Art Saint Louis "Varsity Art" Artist Q&A Series Two

Art Saint Louis is pleased to present our second in our “Varsity Art” Artist Q&A Series highlighting artists who have participated in our annual show in years past. This week we are featuring artists Shelby Fleming, Racheal Bruce, and Thomas Matthew Pierson.

In 1995, we created our unique “Varsity Art” exhibit with the goal of highlighting undergrad and grad level student artists who were studying at regional colleges and universities. In the 25 years that we've presented this exhibit, we've had the privilege of working with over 700 collegiate art students as well as hundreds of art faculty. This year's 2020 presentation of “Varsity Art XXIV” featured works by 40 undergrad and grad level art students representing 20 Missouri & Illinois universities and colleges.

Our gratitude to the participating artists and to ASL Staffers Roxanne Phillips and Robin Hirsch-Steinhoff for their continued work on our Art Dialogue Blog.

Please stay tuned & visit again next week for more "Varsity Art" Artist Q&A.

Artist Shelby Fleming.

Bio: Shelby Fleming holds a BFA in Studio Art from Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville and MFA from the University of Arkansas School of Art. Fleming’s artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues such as the CICA Museum, South Korea, the International Sculpture Conference, The Little Berlin Gallery, Art Saint Louis, and the Kansas City Art Institute. Her most recent work titled Gut Feeling, focuses on the viewer’s experience with abstracted bodily forms. The scale, arrangement, and sensory experience causes the viewer to consider their own body in relation to the sculptures and space.

Shelby Fleming. "Gut Feeling." 2020. University of Arkansas Sculpture Gallery.

Roxanne Phillips: You participated in the 2017 “Varsity Art XXI” exhibit. How has your aesthetic evolved since this time?
Shelby Fleming: In 2017 I was nominated by my faculty at Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville to represent our university in Art Saint Louis’ “Varsity Art XXI” exhibition. I remembered it being a unique exhibition that specifically highlighted what undergraduate art students were creating in the Saint Louis area. I was excited to see such a diverse group of people and topics represented in the exhibition. I was a student at the time and had been in shows previously at different venues, but this was the first exhibition where everyone was around my age and lived in my area. This exhibition created an extraordinary survey of artwork created in Saint Louis and how institutions can provide the time and space for this development to happen.

Shelby Fleming. "Segment 1 and 2." 2020 Mixed Media, 137"x108"x38",

Since the “Varsity Art” exhibition I have attended the University of Arkansas School of Art Master’s program. My aesthetic has changed drastically as I have expanded outward, exploring more materials and processes, but overall, my theme has stayed consistently about the body. In 2017 my work focused on the fragility of the body since that time it has expanded into concepts of the physical and psychological body. My most recent work Gut Feeling, directly involving the viewer’s body and experience.

Shelby Fleming. "Segment 3." 2020. Mixed Media, 35"x93"x115".

RP: Have you continued working in the same medium or switched to a different medium?
SF: Due to the experimental nature of Graduate School, my artwork has gone through a type of metamorphosis over the last three years. Another contributor to this drastic change is the vast definition of sculpture. Rosalind Krauss said it best in, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," sculpture can only be defined by what it is not. These experimentations in material over the last few years have led to a new understanding and passion for constructed image photography, in which an arrangement is set up with the intent of being photographed for the camera. This experimentation slowed down by practice and made me critical of how rapidly we consume artwork. I then focused my research how to get the viewer physically and psychologically invested in really seeing the artwork.

Shelby Fleming. "Segment 4." 2020. Mixed Media, 117"x84"x96".

RP: What is the most challenging aspect of being an emerging artist?
SF: As an artist who has just graduated and is currently packing up her studio, I am just starting to see the foreseeable future challenges. Space is my highest priority now as I am researching an affordable studio that will accommodate my often loud and messy studio practice. I am also losing access to a variety of tools and equipment. With this loss I consider why there is no public space where artist can have access to the same resources as institutions.
A second concern is funding. I have been fortunate to have unimaginable funding at the University of Arkansas School of Art. Most of my proposed projects were awarded funding and I received a tuition waiver and stipend. Moving forward, I will have to seek out other public funding grant opportunities.

