back to news March 17, 2020

From math to Cheez Whiz: MFA student puts her one-of-a-kind spin on art

Kristen Phipps
Art has been the heart of Kristen Phipps’ story since day one. As a kindergarten student, she liked drawing activities more than her classmates did and constantly wanted to draw at home.

“I was very easy to entertain because you just had to set something artistic down in front of me,” said Phipps, a second-year Master of Fine Arts student in painting and drawing. “As long as I can remember, it’s just something that I’ve had to do. I see it as a need.”

As one of the few Midwest universities that offer full tuition funding to graduate students in the fine arts, Ohio State was at the top of the list for Phipps, who paid her own way through earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design and an Associate of Arts from Cowley County Community College in Kansas.

And she hasn’t looked back.

Since joining the Department of Art in 2018, Phipps has had her work in seven shows either on campus or at local galleries. Last summer, she was awarded a graduate research grant to pursue a six-week artist residency in Killeagh, Ireland, where she made more than 150 on-site paintings and drawings.

While often based on real-life subjects like a chair or shopping cart, her paintings flirt with pop, modern, abstract and surrealist art while taking on an identity entirely of their own. 

Shopping Cart and Chair by Kristen Phipps
"Shopping Cart" and "Chair" by Kristen Phipps

Like her unique style, Phipps’ palette knows no limits — some works speak through dull, matted house paint, while others come to life with neon spray paint.

But there’s more to Phipps’ art than meets the eye — each final product has gone through many life stages before she’s ready to let it go.

By Kristen Phipps
“I go on tangential raids of very specific subject matter for brief periods of time. I’ll do a hundred paintings and think, ‘OK, I explored this,’” she said. “It’s hard to explain how these interests arise, but it’s a color or the way that it looks in a specific light, and I just get obsessed.”

Her subject of choice right now? Pretzels and Cheez Whiz.

“One of my earliest memories is making Cheez Whiz spiders with my mom,” Phipps said. “I’m often interested in things of life; things from life.”

Her third and final year at Ohio State will be focused on preparing for the 2021 MFA Thesis Exhibition at Urban Arts Space, the Department of Art’s downtown gallery. The show serves as a culmination of MFA students’ work over the course of their graduate studies.

Phipps hopes to go out with a bang, re-creating a careful selection of her paintings at five times the size of their original form.

“I know that’s very simple and maybe very plain, but that’s my biggest struggle as a maker. I can make so quickly small and I can’t always get the same marks to happen on a larger format,” she said. “I’m doing lots of small studies to exercise myself and am breaking it down mathematically.”

If she typically uses a 1-inch brush, she’ll use a 5-inch brush for the bigger canvas.

Kristen Phipps
“Problem solving is all painting is. You’ve presented yourself with a problem and you’re trying to make a solution, whether that be compositionally, with materials or with how the aesthetics come across,” she said.

Her studio space, lit by floor-to-ceiling windows on the fourth floor of Hopkins Hall, includes an ever-changing “inspiration wall” of pieces she’s made she’s attracted to.

In January, one of the paintings currently on that wall ("Chair") was hanging in the College of Arts and Sciences’ annual John Fergus Family Scholarship Award Exhibition, a juried art competition open to graduate and undergraduate arts and design students. Winners get their work displayed in Hopkins Hall Gallery on campus and receive a $1,000 scholarship from a fund established with gifts from John C. and Elizabeth O. Fergus and Robert H. Fergus in honor of their mother and mother-in-law, Edith Fergus-Gilmore.

Between her graduate associateship, grant to go to Ireland and the Fergus Scholarship, Phipps is happy she chose Ohio State.

“I don’t know of any other university that has relations with its alma mater and donors like Ohio State,” she said. “It’s hard to find the accommodations I have here.”

Regardless of what university someone attends or what they’re doing with their life, Phipps sees creating art as valuable for everyone.

By Kristen Phipps
“It’s a different cognitive working of your brain,” she said. “You don’t even have to identify as an artist, but just the act of making and producing, I think everyone should do it. Even if it’s just being creative 20 minutes out of your day, I guarantee you’re going to be a lot happier at the end of it.”

Sometimes that’s harder than easier, and Phipps said she has days where she feels stuck. But — like her art — she never stays stagnant for long. With several graduate committee reviews under her belt, Phipps already sees her art transforming.  

“If you look at the work I applied to grad school with, it’s completely different,” she said. “That’s why you go to grad school; you get taken apart to get put back together.”

By Kristen Phipps
After graduating, Phipps hopes to dip her toes into teaching and curation while maintaining her own practice, and she’s also an advocate for the special power that art has over not only individuals, but communities, nations and the world.

“[Art] is an investment to the future — it’s active documentation of what’s happening in this current year of 2020,” Phipps said. “Text books go from A to B to C, but when you look at a collective grouping of art, it can be multiple interpretations of a specific time.”

With a thriving local art scene and world-class facilities like Urban Arts Space, the Wexner Center for the Arts and Sherman Studio Arts Center, endowed by artist and alumnus Roy Lichtenstein in honor of former art professor Hoyt L. Sherman, the arts at Ohio State have long been on the map.

Phipps is continuing the story.