UMBC’s latest graduates in the arts forge new creative paths despite a challenging year

Published: May 20, 2021

By: Tom Moore

Student actors stand on a darkly lit stage

The past pandemic year saw arts communities unable to connect with audiences in traditional ways. Usually reliant on people gathering together to experience their work, creators and performers were thrust online. Some artistic experiences were rendered impossible, but the challenging situation didn’t slow the creative efforts of visual and performing artists of UMBC’s Class of 2021.

Lighting up the stage

“The pandemic took a toll on my ability to create and share my artwork,” shares Seth Kolbe ’21, theatre, who will graduate with a focus on design and production. “As a theatre technician, there are very few opportunities to showcase my talents outside of shows or projects.”

During the pandemic, Kolbe honed his leadership skills, serving as vice president of both the Theatre Council of Majors (TheatreCOM) and the department’s United States Institute for Theatre Technology chapter. Through the work of these two student organizations, he helped facilitate a closer bond between members of the department and helped support the creation of new policies to assist future students. In recognition of his efforts, the department awarded him the Theatre Student Honors Award.

A student actor stands on stage with colorful and brightly lit rectangles behind her.
The set for the Department of Theatre production Hunting and Gathering, on which Seth Kolbe worked as head electrician. (Photo by Arionna Gonsalves ’19 for UMBC.)

Among Kolbe’s favorite classes were stage management, projection design, sound design, lighting design, rigging and welding, and scene design. During his four years at UMBC, he contributed to numerous theatrical productions, including Twelfth Night, The Turn of the Screw, Machinal, She Like Girls, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Anon(ymous), Hunting and Gathering, Girls on a Dirt Pile, and Everybody

Kolbe also gained skills working with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company and as a member of UMBC Retriever Robotics. 

Like many UMBC students in the arts, Kolbe feels strongly about social justice, a particular focus of his leadership work over the past year. “I would like my art to make a difference in the world and in small ways it is already doing so,” he says. “I will continue to support underrepresented groups and use my privilege as white male to act against the inequality present in both this art form and our society.” 

Kolbe shares, “My immediate future plans are to continue freelance stagehand and design work in the region before attending graduate school for my MFA.” Eventually, he hopes to teach theatre design and production.

Promoting empathy and connectivity

Kolbe’s theatre colleague Caitlyn Hooper ’21 will graduate with a BFA in acting. She notes that the pandemic “completely changed” how acting students were learning. “We were acting to our laptop cameras, a tough loss. But everyone found new ways to be creative, and I was so inspired by that creativity. I found a deeper connection to the research side of theatre, including the history of theatre and theatrical intimacy studies.” 

Hooper joined UMBC as a freshman in 2017, and was cast in numerous productions on stage, including Everybody, Hunting and Gathering, Gwyneth, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and Far Away. In addition to her acting studies, she worked in the scene shop beginning in her sophomore year and gained knowledge about technical production and carpentry. 

Caitlyn Hooper, with long dark hair, stands against a pitch black background while wearing a red cap and a light colored jacket.
Caitlyn Hooper acting in the 2019 UMBC Theatre production of Hunting and Gathering by Brooke Berman, directed by Susan Stroupe. (Photo by Arionna Gonsalves ’19 for UMBC.)

The concern for equity and social justice factors significantly in Hooper’s work. “As a theatre artist, I’m passionate about creating work that promotes empathy and connectivity,” she says. “I’m inspired by Black theatre activists’ anti-racist work currently restructuring how we do theatre, and I’m committed to equality and justice of marginalized people.” 

As president of TheatreCOM during her senior year, she advocated for equitable theatre practices within the department, and, like Kolbe, was a recipient of the Theatre Student Honors Award.

Hooper completed research focused on theatrical intimacy, mentored by Susan Stroupe. She presented her work at UMBC’s popular Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day (URCAD) in 2021 and also published it in UMBC Review. She’s passionate about pursuing a career focused on theatrical intimacy and she plans to apply for a Fulbright award to gain a cross-cultural perspective on theatrical intimacy in another county. 

For the immediate future, Hooper plans to return to the stage in local and regional productions. Longer-term, she plans to earn an MFA in acting or performance studies and pursue a career in higher education. She hopes to focus on consent-based practices and anti-racist action in theatrical education in order to make theatre more equitable and ethical.

