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KCAD Grad Student Aims to Push Practice Further with $11K Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant

When Laurel Dugan sat down to paint the dead rose bush in front of her neighbor’s house a few weeks ago, she couldn’t help but be equally intrigued by the nondescript electrical utility box behind it, and the following day—freshly scrawled graffiti decrying police brutality.

What began as a simple observational exercise had revealed a stirring reflection of America in the summer of 2020, and she knew she had to capture it.

For Dugan, a student in KCAD’s Master of Fine Arts Painting and Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies programs, allowing the moment to inform her work has become essential to her creative process. It’s also the driving force behind a burgeoning body of work, “American Beauty,” that recently helped her emerge from a hypercompetitive process with an $11,000 grant from The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation.

Painting of a family sitting in their living room"Easter at Dorie's" from the "American Beauty" series by KCAD grad student Laurel Dugan (image courtesy of the artist) 

“American Beauty” takes a critical look at American family life in the 21st century, and more specifically, the pervasive cultural forces at work beneath its surface that subtly shape our experiences, relationships, and ideas. In each painting, scenes of everyday domestic life are rendered with colors, textures, and symbols that invite viewers to see them through an altered lens—one that laments the loss of an idealized past as much as it evokes hope for a better future. All the while, Dugan is taking sharp aim at the artificial “connectedness” of the information age.

“I’m looking at the idea of family in our contemporary moment and wondering, ‘is this the American Dream? Is this what we wanted?’” says Dugan, herself a mother of four. “These paintings have everything to do with my own life, but family is a universal thing that everyone can relate to in one way or another.”

Dexterously toeing the line between abstraction and representation, Dugan’s immersive, layered style seamlessly weaves together formal and conceptual elements. She arrived at KCAD already technically accomplished, but once here found the guidance and encouragement she needed to better articulate the meaning behind her work.

Painting of a boy sitting alone in a chair"Seamus Waiting for Mom" (above) and "Girl Reading" (below) from the "American Beauty" series by Laurel Dugan (images courtesy of the artist)

Painting of a girl laying on her bed reading a book

“[KCAD Professor] Diane Zeeuw has been the best mentor and teacher. No one has ever pushed me in the way that she has to not only understand what I’m trying to do with my work, but to put it in words as well,” Dugan says. “I knew I needed outside direction to push my practice to the next level, and the program here has been great at homing in on what each individual student needs to develop.”

Similarly, Dugan’s experiences in the MA in Visual and Critical Studies program have enabled her to see the world around her through new eyes.

“I’ve only just gotten started in this program, but I’m already excited about how it’s inspired me to think critically about what the things we look at tell us,” she says. “It’s fascinating, especially as an artist, to wonder deeply about how the things I observe around me got there, who made them, how and why they were made, and why they’re still here.”  

Now, the grant from The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation has further ignited a fire in Dugan to carry both her thinking and her making into uncharted territory. But just as with each time she sits down in front of the canvas, she feels her path forward is best left unspecified.

“We live in such an empirical society, but I’m short-circuiting the process if I think of my journey in a delineated way,” Dugan says. “My goal is to be an excellent artist and critical thinker, and the only way I’ll get there is by keeping my possibilities and my process open-ended.”

See more of Laurel Dugan’s work at laureldugan.com and on Instagram @laureldugan.