SADAH MFA program honored with three VMFA fellowship awards

Awards go to graduate faculty, current graduate student and graduate program alum

School of Art Design and Art History

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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has recognized three artists from JMU's School of Art, Design and Art History graduate program in its 2022-23 Visual Arts Fellowships. Graduate faculty Rob Mertens and M.F.A. alumn Sarah Phillips each received one of eight professional fellowships of $8,000, and Mia Greenwald received one of six graduate student fellowships of $6,000.

The annual VMFA Visual Arts Fellowships juried awards are available to all Virginia residents, and the program is one of the largest fellowship programs in the country.

Associate professor Rob Mertens teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at SADAH and serves as the head of the SADAH Fiber Arts & Weaving area. His VMFA fellowship in crafts is for his project, "Archeology of the Body," which uses hand-coiled basket forms, crochet forms and floor-loom-woven forms with ungalvanized steel and raw wool roving. The process of machine wet felting causes unpredictable shapes (a metaphor for the lack of control we have over our lives) and the rusting process, which will deepen the color palette but eventually lead to the "death" of the form. 

"Receiving the award has been great for the self-esteem, since the pandemic seems to have stunted so many opportunities in the arts," he says. "Being a university professor already caused me to feel like I'm in a bubble or an echo chamber, so getting this award helps to remind me that my scholarship matters beyond the campus and what we research affects the world."

Mia Greenwald, an MFA candidate in interdisciplinary studio arts, is finishing their second year at SADAH and hopes to use the award to fund their thesis show. "I first learned about the fellowship because JMU grads had been selected as VMFA fellows in the past couple of years (Anikó Sáfrán and Sarah Phillips), and [I] was encouraged by several faculty to apply."

As a queer interdisciplinary artist, organizer, and farmer, Greenwald's work in mixed media explores the relationship people have with their land and how it can transform at the surface and deeper levels. "One of the many reasons I was drawn to fibers is the inherent reference to bodies - as Ann Hamilton said, "Textiles are the body's first house, the body’s first architecture." This is [true] both culturally, historically, and in the softness and pliability of the medium that mimics flesh. In that, I’m trying to explore embodiment as it relates to my queer, trans bodymind and my white bodymind."

Currently a visiting assistant professor of photography at Washington and Lee University, this is Sarah Phillips' (BFA '17, MFA '21) second VMFA fellowship; the first was as a graduate student in 2019 for her photography work. How does it feel to receive a second VMFA fellowship, this time for new and emerging media? "Ridiculous, especially so close together and in different categories. I applied because it was the first year I was eligible to re-apply after receiving one - and I almost didn't [apply]." She did, at the last minute, and can now balance earning and making time.  "I am super grateful for it, and I don't know that the funding could have come at a better time. I think the first few years post-MFA are so survival- and job-focused that it becomes really difficult to keep up with the 'making' part of it, and it is really easy to let that part of your practice disappear entirely in the name of getting by.  To have that support in grad school was wonderful, and to have support this time as a non-student will be helpful in an all-new way."

Phillips completed the CAS Arts and International Cooperation at Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland and recently had an exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va. She says she is thankful for the support from colleagues and mentorship she experienced at SADAH. "Being an artist is, truly, never done in isolation, and I owe infinite thank-yous to everyone who worked to support my practice. I am hoping to return the favor to colleagues and students moving forward.  We don't make anything in a vacuum!" 

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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