"Varsity Art 25" Artist Interviews Series Three

By Roxanne Phillips

We are pleased to present our third set of interviews with artists whose works are featured in Art Saint Louis' new in-Gallery and virtual gallery exhibit, "Varsity Art XXV" (March 5-April 1, 2021). This year's 25th annual exhibit features works by 44 undergrad and grad level art students representing 22 STL regional colleges and universities from Missouri and Illinois.

We invite you to view the virtual exhibit and all of the featured artworks in the exhibit on our website here and you can also view all of the works in our Facebook album here. We also invite you to view HEC-TV's video piece on this exhibit here.

We are pleased to introduce you to featured artists Mara Cressey and Bella Szabo.


Featured in Art Saint Louis “Varsity Art XXV”: Mara Cressey, St. Louis, MO. “Trophy (Cake Princess).” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 38”x26”. $850. Fontbonne University. Professors: Victor Wang, Tim Liddy.
Artist’s statement: “Trophy (Cake Princess)" offers a unique manifestation of the recent themes of my work. Typically, my process includes painting friends and providing them with distinct forms of body language that hint at their personality, whether that suggestion is fictional or accurate. In addition to this, the elements in my work are presented in a state of unexpected coexistence; this offers a dismissal of societal expectation and, at times, a glimpse into my desired alter ego.”

About the artist: Mara Cressey is currently a college senior enrolled at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. She is pursuing her BFA with an emphasis in Figurative Studies and a double minor in Marketing and Art History. She works mainly in oil paint, combining a childhood tendency to create characters with conceptual ideas related to unexpected duality and an ambiguous sense of self. Her anticipated graduation is May 2021.

Mara Cressey. “Due 11:59 Dreamland.” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 24"x36”. $850.

Roxanne Phillips: Who inspires you and why?
Mara Cressey: As of recently, my biggest inspiration has been the New York-based artist Chloe Wise. I find myself captivated by everything she creates, and through looking at her work I realize that artists working representationally can still be wildly successful in the contemporary art world. I also find myself influenced by Kehinde Wiley’s repetitive, floral backgrounds, Zoe Hawk’s palette and narrative perspective, and by the work of those I personally know who have succeeded in the field, such as friends and professors.

Mara Cressey. “Gum Wall Selfie (Before).” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 9"x12”. NFS.

RP: What media do you use and why?
MC: Oil paint is what I’ve been utilizing for my recent pieces, however, this has largely to do with availability and space, as I’m interested in broadening the media I incorporate into my practice. Oil paint works well with my current subject matter because I can apply it in a way that reflects the actual texture of what I’m painting, which often consists of flesh tones and frosted cakes. Once I have a studio of my own post-graduation, I want to explore other mediums that could connect with some of my current pieces. I’d like to experiment with nontraditional sculpture and video because I think these mediums in particular could contribute to a more extensive story that my works in oil have only began to touch on.

Mara Cressey. “Gum Wall Selfie (After).” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 9"x12”. NFS.

RP: What concepts do you explore in your art?
MC: Recently, I’ve been playing around with the idea of fluidity within one’s identity. This is something that I’ve considered and struggled with for a while, so including it in my practice has helped me accept that it’s okay to not have myself totally figured out. I’ve also been playing around with the idea of expectations based on one’s role in society and how dismissing expectations as such can influence how one is perceived.

Mara Cressey. “i'm going to eat it so you might as well get used to it.” 2021. Oil on Canvas, 20"x20”. $650.

RP: What do you hope viewers will take away from your pieces?

: I’ve come to realize that artistic meaning, more often than not, is highly subjective, and the meaning that I originally attribute to a certain piece often shifts or expands. That being said, my only hope is that my work means something and has a genuine effect on my audience. Ideally, viewers will look at my work and feel empowered to embrace the aspects of themselves they tend to hide from others. But if someone were to look at Trophy (Cake Princess) and connect it to body image or the issues surrounding lack of diversity within the fashion and beauty industries, I’d be happy about that as well. It has entirely to do with the viewer’s unique perspective and experiences. More than anything, I just want the image to be ingrained in the viewer’s mind.

Mara Cressey. “Golden Premonition (Ritual).” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 24"x36”. $850.