Shelby Fleming. "The Cave." 2020. Mixed Media, 132"x144"x96".

Shelby Fleming. "The Cave." 2020. Mixed Media, 132"x144"x96".

RP: What advice would you give to current art students?
SF: Ask as many questions as possible. Instructors are a valuable resource with vast years of experience. Nine times out of ten they have probably encountered the same or similar situation as you. And just because it is not on the syllabus does not mean you cannot ask about it. Example: How do I prepare my portfolio for Grad school? How do I get a public art commission? How do I build a frame? How do I build a crate? What Kinds of exhibitions should I be looking for? Nothing in the artworld should be a mystery, but we must ask the right questions to demystify it.

Learn more about Shelby Fleming: and

Artist Racheal Bruce.

Bio: I'm an illustrator based in Saint Louis, currently attending the MFA program in Illustration and Visual Culture at Washington University. I graduated with my BFA in Illustration from Webster University in 2019. My work is analog and features abstracted figures, spaces and aspects of theatricality. To me, drawing is like directing a play, for which I cast actors and build sets. I like making illustration objects, such as dolls, phenakistoscopes, and illustrated fabrics.

Editor’s note: In 20019, Racheal Bruce represented Webster University in “Varsity Art XXIII” at Art Saint Louis. Her work in that show was  selected for the Best of Show Award of Excellence.

Racheal Bruce. “Phenakistoscope: La Danse Peste.” 2020. Mixed Media, 12”.

Roxanne Phillips: How has your subject matter changed since your participation in "Varsity Art XXIII"?
Racheal Bruce: Since I started grad school, subject matter has become less of an issue. In my undergrad, I would stress over subject matter so much that it would start to limit what I made. But illustration allows for so much freedom. My work now is less about consistent topics and more about consistent style and aesthetic. I try to view my illustrations like a genre through which ideas are presented. I have interests that show up in my work, like theater, horror, movement, gender. Starting with themes and interests and figuring out the subject from that has been very helpful.

Racheal Bruce. “Permission.” 2019. Mixed Media, 40.5"x23"x6.5”. $600.

RP: How has your studio practice changed since graduating?
RB: Though I started a graduate program immediately after finishing my undergrad, I still feel my studio practice has changed recently due to the pandemic. If you're able, establishing a space to work solely on art is helpful for putting you in the right mindset to work. I've always had difficulty motivating myself to create, especially outside of school projects. Creating a schedule, planning out your days, and finding someone to hold you accountable is the best practice I've found. I tend to be most productive right out of bed, so I try to work in the mornings and early afternoons. Throughout the quarantine, I've had frequent work and check-in sessions with friends and classmates over Zoom. Seriously, nothing is more motivating than working with another person.

Racheal Bruce. “The Flutist.” 2020. Marker, Ink, Colored Pencil on Paper, 18"x24”.

RP: What do you wish you would have learned more about while in school that could help you now with your creative career?
RB: For me, one of the biggest motivating factors for going to grad school (besides learning new skills and growing as an artist) was figuring out how to actually start my career. I had no idea how to get a job in illustration. Undergraduate art programs tend to focus on exposing the student to lots of different practices and mediums. They help you build a groundwork for your own practice, but very few of them actually teach you how to start a career.

Racheal Bruce's workspace.

RP: When you are in school you have a built-in community of other artists. Do you find it necessary to have an art community?
: I think having an art community is crucial! You really miss having other artists to give you feedback and to bounce ideas off of once they're no longer immediately accessible. While an idea might seem to make sense to you, be sure it makes sense to others. Having other artists to push you is crucial to making sure your practice doesn't become stagnant. Keep in touch with your art friends once you graduate, and try to work with them often. Help each other brainstorm, talk through ideas, give feedback. Share inspiration, references, books. Be honest with each other.

