Ask an art major what they’re doing after college graduation, and you are sure to receive a variety of answers. Traveling, grad school, moving to New York, starving, being poor – all are unsurprising responses.
Isabella Huljev, a fourth-year visual arts major at Point Loma Nazarene University, will graduate this spring. “God, it’s scary. It’s good to know that a lot of creatives are in the same boat as me… no one really knows what to do or where to go,” Huljev said.
Her senior art exhibition titled, “Liability,” was recently displayed at Keller Art Gallery, showing four pieces centered around mental illness. One of her pieces was a TV screen displaying static, and a large video playing on the wall behind it showing her everyday activities. It was supposed to represent the phenomenon of derealization, which Huljev thought she was alone in experiencing.
“You feel detached from yourself and like you are watching your life on a movie screen. I had people reach out to me about it, and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh I’ve never been able to describe how this has felt for me and that perfectly described it,’” Huljev said.
Huljev spent a month studying abroad in Florence, Italy, right before COVID-19 sent everyone home. She describes this time as the peak of her struggle with mental illness.
“It’s still a little bit embarrassing for me because study[ing] abroad is supposed to be fun and the best time of your life and I was having the worst, but it humbled me and it showed me how bad I could actually get before I needed help. So, in that sense it was good, I needed to hit a low, I think, in order to get better,” Huljev said.
After finding help within a summer therapy program, Huljev said that she was able to create distance between her and her illness, becoming detached enough to hold a new perspective and create meaningful work from it.
“One of my classmates is doing her show based on a sleep disorder that she has, and as soon as I heard her say ‘disorder’ I was like ‘Oh I have disorders too,’ and then I realized mental health has been such a big part of my life,” Huljev said.
In reflecting the theme of mental health in her work, Huljev strives to make people feel seen.
“I think overall, making people feel like they’re not alone and that it’s not different to struggle with mental health,” Huljev said.
One of the ways she accomplishes this is by making her work relatable.
As a self-proclaimed “movie person,” Huljev loves to find easter eggs hidden within films. She enjoys finding the ways that she relates to a movie, digging deep to find that little piece within a film that resonates with her.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to do that for other people. I feel like making work that’s not relatable to the public is work that’s boring, in my opinion. If I see art and I can’t find a part of myself within it, it’s not interesting to me, so I don’t want to be that person. I want to be someone that people can reach out to and relate to,” Huljev said.
After her show “Liability” opened in Keller Gallery, a second-year student at PLNU went up to Huljev. “She was like ‘I was able to relate to everything I’ve been struggling [with] since I was little, thank you so much,’ and that kind of just made the whole thing worth it. When people are able to relate to it, then I’m doing something right,” Huljev said.
“How do we make pieces and art that is so intimately personal, but at the same time so incredibly universal?” asked Gianna Tesone, an abstract painter based in Minneapolis and 2020 alumna of PLNU.
Like Huljev, Tesone displayed her work in her senior art show at Keller Gallery entitled “Selah.” Tesone asks questions about the human condition and loves exploring themes of neuroscience in her work.
“We are all struggling, [and] all our struggles look different, but yet, what purpose are we all after? To be seen, and to feel heard and to be loved. I think that speaks greatly into art making,’” said Tesone, “Why does this [hypothetical] piece of work make me feel something that I can’t put words to?”
“I don’t have to know exactly what it is, but I know it was something beyond my understanding, beyond my ability to put words to. I think that speaks to that need and that desire to feel seen and to feel understood. That’s definitely in the forefront of my mind when I create,” said Tesone.
Tesone completed her undergraduate degree in fine arts under some of the same professors that Huljev has studied under. While she learned a lot from the art department at PLNU, she has also learned from developing her own systems and techniques as a growing artist.
“At points I’ve had to put things, my writings, certain sketches, drawings, up on a wall right in front of me so I can see visually how my brain is working and thinking. It’s been a really cool process. That’s a big part of ideation – starting really messy, and then starting to hone in on the details and then connecting more from there,” said Tesone.
