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News . Feature Stories . Student Commencement speaker Alison Alsup ’23 reflects on her time at CIA

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May 11, 2023

Student Commencement speaker Alison Alsup ’23 reflects on her time at CIA

Alison Alsup at the opening reception for her solo exhibition, "The Holy Land: A Semester in Jerusalem," on September 9, 2022 in CIA's Ann and Norman Roulet Student + Alumni Gallery. Photo by Michael C. Butz.

By Michael C. Butz

When Alison Alsup addresses fellow Class of 2023 graduates as the student Commencement speaker, she'll have completed a fulfilling four-year journey at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Alsup, it turns out, embraces such journeys.

Not only did she endeavor to pursue her creative interests by double majoring in Drawing and Painting, she ventured to different corners of the world to broaden her perspective and expand her creative practice.

Alsup exhibited three bodies of work around those travels: Prairies to Peaks: Biking to Colorado’s Tallest Mountain, a solo exhibition in the Massillon Museum’s Studio M in Massillon, Ohio; The Holy Land: A Semester in Jerusalem, a solo exhibition in CIA’s Ann and Norman Roulet Student + Alumni Gallery; Alaska: Working in Bristol Bay, a two-person exhibition with Ronnie Jackson ’23 at Current, a community space at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland.

Before embarking on her next adventure, Alsup took time to look back at what she learned and gained from her time at CIA.

How does it feel to be selected as the student speaker at Commencement?
Being selected as the student Commencement speaker is an honor! Admittedly, I was shocked when I got the news. I’ve had the privilege of going to school here at CIA with many other talented and hardworking students who would make fantastic student Commencement speakers. I have so many classmates who are amazing writers and presenters. But I am excited to share my speech at Commencement and celebrate our accomplishments together as a graduating class.

Your hometown is Delaware, Ohio, correct? How far does it feel like you've come from graduating from high school (whether creatively, personally or both)?
Yes! I was born and raised in Delaware, Ohio. Since leaving Delaware, I’ve been able to pursue the dreams that I was so eager to chase when I was at Rutherford B. Hayes High School. My goals, ambitions and passions have generally been the same since I can remember. I never doubted I would be an artist, and I couldn’t wait to explore the world, like the National Geographic explorers I saw on VHS tapes.

I have a very specific memory of sitting on my roof during my senior year of high school when I was 18 years old. I was looking at the stars and telling myself that I couldn’t wait to see these same constellations on the other side of the world when I grow up. This memory came back to me when I was camping by myself in my hammock while I was studying abroad in Palestine last year! Even though my eagerness, curiosity, creativity and adventurous nature has been the same all my life, I feel like I have finally been able to fully express and fulfill these qualities over the last four years.

Why did you choose CIA?
After participating in CIA’s 2018 Pre-College program on the Graffiti HeArt scholarship, I was very interested in continuing my education here. What really appealed to me were the studio spaces and CIA’s location. I realized that many schools don’t have studios available for students by their sophomore year like CIA does. And, the proximity of CIA to Case Western Reserve University, Lake Erie, Little Italy, Coventry, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and downtown Cleveland is exciting! There are greenspaces nearby for peaceful walks, free access to an incredible collection of art at the museum, and unique shops and restaurants to go to on the weekends. I envisioned myself attending an encouraging school, as well as leading a good quality life if I went to CIA.

What led you to double major in Drawing and Painting? What interests you most about both art forms?
My personal practice is more heavily drawing-based. I mostly use pen and ink, graphite and watercolor. Even though I felt like just being a Drawing major would have sufficed, I wanted to push myself. Majoring in Painting as well as Drawing would force me to practice with new mediums, learn about more art history and approach critiques differently. I’m very happy I decided to double major. The Drawing Department gave me plenty of freedom to create with my preferred mediums, while the Painting Department provided me with rigorous critiques and a conscious attention to art history.

Your recent work has revolved around trips to Jerusalem, Colorado and Alaska. Does travel inspire your work? If so, how? And, what else might inform your creative practice?
Travel has remained the basis of my artwork. To create works of art that reflect positive experiences while solo traveling is a wonderful purpose that I have been wanting to fulfill since I was a kid. I think it’s important to share stories about kind interactions with strangers, or the beauty of new places.

In the last two years, I have become more conscious about the tragic histories and present effects of colonization in relation to the places I travel to. It is a complex history that seems to have affected almost every part of the world. I’ve also developed ideologies around environmentalism and ecofeminism, and drop a few hints about these philosophies in my art. My work often alludes to these topics through subtle signifiers, while also appearing romantic and blissful. It’s a way of explaining that traveling and going on outdoor adventures is exciting and beneficial and should be pursued, but with a level of consciousness and respect.

Aside from travel, there are many sources of media and other artists that influence my work and inform my creative practice. Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Winslow Homer are a few artists whose work keeps me excited to create. Books whose lessons further influence my work include Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha, and most recently, Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery.