One student, many interests

Meyerhoff Scholar and U-RISE Trainee Peter Bailer ’21 has equally pursued his interests in the arts and sciences at UMBC, and this week will graduate with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and a degree in music composition. 

“Music is an essential part of my life; it is both my creative outlet and a powerful medium through which I can express myself,” he shares. “I feel that my experiences with music at UMBC have helped make me a holistic and well-rounded student. From analysis to creative problem solving, my music major has sharpened many skills relevant towards any career, but especially a career in research.”

On the science side of his interests, Bailer has worked in Erin Green’s lab, focused on examining  a yeast protein through sequencing data and published structures of related organisms. 

He participated in several summer research internships as an undergraduate. At the University of Virginia, he studied the toxicity and structure of peptides that have the potential to become new antimicrobial therapeutics. At the University of Pennsylvania he studied the nature of how a human mutator enzyme discriminates between DNA and RNA for potential gene editing applications. Bailer won a Chemistry and Biochemistry Faculty Award for Excellence for both academic and research performance.

Peter Bailer stands outside behind a large tree while playing the saxophone.
Photo of Peter Bailer by CJ Escobar ’21, music.

In music, Bailer has studied composition with Linda Dusman and Greg Kalember. His music reflects influences from the Romantic era, jazz, late impressionism, and contemporary classical music. He was commissioned by Jonathan Sotelo ’20 to write the percussion trio An Evolution of Congruence, and a marimba work entitled Pebbles. His recent saxophone sextet, The Lost Woods, was premiered by saxophonist and UMBC faculty member Matt Belzer in 2021, and Cognitive Dissonance was premiered by the Washington, D.C. new music ensemble Balance Campaign, also in 2021. 

Bailer has performed with the UMBC Saxophone Ensemble, the UMBC New Music Ensemble, and was lead alto in the UMBC Jazz Ensemble. As a senior he received the Academic Achievement Award in Music.

Getting creative with creativity

“The pandemic had major impacts on my ability to create as a composer and musician,” says Bailer. “As a musician, I was no longer able to perform or create with others, and that really reduced my creativity throughout this pandemic.”

Bailer explains, “I was supposed to have my senior composition recital last spring. This ultimately had to be pushed back to this semester, resulting in a combination of some live performances and a lot of pre-recorded versions of pieces.” On the positive side, he notes that extra time at home provided an opportunity for him to study more techniques in music technology that will help his career in the long term.

“Following graduation, I will attend the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics,” says Bailer. “While pursuing this, I hope to continue practicing and growing as a composer, and I aspire to be performing ground-breaking research while continuing to compose for years to come.”

Finding a new voice

“As a musician, the pandemic forced me to make a big shift in my creative process,” says Kathryn “Katie” Blake ’21, a Linehan Artist Scholar who will graduate with a bachelor’s in music composition. “As a composer, I had to find quirky ways to inspire myself in my writings, because the isolation and being in the same environment for months on end is mentally taxing.”

“The dramatic change of being surrounded by creative musicians to being alone changed the way I approached composing,” says Blake. “Before, I’d constantly be asking my friends to try a little passage, or show me a technique—we would bounce ideas off each other. The isolation really made me focus and find the exact sounds I wanted in my pieces, and the exact sounds that my pieces needed.”

But Blake found strength in unexpected ways, adding, “I also transitioned to composing for the digital medium, as it is an easy form of artistic communication at the moment. I really honed in on my skills with electroacoustic works, and I found a voice in that sound realm that can only be accomplished by electroacoustic composition.”

Performances past and future

During Blake’s undergraduate studies, her compositions have been premiered by the Bergamot String Quartet, percussionist Jonathan Sotelo ’20, the Balance Campaign ensemble, and the Strata Trio. The 2019 Fresh Inc. Festival, District New Music Coalition’s 2020 fall conference, and T1International’s “Change Through Creativity” Project in 2020 all featured her work.

On a darkly lit dance stage, a violist plays on the left while two students dance on the right.
Katie Blake ’21, left, performs with Deven Fuller ’22, dance, and Emily Godfrey ’20, dance, in In To And Out Of by Ann Sofie Clemmensen. (Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.)

