VCUarts annual magazine exemplifies artists’ role in creating social change

The cover art of the 2020 edition of Studio, created by VCUarts grad student Eric Millikin, features the likeness of George Floyd overlaid on a street map of Minneapolis. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer

Before opening this year’s edition of the VCUarts annual magazine, readers are struck with a portrait of George Floyd overlaid on a map of Minneapolis. The powerful image featured on the publication’s front cover represents its central theme: social change.

“His image has become a symbol that should remind us, as a society, to strive for equality, inclusion and equity,” said Suzanne Silitch, the art school’s executive director for strategic communications. “I couldn’t have imagined featuring anything or anyone else on the cover at this specific moment in history.”

Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in May after he was detained by Minneapolis police with an officer’s knee on his neck. His death sparked nationwide protests over police brutality.

Since 2006, the arts department has published at least one edition of Studio, an online and print magazine, to showcase the work of VCUarts alumni, staff and students from the school’s various departments. 

“Each edition of Studio is a representation of a moment in time in our school’s history,” Silitch said in an email. “This year is no exception.” 

Production began in late January, starting with developing a theme, finding design inspiration, writing stories and sourcing content.

“It is a time-consuming process, but one that is extremely rewarding,” Silitch said. “Especially when we get to tell the successes of VCUarts students.” 

VCUarts’ online publication, “Studio,” features stories about VCU students as well as alumni from Richmond and Qatar. Photo by Alessandro Latour

The team had to shift to virtual production in March, which meant changing story ideas and finding topics that would remain relevant in the fall. 

Silitch said some of the changes presented new opportunities for creativity. The cancellation of in-person art events posed challenges for getting photos, and a lack of resources restricted the magazine’s production. 

“We didn’t want to show Zoom screens for everything because that gets old fast,” Silitch said.  “This actually turned into a great opportunity for us to explore illustration and typography for our visuals — which I think were extremely successful.”

Inside this year’s Studio, readers can find stories from fall 2019 to summer 2020, including an introduction to the newly inducted VCUarts Dean Carmenita Higginbotham, photos of the VCUarts Qatar virtual “Color Lab” exhibition and general news about the school.

The Studio team was made up mostly of VCU alumni — including photographer Steven Casanova, art director Emily Yaeyoung Park, contributing writer Richard DiCicco and senior associate director of communications Teresa Engle Ilnicki. VCUarts Associate Director of Print and Digital Content Kim Catley and Silitch worked closely with the dean to select stories for the magazine.

The theme of the issue, “change,” was decided in January as a way to signify how VCUarts students, alumni and staff have utilized their art for social good. This has remained the focus throughout the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Due to COVID-19, the Studio team had to shift to working virtually. Clockwise from top left: VCUarts staff members Boris Zharekhin, Emily Yaeyoung Park, Suzanne Silitch, Teresa Engle Ilnicki, Chris Jones, Kim Catley. Photo courtesy of VCUarts Communications Office

“We knew we had a really strong story to tell about the ‘change makers,’” Silitch said. “The pandemic and the social unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd only augmented this theme.”

DiCicco, who helped plan stories for the magazine, said one of the biggest challenges was considering which stories would still be relevant when Studio was published. 

“This is just a problem with magazines. You plan out everything and you’re ready for small changes, you’re ready for some things to go wrong,” DiCicco said. “But you’re not ready for everything to go wrong.”

DiCicco worked as a full-time arts writer for the department’s communications office since 2017 and wrote nine stories in Studio. The 2014 VCUarts alum said he was laid off “due to budgetary issues” in July and was not included in much of the execution of the final publication.

Despite changes made during production, the issue highlights some of 2020’s historic events, starting with Floyd on the front cover. Created by MFA candidate Eric Millikin, the piece is a part of his ongoing series, “Street Portraits,” which documents Black Americans who have been killed by police since 2010. 

“The idea is to memorialize these people and make sure they’re not forgotten and what happened to them is not forgotten,” Millikin said. “It being on the cover of Studio hopefully gets to people that might not necessarily see something in that context otherwise.”

Millikin said he hopes this year’s publication will showcase the talent at VCUarts and the school’s commitment to the Richmond community and social justice.

“Hopefully, people will pick up the magazine and maybe think about the same things that I think about or have the same reaction I have,” Millikin said. “There are so many little things that can push you in a certain direction, and that’s how you make change.”

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