Huljev’s creative process is mostly internal.
“I do a lot of thinking; I’m a very self-aware person, or I try to be, and that just kind of fuels my creativity. Sometimes I journal just to get my thoughts out. I think, specifically for the show I just had, I sat down last semester and I just started doodling and thinking of things that came to mind,” Huljev said.
One of the pieces Huljev created, but never actually put into her exhibit, was a sculpture of two ghost-like figures attached to each other by string, where one is running away from the other. This piece began as a doodle stemming from the psychology of attachment theory.
Tesone has begun focusing more on neuropsychology ideas within her art. “I am really working into this idea of neuro-expressionism, kind of taking the whole cognitive, neuropsych, or neurobiology, or just [taking the idea of] ‘how does creativity process through the brain?’ into an abstract art,” said Tesone.
Originally interested in neuroscience because of her own concussions, Tesone found that understanding the brain and how it functions ignited something within her. She notes this love of neuroscience as being “from personal experience, and just really wanting to know more about why and how things function, it just keeps unraveling every single day and I keep learning more… it’s an ongoing discovery,” said Tesone.
As a sprinter on the PLNU Track and Field Team from 2016 to 2020, Tesone learned mental tenacity and perseverance. She said that these are qualities that will stick with her forever and correlate to her life as an artist.
“If this isn’t working, try a different approach. Speaking both for an art practice and an athletic career, maybe you need to tweak your diet. In track, maybe you need to tweak how you’re training or lifting if you’re not getting the result you want. Persevere. Don’t stop. Don’t quit. Use your critical thinking. Really understand how something isn’t working and find a different solution. That has hugely transferred into my art making process,” said Tesone.
A confident artistic voice takes time to develop, but confidence can look different for everyone. “I mean, I have imposter syndrome. I never think I’m a real artist or good enough, I’m just doing what I’m doing,” said Huljev.
Yet, Huljev has found a lot of passion working on movie sets and hopes to work in set design after graduation. “No matter what, it’s going to be a lot of work every day, but when I leave set, I feel at peace almost. When I drive home, I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s where I want to be’,” Huljev said.
Tesone is most passionate when she is creating work grounded in her present moment. Taking time to go on walks, have conversations and work in the studio helps Tesone make connections and feel inspired. Tesone makes art that is deeply connected to her ‘why’, and she is not afraid to present this part of herself to her audience.
“I don’t want everyone to connect with my art. There are some pieces where I don’t want certain people to understand it. If everybody understood it and loved it, then I don’t think it would be great art. It’s not meant for everybody. There are some pieces [where] I want it to piss you off, if that’s a reaction that needs to happen. Every artist wants to create a piece of work that someone will connect with, but if you don’t believe in it yourself, like if you aren’t making it for yourself at first, if it’s not coming from that core of who you are, then how is anyone going to connect with it? I’ve really started to understand what my voice is as an artist, what my originality is as a creative, and that’s come from personal experience,” said Tesone.
Ask an art major what they are doing after graduation, and you are sure to hear a response that demonstrates their courage, authenticity and vulnerability.
“I am not necessarily scared of it, but I know it’s going to be a lot harder than someone who’s in nursing or business to find a job and to make an income, but that’s the life I chose and I’m okay with that because I would rather be doing art and film stuff than in an office, because that’s just not me,” said Huljev.
“Yeah, we struggle. It’s expensive to make art, but if you think outside the box, if you really come up with your own ways to make it work, then I don’t think you are going to live in scarcity whatsoever. I think that was a mindset cultivated in fear of what art making could do,” said Tesone.
Two years after graduation, Tesone continues to develop herself artistically, athletically and philosophically.
“I’m an artist, what can’t I do?” Tesone said.
For more information on Isabella Juljev, visit her website, www.isabellahuljev.cargo.site and Instagram, @isabellajuljev_art
To follow the work of Gianna Tesone, visit her website, www.giannatesone.com, and Instagram, @giannatesone