Seniors Art Challenges What it Means to be an American

February 28, 2018

Nicole Stearns mugFor Nicole Stearns ’18 of Oxford., Mass., her art is both personal and political. Although this art major works with a variety of mediums, “Most of my artwork has to do with self-portraiture, and I’m really into politics.”

Born in the United States to a mother who is an immigrant from Thailand and a father whose family came to America from Eastern Europe several generations ago, Stearns explained, “I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be American, and have defined that for myself.

“My self-portraits act as a form of representation,” she continued. “I feel like Southeast Asian American women aren’t heavily represented in American culture. I grew up without any role models that I could relate to. My art also challenges what it means to be American: Many people think that I look white. So I question the notion of what it means to label someone by their race, and how that’s not always clear-cut.”

As she creates her paintings, Stearns edits many of her facial features. “I try to make myself look one way in a painting and differently in another to show all the facets of myself. I’m not just one thing, or one label. The way that I see myself is very multifaceted, and I want to showcase that. It’s what I think it means to be an American.”

Nicole Stearns artFor Stearns, much of the activism she highlights with her art is in reaction to what she’s experienced or observed. “I make art to respond in a positive way, instead of having negative feelings when I’m upset,” she explained.

Although she began college as a biology major at another Massachusetts State University, she quickly realized that it wasn’t the right fit for her. “I transferred to MCLA in my sophomore year, and I’ve been making art ever since.”

She chose MCLA because the College encourages art students to study more than one medium, because of the the artistic environment that exists in the Berkshires, and also for the arts management program.

“I knew that I needed to know the business side of things. Most other schools don’t offer arts management,” she said. “And, I’d been to MASS MoCA before I even knew what MCLA was. Once I saw MCLA was here I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I transfer?’”

A class in “Artist Entrepreneurship” is helping her to realize her dream of becoming a working artist. “I feel like I’ve always been an artist. I’ve always wanted to draw, and asked for sketchbooks at age 4.”

She’s happy she made the change.  

“I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I would not have had the chance to do if I hadn’t transferred to MCLA. The College has ample opportunities if you want to take advantage of them," Stearns explained. "There are so many chances to volunteer, serve internships or have a job. The professors will help you figure out what you need to do to accomplish any project. If you’re motivated to do something unique, they’ll help you figure it out.”