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Welcome to CONVERSATION, interviews with Sara Schneckloth, Nakisa Abdollahbeigi and Stephanie Allen.

SARA SCHNECKLOTH is passionate about teaching. Her excellence in the classroom was recognized this past spring when she was awarded USC's prestigious Michael J. Mungo Teaching Award - for the second time during the past ten years! The first was for her undergraduate teaching and the second was for her Graduate teaching.

Professor Sara Schneckloth has been teaching at UofSC since 2007. She has a reputation among the student population as a great motivator who is prone to incorporating the unexpected and innovation in the art classroom experience. Students find her classes exciting, rigorous, and rewarding. South Carolina Sunshine has interviewed Sara and two of her recently graduated students: undergraduate Stephanie Allen and MFA graduate Nakisa Abdollahbeigi.

This is a mixed media drawing by artist Sara Schneckloth.

Image above, by artist and UofSC professor, Sara Schneckloth from her Topographies series: Earth pigments, graphite, colored pencil, wax on Yupo, 2021.

Dawn Hunter: Teaching is a great passion of yours. How did you become interested in teaching?

Sara Schneckloth: It is indeed a driving passion! I had the pleasure of teaching for the first time in Cape Town, South Africa at the Community Arts Project from 2000-2002, where I discovered how grounding and satisfying it is to be in a studio classroom with people who are focused, engaged, and motivated – it has grown and expanded ever since, whether at the University of Wisconsin as a grad student and instructor, and here at Carolina since 2007.


Dawn Hunter: You have won two Mungo teaching awards, one for undergraduate teaching and one for graduate teaching, what are your perceptions of similarities and differences among those student populations?

Sara Schneckloth: Our students all bring different levels of experience into the classroom, and I believe it’s important to meet people at whatever level they are starting. In any level of drawing course, we engage with the questions, techniques, and processes that can help bridge the gap between what they aspire to create and a growing bank of skills and resources they have at their disposal. Like many of us teaching studio art courses to undergraduates, SVAD classes attract both art majors and students from across the university who are keen to bring artmaking into their lives – it’s these interdisciplinary conversations that can really take an undergraduate project in exciting directions, as students look to combine their other academic interests and cares with drawing. SVAD graduate students bring a host of life experiences with them as they engage in three years of creative and academic study and studio work, and I am perpetually inspired by the strides these artists and scholars take in bringing their creative visions to light while in the MFA program and beyond.

This is a portrait of Sara Schneckloth painting outside in New Mexico.

Above: Sara Schneckloth working at her summer studio in New Mexico. Photo by Megan Clark.

Dawn Hunter: When you pursued your MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the time, did you envision teaching becoming such a big part of your life and studio practice? 


Sara Schneckloth: I did, if only because of recognizing early on the excitement and joy I feel when working with a group of inspiring and motivated students – that dynamic energy, the flow of ideas, the deep immersion in creative process – all of it elevates my overall approach to making artwork. There is a cyclical flow between what happens in my studio and what happens in the classroom – each feeds and inspires the other and I honestly and simply love working with people as they bring a vision to light.


Dawn Hunter: Describe your teaching style.

Sara Schneckloth: My approach to teaching combines rigorous attention to a range of traditional and contemporary drawing methodologies, encouragement of self-discovery, and active engagement in peer critique. I believe that every student brings a unique set of personal experiences to the university environment, and that one of my roles is to support undergraduate and graduate students in investigating and translating those diverse experiences into meaningful works of art, through drawing, writing, and speaking, becoming artists who move fluidly between ideas and images.

From teaching to mentoring and advising, I work with graduate students to build solid technical skills in visual artmaking, confidence with materials and processes, and a critical and incisive language for talking about their work and the work of others. Students move forward with a better understanding of themselves as thoughtful practitioners they learn to ask questions of their artwork, each other, and of the enterprise of art making as it manifests across disciplines. In my career at UofSC, I am dedicated to training a generation of artists, scholars, and future educators who embody principles of open exploration and expression of ideas, and care for the aesthetic dimensions of being in the world.

Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: How or why did you decide to work with Sara Schneckloth as your mentor? 

Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: Professor Schneckloth is a very kind and supportive person—also highly professional and experienced in studio art with main focus on Drawing. Since Drawing is my primary major, I have decided to work with Professor Schneckloth as my thesis mentor.


Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: How or why did you decide to work with Sara Schneckloth as your mentor? 


