Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Hidden in plain sight

7 min read

VES thesis students dive deep in the Linden Street studios

Utopian worlds, sign-language poetry, and DNA origami — the subjects are as fascinating and varied as the students who explore them.

Along a small street in the heart of Harvard Square, Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) students are busy at work on their thesis projects in the Linden Street studios.

Converted from squash courts in 1999, the centrally located spot offers students generously open and well-lit spaces, 24-hour access, and studios shared with fellow students to inspire, collaborate, and critique their creations.

“It’s nice to have a space with the other thesis students as a community, a place to come together,” said Brooke Griffin ’14. To her, the studios show that Harvard recognizes the importance of VES and its thesis students.

“I love VES. It’s almost like which part of that love to talk about,” said Zena Mengesha ’14. “It’s really incredible to be able to dive into visual studies in the way VES sets it out. Human beings are such visually dependent creatures. And the attention that we pay to studying the visual world is relatively small … I don’t know if everybody thinks of art as an academically rigorous program, but it can be.”

VES concentrators in studio art, film, video, and animation propose their thesis projects in the spring of their junior year, enroll in the program in the fall of their senior year, and work throughout the year to complete their projects. Just more than 70 percent of VES concentrators do a senior thesis. Starting on May 2, an exhibit of their final work will be on display in the Carpenter Center.

“It’s unique to get space, and such great space,” said Manager of Academic Programs for VES Paula Soares. “It’s a privilege, and it’s something that a lot of schools cannot give their undergraduates. But it’s not just the space, it’s the resources, the one-on-one attention. The experience is rich in a lot of ways.”

“This is truly a phenomenal resource to have. I will never have a studio space this nice in my life,” said Ethan Pierce ’14-’15. “Having access to these resources and materials as well as to the thesis budget really allows for an opportunity of exploration sans stress that is truly unique.”

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts presents “From Here,” an exhibition of thesis projects by seven graduating seniors from VES, including Zena Mengesha and Tony Cho. The exhibit runs from May 3 to May 29.

Brooke Griffin ’14 organized her thesis around sign-language poetry. She created a mixed-media animation using watercolor, pen and ink, and tea leaves to explore the theme.
“The best part is the 24-hour access,” said Brooke Griffin. “I know this sounds weird, but I like that there are no windows in my studio. I can come here at night and it’s the same as in the daytime. There is not this constant reminder that you’re staying up all night.”
Brooke Griffin called the Linden Street studios “a nice location. It’s very central. It’s right in the square. It’s hidden. It’s one of those building you walk around, you pass, and you don’t even think about … It’s hidden in plain sight.”
Frederic Hua ’14 worked on an old piece of equipment called an Oxberry. “There aren’t very many left in the world. And it’s a down-shooter, a very big one,” he said. The machine has many knobs with exacting counters available to change the camera orientation.
For his thesis project, Frederic Hua created an experimental, abstract, stop-motion animation using sand and other gritty materials. He started at Harvard studying stem cell biology before shifting his concentration to VES after an inspiring animation class with Ruth Lingford.
“What VES means to me is the freedom to do what you want with faculty supporting you … Understanding that liberal arts means so much more than what people think of it as. It means pursuing something that you love and having a practical component to it,” said Hua.
Zena Mengesha ’14 works in mixed media to explore the theme of utopia, “the idea of it and how it applies to urban design, advertising, and TV.”
Zena Mengesha works with a lot of different materials. “I started with a lot of foam core, a lot of model-making supplies, and a lot of cardboard. And I moved on to carving books. And then I started playing around with the garbage from the things I ordered.”
“It’s such a great opportunity to work in this space. I love everything about it. It’s really incredible to share it with other thesis students who you can see working. You can peek over and be informed by it,” said Mengesha.
Tony Cho ’14 investigates synthetic biology for this thesis project, “mainly two fields within that, microfluidics and self-assembly.” He makes interdisciplinary work with laser-cut acrylic that combines his interests in biology and the arts.
Tony Cho takes principles from DNA origami and brings them to the macro scale. He creates a video animation with tiles that move over a mixer. They hit each other randomly, and if the sequences on the side are complementary, they stay together; if not, they fall apart.
Since Tony Cho spends much of his time at Harvard Medical School, the studio becomes an important place. “For me, this space shows you that there are so many interesting projects taking place … You learn from each other and incorporate some elements into your own work.”
“My thesis project is a pop-up gallery called the BBP gallery, which stands for Baby Boy Pierce, which is my real name,” said Ethan Pierce ’14-’15. “It serves as a platform for an alternative artistic discourse.”
“The gallery is a black metal sculptural object that used to have a life as a bookshelf that I wheel around on a red dolly,” said Ethan Pierce. “And I’m interested in the way it functions socially as I’m wheeling it through the streets of Cambridge and Boston, as well as architecturally in these spaces. But more importantly it’s the platform that it creates for interactions.”
“I built an artist-in-residency program with this gallery with these four artists-in-residence that are all fictional characters — the walker, the painter, the poet, and the drag queen. And each of these characters … is a real world person who helped influence the project. And it’s those interactions and those conversations, the dialogue that is created from them, that is the heart of the project,” said Ethan Pierce.
Matthew Plaks ’14 photographs communities around the country and tries to unravel what it means to be inside and outside a community. His images focus on “exclusion and solitude.”
In less than three months, Matthew Plaks traveled across 21 states, through large cities and small towns as a wandering photographer, engaging with communities, and, at times, staying in the homes of strangers.
Speaking of his studio, Matthew Plaks shared, “I think I’m going to miss it. I know I’m going to miss it. I don’t think I’ll live in a space this big, at least not for a very long time. It’s a great place to focus and have some quiet and think about the work, and get down to the details.”