Also active as a violist, Blake has performed with the UMBC Symphony Orchestra and in the UMBC Chamber Players. She premiered string quartets by Donte Speaks, Jr. and Eliza Triolo ’19, music. Featuring a role as both violist and composer, she was honored in fall 2019 to work with UMBC choreographer Ann Sofie Clemmensen, whose dance In To And Out Of was featured at the Kennedy Center. She has composed music for animator William Kraft ’21, visual arts, filmmaker Kelvin Thompson ’20, visual arts, and choreographers Teresa Whittemore ’20, dance and Kayla Massey ’22, dance. Like Bailer, she received the Academic Achievement Award in Music.

Outside of composing, Blake has interests in health advocacy, social justice, psychology, and mental health, and has found ways to connect her interests. “I do feel a large part of myself as an artist is to make a change,” she states. “Currently, I’ve had a focus on diabetes and insulin advocacy, tying my experience as a diabetic into my work. I have already delved into the insulin crisis with my work, but I plan to do so much more.”

Blake plans to pursue a master’s and then a D.M.A. in music composition, and looks forward to a career in higher education. “Composing and creating is what gave me the spark to keep going when I was younger,” she says, “and I want to help others find that spark as well.”

Transformation in quarantine

“My thesis show was totally transformed by quarantine,” shares Rahne Alexander M.F.A. ’21, intermedia and digital arts, of her recent participation in the spring M.F.A. visual arts thesis exhibition, Home Bodies. “What was intended to be a live performance transformed into an online experience, which set off a kind of domino effect on the various aspects of the project.” For instance, Alexander explains, “instead of creating a talk show set in the gallery, I recreated my home studio in which I produced the show, and ultimately I think that overall, my work was better as a result.” 

The content of the show was also impacted by its shifting context, Alexander reflects. “A significant part of this piece was a meditation on the way that multiple sclerosis caused my mother to transform her own art practices, and the parallels I have experienced in my own career,” she says. “Quarantine really brought those parallel conditions into excruciatingly clear focus, in ways I’ll be considering for a long while.” 

Alexander is already an accomplished essayist, contributing to anthologies such as the Lambda Literary Award-winning Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica and the Lambda-nominated Resilience Anthology. Her first book of collected essays, Heretic to Housewife, was published by Neon Hemlock in 2019. 

While at UMBC, Rahne has exhibited artworks both regionally and internationally. Her video art screened as part of the International Conference of Chinese Computer Human Interaction at Xiamen University, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Necessity of Tomorrow(s) Screening Room. In 2020, her painted scroll triptych “I Am the End of the Patriarchy and So Can You” was commissioned by ‘sindikit and Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art for the Mary B. Howard Invitational: An Excellent Thought About a Quality Idea. These scrolls have subsequently shown at The Shed Space and as part of Spark IV: A New World? at Maryland Art Place. 

In a room filled with bookcases and books, Rahne Alexander sits facing the camera.
Rahne Alexander in her work Sick Transit, an exemplativist femmage, comprising a series of autobiographical monologic performances meditating on mobility, maternity, gender, feminism, and systems of healthcare in the relationship between two artists: the transsexual daughter of a devout Mormon who lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. (Image courtesy of Rahne Alexander.)

A leader and community connector

Also active in arts administration and advocacy, Alexander has been a leader at the Transmodern Festival and the Maryland Film Festival, where she served five years in charge of operations and development. She has since lent her organizational and development assistance to several groups, including the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, Venus Theater, Wide Angle Youth Media, and Single Carrot Theatre. 

“My work has always been about making connections between people, often with the specific political goal of destigmatizing trans and queer identities. I work to get audiences to reconsider their assumptions and epistemologies,” says Alexander. 

“Trans people make up such a small minority of the population, yet there is this continued push to diminish and deny our civil rights. We can’t really secure those rights without the support of the majority, so a large part of my mission as an artist has been to make connections and open dialogue,” she notes. “And the same holds true for all marginalized people—disability rights, Indigenous rights, the rights of queer people and Black people and Brown people. As the saying goes, none of us are free until we are all free, and I see my work as a part of that larger project.”

Alexander will continue working as an artist. She currently has work on display at Spark IV: A New World? and she will be on the faculty at this summer’s Tulsa Glitterary Writer’s Conference.

Banner Image: Cailtlyn Hooper and other theatre students in the 2018 production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Nyalls Hartman, for which Seth Kolbe served as assistant head electrician. Photo by Raquel Hammer ’20 for UMBC.

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