Learn more about Racheal Bruce: and


Thomas Matthew Pierson is an amateur power-lifter, a visual artist, an art educator, a husband, and a father. Matt attended St. Charles Community College and earned a BFA in Painting and Art History from Memphis College of Art, Memphis, TN, and M.A. and MFA degrees from Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO (2011). Matt has served as Adjunct Professor of Art since 2015 at St. Charles Community College where he teaches Drawing and 2-D Design. His work has been featured in curated and juried exhibits throughout the St. Louis region, including nine shows at Art Saint Louis since 2007. A solo exhibition of his work,“B.Y.O.B./Bring Your Own Bugers,” was presented at the The William & Florence Schmidt Art Center, Belleville, IL (2019) and he was one of three artists featured in an Art Saint Louis curated exhibit at the Angad Arts Hotel (2019). His works are included in private collections throughout the area.

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Amoeba Fractal #12” 2020. Acrylic on Hardboard, 18”x24”.

Roxanne Phillips: You participated in the 2013 "Varsity Art XVII" exhibit. How has your aesthetic evolved since this time?
Matt Pierson: At the time I participated in “Varsity Art” my painting designs were fairly basic. I had only used 2-3 visual elements in the compositions and typically the layers of my paintings weren’t as complex. The aesthetics were similar, but I just added more.  Instead of just having a fore-ground and back-ground, I would add at least a mid-ground, if not multiple to add the complexity.  My paintings also had substantially more layers to them. The work in the past usually had 3-5 layers of paint, but the more recent work would have 5-20 layers of paint. Often the paintings would have a grisaille underpainting that I would show popping through the final painting. A grisaille underpainting is essentially a grayscale version of the painting.  So I would say the aesthetic remained the same, but I added more of the same, making the work super awesome!!! 

Aesthetic+More = Super Awesome + Burgers = My Paintings

Matt Pierson: If you were a hot dog would you eat yourself?

MP: Absolutely!!!

Matt Pierson's studio.

RP: How has your studio practice changed since graduating?
MP: It was chaotic after graduating. Colleges don’t teach time management (they probably should). I stumbled and fumbled. You are stuck with the issue of having to make a living and not everyone is blessed with a steady stream of art sales.  So for me what happened was I had to work. There are two things I am particularly good at, one being super awesome at drawing and painting; and the other being able to lift heavy objects and move them from point A to point B.

Unfortunately, for me, I had to take the latter. When you have a day job that sucks all the energy from you, literally, drawing and painting in the evening no longer becomes a point of enjoyment. Usually because I would spend my evenings asleep at the couch after working in a hot warehouse environment. After getting home, having dinner, and cleaning up, there was no time for creating. So I struggled, for a while, to some degree I still struggle today. 

What helped me out tremendously was reading, or rather listening (audio books are a life-saver), books on productivity and time management. Books about forming habits and having a consistent schedule. Books like Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy and Atomic Habits by James Clear have had a substantial impact on how I orchestrate my day.

Matt Pierson's studio.

In a nutshell, the first thing I do in the morning is draw or paint, for roughly 100 minutes. I used to try to sneak in a moment to wake up with coffee, exercise, small projects that needed to be done. But that usually ended up obliterating my studio time. So, now I always try to get in 100 minutes a day. 

Becoming a father has made it nigh impossible (a whole other story, subsection B:How to be an Artist while also being a Great Dad) to work on my artwork during the day.  which is why it always must be done in the morning. I tried working in the evenings, but I found I was too exhausted to work after being a Dad all day long (12 hours +). 

In summation, I am more consistent in the time I work.  Be consistent, drink lots of water, take your vitamins, turn off yer’ Netflix, stay away from social media, do lots of pushups, get ample sleep, don’t drink a gallon of whiskey,  cut out the junk food, get a job that you don’t hate (or sell artwork, which ever happens first) and don’t drink so much soda.

Matt Pierson's studio.

MP: How many beers can you drink in one sitting?
MP: Oh jeez! I think maybe at one point I could do 30, is that something to be proud of? Probably not.

MP: Did you puke?
MP: Most definitely

MP: Are you embarrassed to answer the previous question?
MP: A little bit

MP: Should we put this answer on our blog?
MP: Do what you’re gonna do!! Leave me alone will ya!! *pops open beer* 

MP: Really, how many beers can you drink in one sitting?
: Fine!!! You got me!!! I can only drink two beers, I am a lightweight.

MP: Did you puke?

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Amoeba Fractal #10.” 2020. Acrylic on Hardboard, 18”x24”.