Stephanie Allen: I've worked closely with Sara since I was a sophomore. Even before I had asked her to be my thesis director, she had mentored me more than any other professor I had worked with. She understands my goals as an artist, knows my range of skills and where to push me. Choosing her just made sense. She was always willing to go above and beyond to support me and I am so indescribably grateful for how she's helped shape my undergraduate experience.

This is a detail photo of Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's MFA thesis exhibition, Carry On.

Above, image from Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's MFA thesis exhibition, Carry On.

Dawn Hunter to Sara Schneckloth: How does teaching a class or working one-on-one with a student in a classroom setting manifest differently from mentoring a long-term project? 


Sara Schneckloth: When working with any student on a project, long- or short-term, my hope is that they allow their thinking and processes to be fluid and evolve. That evolution can take on many forms, whether in how they approach the act of seeing, the drawing techniques and materials they use, or how they invent new conceptual challenges and questions for themselves. Being able to work with a student over an extended period of time is so rewarding, as often the project will go through a period of radical reinvention, as the person goes deeper into what is really motivating them to make the work. It’s that blend of discovery and excitement that can propel a project to even greater success, with momentum to keep making more work going forward.

This is a portrait of artist Nakisa and artist Sara Schneckloth.

One of many mural walls created by Marius Valdes at the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, South Carolina.

Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: What qualities did Sara bring to the relationship that helped you progress your thesis in the right direction? 


Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: One of the most important qualities I admire in Professor Schneckloth is her organized and detail-oriented personality. As my thesis mentor, she played a key role in helping me coordinate committee meetings routinely and provided excellent mentorship for developing the idea, implementation, and management of my thesis project. She also evaluated my performance in the program and provided thoughtful feedback on each step of my project to help me complete it with the best quality.


Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: What qualities did Sara bring to the relationship that helped you progress your thesis in the right direction? 


Stephanie Allen: Sara has a knack for finding the most interesting and unconventional mediums and surfaces. I knew she would be a great resource to have when working on a project that required unusual materials. I wasn't sure what the pieces would be made of or how they would be hung, and she provided resources that allowed the project to look professional while staying within budget. 

She has a great eye for abstraction. This show features some of my very first exclusively abstract pieces that would not have been conceptualized without her guidance on materials, abstraction, and the intuitive mark. Sara has worked with similar interview-based projects before— she knew where to look for weak spots in interviewing ethics and how to create successful visual narratives. While I technically have a drawing concentration, Sara has a very expansive definition of what a "drawing" is. I knew that this perspective would give me the creative freedom to work however I needed to and would allow me to take an untraditional approach to drawing.

Stephanie Allen's mixed media abstract and figurative painting.

Above, Strive, a mixed media drawing by Stephanie Allen. Below, Stephanie Allen's BFA thesis exhibition titled, In My Skin, Her Skin. Both photos by Stephanie Allen.

Stephanie Allen's BFA thesis exhibition.

Image above, by artist and UofSC professor, Sara Schneckloth from her Topographies series: Earth pigments, graphite, colored pencil, wax on Yupo, 2021.

Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: Your thesis exhibition is a personal and biographical (of you and others) show. What did you want the viewers to learn, understand or experience from the show?


Stephanie Allen: The ways in which the spoken word and the creation of art can lead to a larger understanding of self was deeply considered in the creation of this project: by understanding other queer stories, I could more clearly engage with my own. This exhibition is an artistic investigation of queer femininity and body image. As our bodies and identities are so deeply intertwined, this project explores the way in which the body and presentation create and structure perceptions of queerness, gender, and beauty. Each portrait represents a queer woman or non-binary person that I interviewed, directly rendering their appearance and abstractly interpreting their relationship with their body and queer identity. This project aims to visually record the feeling of being seen and one’s developing knowledge of their identity. Specifically, by realistically showing a variety of different body types that all relate to queerness and femininity in some way, we may expand our presupposed notions about the body enforcing identity. Additionally, despite these varying appearances of the body, the throughlines of body insecurity, navigating queer expression, and learning self-love unify these differences to reinforce the idea that the person is so much more than the body. Understanding that the body is art and art is the person is a key component of my work. In extending our definition of art to include the body, we can shift out of a sense of moralizing critique to one of understanding, appreciation, and respect for both the self and others.


Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: Your thesis exhibition, Carry On, was a personal/autobiographical show. What did you want the viewers to learn, understand or experience from the show? 


Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: One of the most important aspects of my thesis exhibition was to help the viewers feel and communicate with the emotional challenges immigrants face during and after immigration. Most importantly, I aimed to show them how feelings of living far away from loved ones, like parents, siblings, best childhood friends, and family members can have personal and emotional impacts on an immigrant’s life. Another aspect was to show how the sense of disconnection from the original culture, language, memorable moments, and nostalgic places in life can affect an immigrant’s personal identity. Lastly, my goal was to reflect on challenges that immigrants experience after moving to a new country such as adapting to a different culture and learning a new language.

This is a photo of Nakisa Abdollahbeingi's MFA thesis exhibit.

Above, image from Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's MFA thesis exhibition, Carry On. Below, Nakisa (center) with guests at her exhibition opening.

Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's wall installation of paintings.

Above, image from Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's MFA thesis exhibition, Carry On. Below, Nakisa (center) with guests at her exhibition opening.

Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: The work is created in layers, and each piece is a complete experience on its own, but the entire show works as an installation. Was that intentional, or did it synchronize in the installation process? Was that intentional when creating the works for the show? How did the choices in the installation evolve? 


Stephanie Allen: These pieces are what I have come to describe as "floating collages." The question of materials was something that long haunted me in the beginning stages of this project. More specifically, the question of how to hang said materials was one of the biggest early challenges that I faced. I was set on the pieces being larger than life and knew that the show had to function in layers. I wanted to have a layer that realistically described the body, and another layer to describe the person's relationship with their body femininity, and queer identity. This made it difficult for traditional materials (canvas, board, frames, etc.) to practically function. Acetate was light but durable, and had the transparent quality that I wanted. Ultimately, the installation came together because it had to. Once I had created the pieces, they needed to go up however would work. Based on the advice of Sara Schneckloth and my second reader, Brent Dedas, I used magnets and metal plates to hang the drawings. I wanted the pieces to invade the viewers' space, have intricate cast shadows, and have distinctly separate layers (i.e. I didn't want them stacked flatly on top of each other). The choices I made for installation then followed these requirements that I had established for myself.

This is a photo of Stephanie Allen's BFA thesis exhibition.

Above, BFA Thesis exhibition, In My Skin, Her Skin, by Stephanie Allen. Photo by Dawn Hunter Below, closing reception for In My Skin, Her Skin. Photo by Rachel Kaiser.

This is a photo of Stephanie Allen's BFA thesis exhibition opening reception.

Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: You selected unconventional drawing materials for the works, and the figures are larger than life in scale. Why did you decide to use unconventional materials, and what was the process that led to the large-scale figures?


Stephanie Allen: A big part of the show was subverting the expectation that the body dictates identity and expression. It was the perceived difference between these two things —body and identity— that I wanted to focus on. Because the two exist in different spheres, I wanted the visual representations of each aspect of the subject to have separate spaces on the piece. Yet, because they are combined to create one person, they had to exist within a singular composition. I didn't want to create separate pieces (one about the body of the subject and one about the identity of the subject) because that would strip the body of personhood and the person of body. Our identities and bodies are deeply and personally intertwined, so the notion of a floating collage seemed like an interesting challenge that fit my thematic goals. I wanted the pieces to command attention— these drawings are about real people and their stories, so they deserve to be on a scale that appropriately describes the complexity of queer identity.


Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: There was an installation piece in the show, Memories in My Carry On. However, one could argue that the entire show is an installation with sub or "mini" structures within it - like, Family Album or the diptych Family Tree. Was that intentional when designing the show? How did the choices in the installation evolve? 


Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: The central idea for my exhibition was developed based upon the concept of immigration and its challenges. The components of the show were designed to reflect on different aspects of this main concept with the goal to show how personal, cultural, and emotional challenges play a critical role in an immigrant’s life. The most challenging part for setting up the exhibition was the installation of the "Memories in My Carry On" as the central component. This theme was designed by wrapping a suitcase – as a symbol of immigration – in red straps inside a wooden box and visually connecting it with photos of family, moments, and nostalgic places printed on fabric. To develop the idea for this theme, I played around with the sub-components and changed their order and composition several times. The empty space between photo installations on the wall and the suitcase on the floor was filled with red-strap loops hanging from the ceiling. This latter component was designed to create an obstacle and make it difficult for the viewers to walk in the space between components with the goal to symbolize challenges that immigrants experience during and after their transition to a new life.

This is a mixed media abstract painting by artist Stephanie Allen.

