinalist in the international and highly competitive Adobe Design Achievement Awards, she has three new honours to add to her already bulging trophy case.

Right: Thai’s Sprouted Brown Rice packaging design

Thai and two other YSDN students, Winnie Ma and Tracy Ma, were the only three students recognized in COUPE Magazine’s International Design & Image Competition Awards – for student packaging, poster and editorial design respectively.

Thai was also a Silver Winner in the Advertising and Design Club of Canada’s national student competition and a student merit winner in the American HOW magazine International Design Awards.

“These are truly outstanding accomplishments, that take a great deal of talent and effort to achieve,” said Albert Ng, Thai’s package design instructor. “All of Jennifer’s hard work has paid off!”

“My inspiration came from the terrible state of rice packaging today,” said Thai. “It’s unattractive and the handles are uncomfortable for such a heavy product. Reusable grocery bags are so popular, it seems liked a natural fit to give the packaging a second life as a reusable bag. It was Albert’s idea to also turn it into an apron. Initially, I thought that would be impossible. It took many prototypes, but I enjoyed the challenge. Albert always pushes his students to take their projects into unexpected territory.”

As her successes started to roll in, Thai received a recruitment call from a local agency to start immediate employment, but she chose to continue to concentrate on her studies. She has also fielded several requests from a variety of sources for the bags themselves.

“Someday I would like to make the bags,” Thai said. “I have no idea where to start, but my instructor, Albert, has been really encouraging and we’re currently discussing how to produce them.”

This year, Thai plans to enter as many competitions as she is eligible for. “It’s been a great experience and I feel incredibly honoured to be recognized on national and international levels. Even if you don’t win, participating is a great learning opportunity, and I recommend the process to everyone.”