You had an opportunity to study abroad in Jerusalem for a semester while at CIA. What did you gain from that experience?
I gained the experience of eating incredible Palestinian and Israeli food; being immersed in new languages, including Hebrew and Arabic in school, and German, Bulgarian and Russian at home with my roommates; and having the opportunity to visit breathtaking sites such as the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and even Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

But more seriously, I learned crucial lessons that I will practice for the rest of my life. Navigating a new country despite language and cultural differences gave me incredible confidence! I wanted to go hiking outside of the city right away. Within a week of being in Palestine, I was on a bus by myself trying to get to a national park. Something as simple as riding public transportation was suddenly a challenge! The bus routes were in Hebrew and Arabic, the drivers shouted at me in Hebrew, and I couldn’t understand the intercom messages. Once I realized I could navigate through the country without feeling anxious, I felt like I could do anything! Around my third month abroad, I had my first full conversation in Hebrew, and it was with a bus driver. I was in the city of Tel Aviv. While I was boarding at the bus depot, the bus driver politely started a conversation with me, something along the lines of “are you going to Jerusalem?” “Yes! Thank you.” “Were you in Tel Aviv for the day?” “Yes, I was at the beach for the day.” “Good weather for the beach.” “It was great! I’m tired and excited to go home.” Although it was a short conversation, I was able to reflect on how far I had come. Being immersed in a place with a different language has allowed me to see that languages are beautiful and interesting, and not always a “barrier.”

Secondly, studying abroad in Jerusalem taught me about the politics and cultures of the area, a lesson that has given me a broader understanding of the world. I lived in a Palestinian neighborhood that was predominantly Islamic. Most of my neighbors dressed modestly, prayed five times a day, and ate Palestinian food such as falafel and hummus, shakshuka, lamb meat with yellow rice, and fried chicken. But, I also met Palestinians who were not religious, or grew up Muslim but had stepped away from the faith recently. I met Samaritans, Armenian Catholics, Ethiopian Jewish people, Ashkenazi Jewish people, non-religious Israelis, Christian Palestinians, Catholic Argentinian nuns, Christian Koreans, Bedouins and other individuals. It was an incredibly important experience to be surrounded by so many different individuals and cultures. It is a reminder that you cannot make assumptions about a person’s identity or beliefs, because there are many influences and historical events which shape people that you may not be aware of.

What would you consider some of the most important lessons you learned at CIA?
There are two important lessons I have learned at CIA, which I will continue to practice post graduation. During my senior year, we were asked to conduct our own research on topics relating to our practice. I found Norman Rockwell's autobiography in CIA's library and decided to read it as coursework. Reading that book opened up my world! I learned so much from his practice that I implemented it in my own artmaking process, and there was huge growth in my artwork! Initiating independent research on influential artists or art historical periods is a lesson I learned at CIA which is invaluable.

The second important lesson I learned at CIA is how valuable being a supportive community member is. Showing up to gallery exhibition receptions or school events not only shows others that you are a reliable and encouraging person, but it makes friendships, practices kindness and creates beautiful memories of support and celebration.

Was there particularly valuable advice that a faculty member shared? If so, who was the instructor and what was their advice?
Painting professor Lane Cooper has repeatedly told me and my peers that it is crucial we always have a space to create post-graduation. A common challenge for Painting and Drawing graduates seems to be that they do not have a studio space after leaving CIA, and they stop creating. Professor Cooper adamantly told us that we need to make a space. It can just be a designated art making table! But you always need to have a space to create, otherwise production stops. This advice seems to be incredibly important, and I have told myself that after graduation, it is my priority to always have a studio space, no matter where I end up.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment as a CIA student?
Reflecting over the past four years at CIA, I think my biggest accomplishment was staying consistent, taking care of myself, and being happy. I believe that the small, healthy habits that I persistently stuck to accumulated to a fantastic four-year experience. Being a young college student has many pressures. Balancing my classes with a part-time job, homework and studio time, paying bills, doing household chores, eating three times a day, exercising and sleeping can be a lot to handle! But, I am ultimately proud of my consistency to a routine and devotion to my studies, and I think that has been my biggest accomplishment during my college career.

What are your plans after graduating from CIA?
On June 1, I will be embarking on what I have been calling my Ohio Project! It’s an adventure that I have been dreaming about for almost a year, and if I’m excited about something, I pursue it as soon as possible! I will be biking along the entire length of the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois. After this bike trip, I will immediately thru-hike the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444-mile hiking loop around the state. Following that, I will bike around the perimeter of Lake Erie. The adventure is an effort to study, observe and document what I see, experience and learn while being immersed in Ohio’s nature. The goal is to create a large body of artwork reflecting the observations and records from my trip, and have an exhibition to promote outdoor recreation in Ohio!

I have many adventures written down that I can’t wait to pursue. Ultimately, I hope my life revolves around seasonal work, adventure sports and my artmaking practice. I worked seasonal summer jobs during college: two seasons in Colorado building hiking trails, and a season in an Alaskan salmon cannery. The dream life would be outdoor work like trail building or wildland firefighting in the summer and fall, and art-making/adventuring in the spring and winter. Whatever I end up doing, I am super excited for life!

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