RP: What advice would you give to current art students?
MP: When I look back at when I was in college, I think I could have worked about 3 times harder. I believe I am working harder now as an artist now that when I was in college and I had all the time in the world to make art. 

If you are an art student lucky enough to not have to work, you should be putting 40 to 60 hours in a week to making artwork (drawing, painting, etc). You need to have tunnel vision, cut out all the noise, work your ass off. Don’t just do the bare minimum required from your Professors. If they ask for two paintings a month, do four, or six, or more.  If you have a studio space that the school provides, you should live there.  Eat and sleep there. Wake up and go to bed with your artwork next to you. Cancel your hulu, cancel your Netflix, cancel anything that will distract you from your work. 

If you have a job, every waking moment outside of work, and class should be spent making artwork.  I would shoot for 20 hours a week. 

When I reflect, I may have been putting in up to 40 hours a week (maybe) while in college. That was probably on a good week. I feel like I could have done more painting, had more focus, had better output in my art production. Even though I was the harder working students in my class, I still felt like I could have done more, but I can’t do anything about that now. I can only focus on the “now”.

Another bit of advice would be to Network with everyone in your peers in your classroom. Get all their network information. You will never know who may become a gallery owner, an art director, an animator, a professional artist. Keep in contact with them, at the very least have their contact information.  Become Friends with all of them. College is a place for students to establish strong networks. I feel it is not spoken about in class and it is incredibly under-valued.

Really listen to your professors, they aren’t there to give you a hard time. They have wisdom through their mistakes, and many will try to point out those mistakes before you make them. I guess when you are younger you have this notion of what makes a drawing and what makes a painting, but the reality is you only know one pebble in the sea. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, don’t try to be the next comic or anime artist, guess what? There are like a gazillion of them and it’s hard to make it in a small pond with a gazillion fish. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail

In short, work as hard as possible, network with everyone in your class, and listen to your professors.

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Skull v.9.” 2020. Charcoal on Paper, 18”x24”.

RP: Have you continued working in the same medium or switched to a different medium?
MP: I went from using oil paints to acrylic.

MP: How much ya” bench?
MP: I think at one point I got up to 375, which really is not much to brag about these days.

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Untitled (dog).” 2020. Digital Illustration, 14”x14”.

RP: How has your subject matter changed?
MP: After my last solo show, I did a complete 180 in subject matter and material. I used to paint bodybuilders and food in oil paint. Now I paint abstract paintings in acrylic (house paint *chuckles*)  and I draw skulls using charcoal pencil. I also do a substantial amount of digital illustration, mainly portraits of dogs and people. 

RP: What is the most challenging aspect of being an emerging artist?
: Getting customers to understand why you value. There is a huge disconnect when someone is interested in your art, but does not understand why it cost so much. When you educate a possible buyer, sometimes you lose the sale because they feel like you may be over charging. What most people don’t understand is artist are constantly educating themselves. When an artist leaves college, they don’t stop learning. It's one of the few occupations that you must constantly be educating yourself. Artists challenge their world view every day, otherwise you don’t grow and improve. Artists are one of the few occupations where you have to the administrator, secretary, sales person, in charge of finance, a writer, a role model. A lawyer, a doctor doesn’t have to do that, even self employed ones hire people for all that. Only the very successful artists can outsource those roles. Even then you become a manager, outside of the creation of your work. There are so many challenges, one thing college doesn’t teach you as an artist is how to market yourself and how to become a professional artist, they only give you the tools on how to make artwork, not how to make it as an artist.

RP: When we are in school we have a built-in community of other artists. Some artists find their studio time very isolating? Do you find it necessary to have an art community?
MP: I think this falls along with my previous answer of establishing a strong network in college. I think having an art community in college is great. I have many happy memories from college that I experienced with many of my peers. Moments that established strong bonds and I am forever thankful for. As I stated earlier building a relationship with your college peers is one of the most important things you can do, and the most undervalued. If you isolate yourself, its very hard for people to know about your work. 

MP: Do you stare at the sun for hours on end?
MP: Yes, every Saturday before everyone gets up, I make a pot of coffee and stare at the sun as it rises.  I don’t stop staring until that pot of coffee is finished. The feeling is amazing!!!!