Above, Stephanie Allen's mixed media drawing titled Skin. Photo by Dawn Hunter.

Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: How did your work evolve and change while at UofSC?

Stephanie Allen: The biggest change that came to my work was increasing degrees of abstraction. I was almost afraid of working abstractly when I first came to Carolina I felt that I had to "prove" my ability to work realistically before delving into the abstract. This then resulted in an interesting combination of realism and abstraction: I love creating weird abstract shapes and images that functioned realistically within their compositions without being directly representational. This project was in some ways far more representational than I have worked in a long time but is simultaneously one of the most abstract series I've done. I honestly see myself continuing to spiral into more abstract territories. My work has consistently focused on feminine and queer identity while at Carolina, and I am interested in expanding and diversifying this thematic base that I've established.

Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: How did your work evolve and change while at UofSC? 


Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: Studying art at UofSC was my first experience with an American educational institute after my immigration to the United States. At the beginning, I found it very different from my experience with an educational institute in my home country, Iran. I gradually adapted myself to the new environment and learned many new things about the art, culture, and language by taking different courses and working on studio art projects for my classes and the MFA thesis. The SVAD program has given me the chance to interact with amazing students and work with inspirational professors and artists who showed me how to think and work creatively and supported me along the way. In my program, I became familiar with a wide range of materials and learned many new techniques for creating art and these skills will be critical for my collaboration with other artists and exploring new things in my future career.

This is a portait of artist Nakisa Abollahbeigi at her MFA thesis exhibition opening.

Above, Nakisa Abdollahbeigi at the opening of her MFA thesis exhibition, Carry On. Below, detail of an installation piece.

This is a detail of Nakisa Abdollahbeigi's installation artwork.

Dawn Hunter to Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: What are your future plans? 


Nakisa Abdollahbeigi: Personally, I enjoy working in academic environments and continuously exploring and learning from other people’s work. I also highly value teaching and am enthusiastic about having the chance to share my experience with students. As an immigrant artist with Iranian background, my plan is to continue working on projects that can help raise awareness about and promote appreciation for cross-cultural values and differences. I believe this is one possible way artists can contribute to building bridges between people from different personal, social, and cultural backgrounds.


Dawn Hunter to Stephanie Allen: What are your future plans? 


Stephanie Allen: I majored in English and studio art while at UofSC and truly enjoyed both subjects. Right now, my career is aligning more closely with my English degree. This summer I am attending NYU's Summer Publishing Institute and I plan to pursue a career in publishing from there. However, as I'm always looking for ways to combine my passions, I am certainly keeping an eye out for publishers of illustrated books and art-based magazines. I plan on continuing my artistic practice regardless of my career path and hope to ultimately find my way back to grad school.

Dawn Hunter to Sara Schneckloth: You have initiated a lot of opportunities for teaching, outreach, and community engagement. Do you have plans to develop other teaching initiatives? - like in NM, is that a program/residency you aim to grow?

Sara Schneckloth: The studio work I do in the summer in New Mexico is a central part of my overall creative research, and working out here in this remote and rural location is a point of ongoing inspiration and challenge. It’s exciting for me to be able to share the kind of work I do out here with others, and I am interested in growing that in the years ahead, but slowly and with care. I just hosted a small in-person gathering for six artists keen to integrate natural materials into their practices we gathered local clay and ground it into pigments, hiked though the San Juan Basin badlands gathering visual inspiration, and created drawings to connect mark to landscape. The act of uniting material to place is one that can be revelatory, and I hope to create more opportunities to do that with others in the years to come.

Dawn Hunter to Sara Schneckloth: What surprises you the most about teaching? or, What event did you experience in education that gave you the biggest surprise? 


Sara Schneckloth: I think I’m most surprised by how new it always feels every semester, with the rush of jumping in to a full stream of potential, and being a part of such personal exploration, development, and growth. I am grateful for being a part of hundreds of people’s creative processes over the past twenty plus years of teaching, and look forward to many more.


Sara Schneckloth, final thoughts on teaching: ​I would say my teaching style closely mirrors how I work in the studio – I’m driven by an ethic of play and experimentation, curiosity, and a willingness to hold things lightly throughout the process, even/especially when things don’t unfold as planned. By engaging in a blend of close observation, traditional drawing approaches, and experimenting with diverse materials and processes, my hope is for students to make discoveries about their own investment in creating images and artworks, and find satisfaction in process and image alike.


Learn more about Sara by visiting her website link below.

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