Working with farmers as an agriculture volunteer with the Peace Corps in Paraguay South America, photographer Ashley Samuela Raasch realized her work didn't have immediate relevance.
"I went through an identity crisis," said Raasch, a University of Arizona School of Art student pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree. "If I'm not an artist, who am I?"
Raasch decided then to start a program – which still operates – to engage youth in their own photographic work. The project resulted in a more collaborative and informative experience that would later impress upon her graduate studies at the UA.
"I began to see art as something that could be helpful, not just something that was made," she said.
Today, Raasch is part of the graduating class of UA School of Art students who will present their culminating work during the MFA Annual Exhibition.
The exhibition now is open and runs through May 13 at the UA Museum of Art and nearby Joseph Gross Gallery, 1031 N. Olive Road. An opening reception will be held April 12, 5-7 p.m., and is free and open to all.
The exhibition features photography, paintings, drawings, sculpture, still photography, graphic design, illustration and video works by Jonathan Nelson, Rachel Stiff, Jovan Erfan, John Gialanella, Austin Martin and other students, all slated to graduate from the UA next month.
The show is the culmination of three years of intense study and, in many cases, interdisciplinary work, said Martina Shenal, assistant director of the UA School of Art.
"You get to see trends in contemporary work from all disciplines and get a taste of what emerging artists are doing," said Shenal, who also teaches in the school's photography division.
"It's a great way to get exposure to what's happening in the contemporary art world," she added.
Rebecca Hamlin works primarily in ceramics but also involves drawing, printmaking, antiques and "found objects" in her pieces, which explore issues around memory and emotional connections to household spaces and items.
"It's about the ritualized manipulation of the domestic space and the structure. It's not necessarily about a particular room or about the house as a home," she said, "but that's where it is centered."
Hamlin's larger thoughts relate to identity, structures around tradition, personal history and interactions with domestic animals.
"The main concept is utility and pattern, and based on the rituals and traditions and patterns I am able to see and study in the domestic space," Hamlin said. "There are these little twists, these futile patters of trying to make the domestic space this utopian space, and yet we are never satisfied with it."
The exhibition, she said, is "a real culmination of all the different conceptual and artistic development" in the MFA program.
"One of the things I feel really confident about, especially with the thesis exhibition, is that I have benefited from the school's emphasis on conceptual development," Hamlin said.
"I came in with the technical skills but I felt I really didn't know how to apply those skills and make something meaningful," said Hamlin who, in addition to graduating next month, also is getting married.
Camden Hardy, who also graduates with his MFA in May, views photography as an "incredibly powerful medium through which to explore the human experience," while also recognizing the inherent bias.
"As I've gone deeper into it, the nature of the medium has revealed itself to be wrought with theoretical conundrums, the most notable of which is the ability of a photograph to honestly document a moment, and how the photographer's bias affects the image's message," Hardy said.
But, ultimately, photography enables humans to ask deep and important questions about existence, particularly as social beings, Hardy added.
He will be showing a series of photographic works titled "Stones on a Cartesian Plane." Cairns are stacks of stones usually placed in outdoor areas, which Hardy reinterprets as encoded "visual cues." These cues, he also said, speak to individuals while affirming a desire to connect with others.
"I've always been much more interested in the colors and shapes I see, and how they relate to each other," he said. "Photography was an obvious choice because it gave me an excuse to seek these formal relationships while at the same time validating my desires to do so."
For Raasch, a California native, she specifically chose the UA because of its strong photography and Latin American studies programs, two disciplines she merges in her artistic work.
"UA was my first choice," said Raasch, who now has her eyes on a Fulbright fellowship. "I feel really lucky to be in the photography department."
Raasch explores issues of cultural identity, space and place and, for her thesis, produced an installation piece that includes video of her drifting in the Dead Sea.
Her interaction with the water is intense, which she relates to the presence of water around her maternal homeland on the Tuamotu Islands compared with living and working in landlocked Paraguay and now living in the desert.
"Everything is in flux, in constant change. A lot of my work has been about anti-place, mixing together documentary photos from places like Paraguay, Arizona or the Middle East," she said. "The places in my photos are not defined and, together, are speaking a different narrative."
Above all, Raasch is concerned with culture, borders and boundaries, migration and, also, relationships with water.
"I was on this psychological and literal search for water. But when you are in the Dead Sea, the water burns your eyes. It's not like a normal Pacific Ocean swim. It's surrealistic at points," she said.
"I found that I may be around water all the time, but I can't see it or feel it, or it isn't the type of water you want," she said. "But it's water."
It's a paradox, which is something Raasch likes to explore in her work.
"I was trying to make it about something that separates and connects," she said. "And I'm hoping that, when you look at it, you will ask yourself questions."