VCUarts alumna receives VMFA fellowship, looks to expand work

In “An Ode to Soil,” LaRissa Rogers plants yucca and flowers from her grandmother’s garden to mark 43 unmarked graves of enslaved people at Charlottesville’s Pen Park and Farmington Country Club, the location of an antebellum plantation. Photo courtesy of LaRissa Rogers

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer

LaRissa Rogers is not afraid to get her hands dirty when creating art that sparks conversation. With new funding from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and soil infused with history, Rogers continues to explore complex issues in her own unique style.

A Poetic of Living,” created by the 2019 painting and printmaking graduate, features casts of Rogers’ body. 

The sculpture is made out of soil sourced from a golf course in Charlottesville’s Pen Park and Farmington Country Club, the location of an antebellum plantation and 43 unmarked graves of enslaved people. Rogers planted fungi and celosia — a flower native to East Africa brought to the United States during the slave trade — in the body-shaped forms. 

The piece represents growth, the resilience of Black people in the United States and the contributions of enslaved people to food systems in place today, Rogers said.

“It’s thinking about the relationship of being able to grow life on something that presumes to be dead,” Rogers said. “And thinking about that in relation to Blackness or Black people and how resilient we are and able to create life, joy and care.”

Rogers was named a recipient of the VMFA’s 2021-22 Visual Arts Fellowship Program this past month. The fund has provided roughly $5.8 million in fellowships to Virginian artists since its establishment in 1940, according to the VMFA’s website.

“What I appreciate about LaRissa’s work so much is that it’s always doing something new. I’ve seen her cover a ton of very different subjects, but they always intertwine very intelligently.” — Noah Hook, co-owner of the Rump Gallery

Currently based in Charlottesville, Rogers is moving to California later this year to continue graduate school at UCLA. She plans to use some of the fellowship money to ship the materials of “A Poetic of Living” to Los Angeles, she said.

“Shipping two tons of soil across the country is not glamorous at all,” Rogers said. “It’s super realistic, and it’s going to be really helpful for the next couple months, especially thinking about the different iterations of this installation that I’m working on and thinking about.”

Rogers, who said she finds inspiration in her identity as an Afro-Asian woman, often explores themes of race, migration and identity in her work. Shipping materials to California has allowed her to see her work from a new perspective, she said.

“This soil has history so rooted to the South and to Virginia,” Rogers said. “What are the politics of soil in California, thinking about the border and the Asian-American population and their migration?”

Rogers’ exploration of different art forms, such as performance art and installations, was encouraged at VCUarts, where she ventured outside of her major, she said. 

“My undergrad experience really helped me be able to start to play with these other mediums that allowed me to express myself and my ideas in a way that was more complex and more interesting for me,” she said. “And it shaped what I’m doing now.”

Rogers, a VCUarts alumna, was awarded the VMFA’s 2021-2022 Visual Arts Fellowship. The fellowship program provides funding and connections to Virginian artists. Photo courtesy of LaRissa Rogers

The program offers $8,000 to professional artists, $6,000 to graduate students and $4,000 to undergraduate students. To apply, artists choose a category and submit a resume, work samples and an artistic statement to the museum. Jurors review the applications and then award the fellowship, according to the VMFA. 

Rogers applied in the “new and emerging” category, which refers to work that does not fit in more traditional categories like painting, sculpture and film. She submitted a mixture of past performance and installation pieces, she said. 

The application process challenged Rogers, as she finds it difficult to limit herself and her work to one category, she said. “Ode to Soil,” a performance piece in which Rogers planted flowers and yucca plants from her grandmother’s garden in Pen Park, memorializes those who were enslaved and buried on the site.

“I think it’s always a struggle to place exactly where my work sits,” Rogers said. “I kind of work in whatever medium I feel like the piece is kind of calling me to go in.”

The fellowship is competitive — just 26 out of 500 applicants received spots in last year’s program, according to the VMFA.

VMFA’s Fellowship Program provides recipients more freedom to create art and pursue their careers,” VMFA spokesperson Amy Peck stated in an email. “The fellowship award will help her [Rogers] to fulfill her goals as a student and as an artist.”

Rogers said having support from the VMFA will allow her to showcase her art, network and plan for future projects.

“It’s great for an institution to support what you’re doing,” Rogers said. “That’s a huge help in being able to not only buy materials, but to be able to put it towards a project that I wouldn’t otherwise have the money to make.”

“We’ve Always Been Here, Like Hydrogen, Like Oxygen” is a double-panel video installation presented at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Richmond. Rogers bathes her body using oranges to connect the commodification of the fruit to the commodification of Black women. Photo courtesy of LaRissa Rogers

Noah Hook, a former classmate of Rogers and 2019 VCUarts painting and printmaking alumnus, said he is excited to see what Rogers does next. 

“She is always using art to communicate very critical and important ideas,” Hook said. “And she utilizes history and different moments or forgotten things a lot of the times, like in her most recent work.”

Rogers’ performance piece “Invisible Weight” was one of the first exhibitions featured at the Rump Gallery, a roaming gallery that provides space to new artists, which Hook co-owns with fellow 2019 VCUarts graduate Kim Peters. The gallery is currently operating online.

“It’s a space for people who are still pretty much at the emerging level to get really great documentation and get some new eyes on their work,” Hook said of the gallery.

Hook reached out to Rogers because he found her work evocative during their time as classmates and has continued to follow her work, he said.

“What I appreciate about LaRissa’s work so much is that it’s always doing something new,” Hook said. “I’ve seen her cover a ton of very different subjects, but they always intertwine very intelligently.”

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