For someone who never thought she would succeed at painting, Taylor Bielecki has proven herself wrong and won a national award in the process. Bielecki, a senior B.F.A. candidate in the Penn State School of Visual Arts, is one of fifteen students chosen by the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. The program recognizes and showcases the work of emerging young artists with disabilities, ages 16-25, who are residing in the United States. Her artwork will be included in a year-long nationally touring exhibition, and she will attend an all-expenses-paid professional development workshop in Washington, D.C. at the end of October.
“I don’t think it has sunken in yet. It’s hard to get used to all of this attention because I’m just always painting,” said a modest Bielecki, who “lives” in the studio and gets so engrossed in her work that she sometimes forgets to eat or check the clock.
As a child, Bielecki faced physical challenges that limited her mobility and required surgeries to allow her the ability to walk. Although she still has some trouble when she paints on the floor, she manages to work through the discomfort to produce her oil paintings. Despite the physicality of her discipline, according to Bielecki, the most difficult part of being an artist is not being able to say her own name. A speech impediment causes her to stammer at times and prevents her from verbally introducing herself.
“I can’t say my own name,” she explains. “When I meet people, I tell them ‘Hi! Can I show you my name?’ and hand them a card or show them on my phone. Then, I just let my artwork offer the answers.”
Bielecki’s work focuses on horror, the idea of feeling fear, shock, or disgust, as well as the cinematic genre. Although she was initially afraid of horror movies, she eventually had a moment when everything clicked. She saw the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie and loved it. After that, she began making art about the subject and looking at artists and how they address horror in their work. Citing the influence of artists Robert Yarber (professor of art in the Penn State School of Visual Arts), Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann, Bielecki also draws upon cinema for ideas, particularly the films of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Werner Herzog.
A double major in visual arts and English Honors in the Schreyer Honors College, Bielecki finished her English thesis a year early in order to devote this year to her B.F.A. thesis. She cites Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and the writings of J.G. Ballard and David Goodis as influential to her development as a painter.
In Bielecki’s artist statement, she explains her work: “The scenes and cityscapes I depict within my paintings offer a new cinematic and dramatic take on a dystopia that I feel we are trudging into, as it creeps in from the margins.”
The first in her family to attend college, she shares an artistic bond with her younger sister as well as a love of collecting and playing trading card games. Her role as mentor and supportive family member extends into her relationship with her studio mates, whom she considers members of “the household I always hoped for.” The studio culture is a supportive environment in which Bielecki thrives, painting and listening to opera, classical, Elvis, and heavy metal music (depending on what she is working on at the moment) and naming her works from lyrics that catch her attention. Attending openings and reviews, helping others prepare for their shows, and sharing ideas at all hours of the night, she is a fixture in the Visual Arts Building and hopes to someday teach art at the college level.
“My experience here has been great, and it will be really hard to graduate because everyone has been so supportive,” explained Bielecki. “Even when I check in with the Office of Disability Services on campus, they are interested in what I am doing because I’m the only artist they have enrolled. Penn State has really been my home for the past four years.”
Bielecki credits her SoVA faculty mentors with inspiring and encouraging her to take her work to the next level. Robert Yarber; John Bowman, professor of art; and Ann Shostrom, associate professor of art, have been particularly influential. Yarber was the person who suggested she watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which piqued her interest in classic cinema. Bielecki became enamored with the carousel in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and began painting a series of horses, one of which will be featured in the VSG show.
Shostrom, who first worked with Bielecki in a beginning water media class, said she saw in her a real artist. Shostrom heard about the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program and encouraged her to apply. She also expressed great admiration for the way Bielecki explains her work in her artist statement.
“What really set her apart was her passion for the horror genre and her tremendous work ethic. She was always bringing in extra work to show me. Now, as a B.F.A., she is in her studio early and late,” said Shostrom. “Taylor is still depicting horror, but she has left the clichés of the genre far behind. The horror in her paintings has depth and compassion and is tied to both her inner world and the broader world we all inhabit. Her work is brave and accomplished.”
The theme for this year's VSA Emerging Young Artists Program is Electrify! Bielecki’s painting, I’m Bringing Hell to You, was selected for inclusion in the show. The goal of the exhibition is to ignite empathy and understanding as well as empower the artists involved.
The excitement continues for Bielecki, as she travels to Washington D.C. to participate in VSA’s week-long series of openings and professional development workshops for the emerging artists. She was also recently informed that she is a finalist for the $20,000 grand prize, which will be announced at the awards ceremony on Thursday, October 26.
For more information about the Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, visit the website: http://bit.ly/2xBUWbm