RP: Schools provide most large equipment for art processes for students to experiment -what equipment or tools have you found is necessary in your current studio? Have you found limitations in your art making by lack of equipment or how have you worked around these limitations?
MP: A studio space is probably one of the more underutilized service a college provides. You never think about it, but even doing a traditional still-life requires a substantial amount of room.  If I were to have done it all over, I would have probably gone the digital route, I would have had more doors open for me professionally.  Plus I would have love to use a 20-inch drawing tablet. That would be sweet. 

Currently, I face many limitations, space being one of them.  Since I am making so much work I am finding it more and more difficult to store all of it. These limitations have affected what I do.  I am known to make rather large works. But since they are hard to store and require so much of my time I have begun to do smaller works at 18”x24”. I also started working solely on wood panel so I can store my paintings without fear of denting or puncturing, as which can happen with a canvas painting.

RP: What is your favorite 80’s cartoon?
MP: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Real Ghostbusters.

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Skull v.8.” 2020. Charcoal on Paper, 18”x24”.

RP: What do you wish you would have learned more about, while in school, that could help you now with your creative career?
MP: Marketing, business, digital illustration, animation, pretty much anything digital regarding art.  I think having a strong business and marketing education would have been beneficial. Knowing how to do spreadsheets might have been valuable.  Really anything that would help me navigate how to be a professional artist.

RP: What 80’s fashion do you wish to be back in style?
MP: Parachute pants.

RP: What have been the biggest challenges in finding a public voice for your art?
MP: I tend to not worry about how the public views my work. I do have many ideas that I don’t pursue simply because I feel it might be too risky and believe me, I have a ton of weird ideas. So, I guess to an extent I worry about how the public views me, but for the most part I just kind of do what I am interested in.

Thomas Matthew Pierson. “Untitled (dog).” 2020. Digital Illustration, 14”x14”

RP: What methods have you used to market / present your art to the public?
MP: The landscape has changed significantly. Social media has allowed for artist to actually make “free commercials”. You can make Facebook and Instagram Ad campaigns that are significantly undervalued. I use almost all the current social media apps. I have an email list that I send out emails. There is more power, access and ways for the artist to present their work. I have been I galleries, non-profit galleries, art co-ops, college galleries, online galleries, and art fairs. I will present my work in any way possible for people to notice my work. 

RP: Is having a public audience for your art important?
MP: It is important if you want to make a living as an artist.  If you have no audience, how will you make a living.

RP: What is your favorite childhood movie?
MP: Mac and Me.

RP: If you are now working in academia, what do you do?
MP: I teach Drawing and 2-D Design.

MP: How many cheeseburgers can you eat in one sitting?
MP: 10 if they are single patties, 5-6 if they are double patties.  

Matt Pierson's studio.

RP: How has your experience as an art student influenced how you approach interacting with current students?
MP: You learn what makes a good teacher and what makes a bad teacher. I think the teachers I really appreciated were more personable and gave advice with tact. Some professors would teach you with absolutes and with art there are no absolutes, only alternate possibilities. The “my way or the highway approach” is a good way to be disliked by your students. There is also a flipside however, art is not a step by step process. It’s not like those cartoon drawing books that teach you how to draw a specific character in a specific pose. It is not that formulaic. I teach ideas, concepts and critical thinking, students can get unnerved by the fact that my answers are more geared toward solving or improving upon their current work.

Often this can clash with their world view of what school is all about, which is to have clear answers to their questions. In art, there is no clear answer, nothing is ever set in stone and no work is ever truly finished. You can get students “fishing” for what my visual proclivities are, and what I kind of art I enjoy viewing and try to emulate their work to look like that. I try my best to express to them that they should be less worried about whether I like the work, and whether they get a good grade. I want them to be more concerned with learning and growing as an artist.   

I never liked grading as a teacher, it is not a measure of your worth as an artist. Unfortunately, by the time a student gets to me, it is hard to deprogram the notion that a grade is a measure of your skill as an artist. Galleries do not care about your grades in college. Customers don’t care if you got a “C” in drawing. It is all about the effort and hard work. I could write about this more in depth, but I am going to stop before I end up making no sense.

Learn more about Thomas Matthew Pierson: and and and and and