Senior moment: Capstone show a peak experience for art grads

8 – minute read

Countdown to showtime

Power drills buzz and hammers bang in bursts of activity fueled by excitement, anxiety and caffeine in the Wasmer Art Gallery at Florida Gulf Coast University. It’s April 18, 2022, and graduating art majors have begun installing their senior projects, the crowning achievement of years of study and practice.


In three days, each of these 11 aspiring artists will unveil a collection of work they’ve been conceptualizing, documenting, critiquing, rethinking and fabricating since early January for their capstone class. Many have camped out in the Arts Complex studios into the wee hours, night after night, to finish ceramics, prints and paintings. On the exhibition’s opening night, each senior will make brief remarks and field questions from a gallery packed with guests and classmates.


“We’re all freaking – we all hate public speaking,” Marcela Pulgarin says as she installs her multimedia project, “The Time I Inhabit,” in a coveted gallery corner. “But I’m excited, too. I’ll have heels on.” An extra boost for her confidence, she means.


Pulgarin’s collection includes 32 ceramic vessels displayed on pedestals – one for each year of her life. That might be enough for one student’s project, but she’s also mounting drawings on paper on adjacent walls and hanging drawings on porcelain from the ceiling. It’s a lot. She frets over the arrangement.


“I’m kind of hating it right now,” she says, standing back. “There are little things you can only see when you install.”


Maybe so. But in a few days, guests at the opening reception will not see the “little things” her self-critical eye catches. They will, in fact, snap up her drawings and purchase all but two of her ceramics.

photo shows artist arranging her exhibit
Pulgarin tinkers with the arrangement of her ceramic vessels in the Wasmer Art Gallery.

The time she inhabits

The “Senior Projects” show presents an opportunity to spotlight the concepts and techniques art majors learned and their research into historical and contemporary artists. The course also is an introduction to the real world of an artist: producing a cohesive collection, mounting an exhibition, writing an artist’s statement and designing a promotional poster. Pulgarin agreed to let FGCU360 follow her progress throughout the spring 2022 semester for this story and a video.


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By mid-February, she has already been through a month’s worth of meetings with classmates and faculty where proposals are evaluated, research and preliminary sketches or models are presented and critiques are offered. Students not only have to explain their creative process, but they must crunch numbers and budget time and money to produce their work. By the time they complete the course, each has created a 2-inch thick binder of documentation that will be preserved in the department’s archives.


Pulgarin may have a head start on her classmates in some respects. She’s been a gallery assistant at FGCU since spring 2019, notably working beside prominent Naples artist Ran Adler to produce his 2020 Wasmer installation, “Presence.” Earlier this spring, she had four pieces selected for the annual juried student show – the fourth consecutive year her work was featured in the competitive show.


Along with her senior project, Pulgarin juggles work at Judith Liegeois Designs in Naples and home life with husband Enrique. They even managed to squeeze in buying their first house just before the senior show opened. This is the time she inhabits, a time of endings and beginnings that inspired her ceramic vessels. Her drawings, she explains, represent her youth in Barranquilla and Cali, Colombia; her hanging porcelain pieces, which resemble crumbled wads of paper, symbolize her transition and self-discovery as an American.


“I want to take ownership of my time and visually re-create the time-lapse I believe has made me who I am today,” she says in her artist statement. “I didn’t give much thought to time for the first 18 years of my life in Colombia, and when I did, all I wanted to do was to fast-forward. In 2007, I moved to the U.S. and ever since I’ve been exposed to new cultures and belief systems that have changed how I perceive the world, myself and especially time.”

The artist at work.

Conversations in clay

In late February, Pulgarin turns sketches into test sculptures to see how the glazes she chose respond to the kiln’s heat when they’re fired. She lays coils of clay on top of each other, building height, pinching and turning to achieve the amorphous shapes she desires. Before coming to FGCU, she earned an associate degree in art but had never worked with clay.


“I like the possibilities of the medium,” she says, moistening a handful with water. “I like the conversation. The clay is telling me what to do. You can express yourself with it, but you can also make functional things like cups and plates to use around the house.”


By the time they’re seniors, most art majors zero in on one medium ­– 2D or 3D, painting or ceramics. Pulgarin is different. She continually pushes herself to master the next thing, conceptually and technically, says Andy Owen, her printmaking professor. He uses her work as an example to inspire other students.


“She’s able to transfer skills from one studio to the next and bring fresh perspective to her work, no matter what material she’s working with,” Owen says. “Some students have skills and don’t have the imagination. Some have imagination, but their skills are not quite there. She has both.”

photo shows artist working with clay
Pulgarin lays coils of clay on top of each other, building height and pinching and turning to achieve the shapes she desires.
photo shows art student speaking
At the opening night for the “Senior Projects” exhibit, Marcela Pulgarin talks about her creative process in a gallery filled with guests, faculty and classmates.

Strength under fire

In mid-March, four seniors compete for time firing ceramics in the slow-baking kilns outside the Arts Complex. Stakes are high. If it’s heated too quickly, clay’s residual moisture turns to steam and can cause the piece to crack or burst. The first firing transforms the object into a porous state for glazing before it’s fired again and becomes a durable ceramic piece. Pulgarin has tried eight types of glazes before settling on one; she doesn’t want to obscure or smear the small lines she’s meticulously painted on them to symbolize moments of time.


“We’re all pulling our hair out,” she says. “We’re going full speed, staying till midnight. One person goes out to get food and comes back. We’re supporting each other – ‘C’mon stay and get more done.’ ”


They’re gaining strength under fire, like the humble clay they transform into lasting art.


By the time opening night finally arrives, Pulgarin has worked through her dissatisfaction with her installation. “I had to walk out and cry a little.” She came back later and “stared it down until it worked.”


With each artist’s speech at the reception, cameras flash and the crowded gallery echoes with applause and supportive hoots. Pulgarin poses for pictures with her mom and friends while Anica Sturdivant, the gallery’s assistant curator, shepherds a line of people around Pulgarin’s installation. They all want to purchase her work.


“I wasn’t really thinking about sales before. I didn’t intend for the vessels to be very functional – that wasn’t the point,” she says, reflecting on the night. “People responded really well. Honestly, I didn’t think that was going to happen.”


–Since graduating, Marcela Pulgarin traveled home to Colombia to visit family and continues working at Judith Liegeois Designs in Naples as she considers her next artistic pursuit.

photo shows art student speaking
At the opening night for the “Senior Projects” exhibit, Marcela Pulgarin talks about her creative process in a gallery filled with guests, faculty and classmates.
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