RP: Do you find assignments and deadlines helpful or hindrance in the creative process?
MC: I used to get more enjoyment out of assignments and client-based commission work. Assignment-based work has its benefits as it can allow one to incorporate their style into a theme or medium they might not have previously considered. But now that I’ve really started to establish my own artistic voice, all I want to do is further develop it. With that in mind, I’d be less inclined to take on commission work now unless it pertained to what I already create. I’ve found that forced assignments tend to take the joy out of the creative process for me, and that’s obviously not something I want. Deadlines, however, tend to keep me motivated and on-top of things.

Fontbonne art student Mara Cressey at work in the studio.

RP: Best time of day or night to create and why?
MC: I always find myself more motivated to create late at night. I think this happens for a couple reasons. For one, there are less distractions. I turn on music and can really reflect on the creative process and conceptualize what I’m going to do next. I am more able to get lost in my own ideas and just make. There’s something about being the only one awake that allows me to paint freely and without fear of judgment.

Mara Cressey. “Other.” 2020. Oil on Canvas, 36"x48”. $1,000.

RP: What do you wish someone would ask you about you or your art?
MC: I really enjoy discussing intention and greater artistic meaning. I want to discuss my process and reasoning with others who are genuinely invested or interested in my work and/or the art world.

RC: What is your future creative life?
MC: I’m currently finishing up submitting my last couple graduate school applications. After this semester, I plan on earning my MFA at a school that has yet to be determined. I would enjoy teaching at the collegiate level, but my goal is to also be able to showcase my work at regional and national galleries. Regardless, I know if I’m working in the field, I’ll be happy.

Artist Mara Cressey, currently a student at Fontbonne University.

Learn more about Mara Cressey: https://maracressey.com/ and


Featured in “Varsity Art XXV” at Art Saint Louis: Bella Szabo, Cape Girardeau, MO. “Cityscapes.” 2020. Glazed Ceramics, 8.5”x14”x14”. Not for Sale. Southeast Missouri State University. Professor: Nancy Palmeri, Benjie Heu.
Artist’s statement: “In Cityscapes, I pulled inspiration from pottery styles around the world. Combining a variety of cultures, I create my own style; my use of glazes to accentuate forms and create eye-catching textures is part of this style. This piece reflects the inspiration of architectural forms from many cultures, representing the beauty of unity.”

BFA student Bella Szabo.

About the artist
: Bella Szabo will graduate from Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, MO in 2021 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ceramics and a Bachelor of Arts in Global Cultures and Languages: French. Her work has been in group exhibitions and she curated her solo show, Cityscapes, at Catapult Creative House. She was the exhibition coordinator for a class exhibition, Smorgasbord. She currently works in the ceramics department and is president of Clay Club at Southeast Missouri State University.
Bella Szabo. "Bauble." 2020. Glazed Stoneware, 2.25"x2.375"x 2.375". $30.

Roxanne Phillips: What was it that first inspired you to be an artist?

Bella Szabo: I always loved taking art classes when I was growing up, but it wasn't until I was in my senior year of high school that I knew I wanted to be an artist. One of my high school art teachers taught us how important it was to follow other artists and find inspiration in their work. This is a philosophy that led me to become an artist. After seeing potters create pieces that were actually taller than me, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Bella Szabo working in the ceramics studio at SEMO.

Bella Szabo working in the ceramics studio at SEMO.

RP; What media do you use and why?
: I use clay (stoneware and porcelain) to make ceramics/pottery. I love using clay more than any other medium because I can make as many mistakes as I need and still be able to easily fix them; clay can easily be manipulated so if I mess up, I can just cut off the mistake and reattach a new piece without anyone noticing. Once I had the opportunity to work in clay, I immediately fell in love with the process. Another thing I love about ceramics is the risk factor. When you have to fire every piece twice, there are a lot of things that could go wrong so there is always a surprise waiting for you when you open the kiln. One of my favorite things that might happen is if a glaze turns out to be different than you expected; this has happened a few times which led to amazing new glaze recipes!

Bella Szabo. "Narrow Miniature." 2020. Glazed Stoneware, 2.75"x1.5"x1.5". $30.

RP: How important is color or lack of color and why?

: Color is incredibly important in my work. As a ceramic artist, I use glazes to accentuate each of my pieces. If a color comes out wrong, the whole piece could be ruined. That's one of the most nerve wracking yet exciting things about ceramics: there are so many variables when it comes to glazing that the colors may turn out differently every time you pull a piece out of the kiln.

Bella Szabo. "River Bowl." 2020. Glazed Stoneware, 4.5"x11.25"x11.25". NFS.

RP: Do you find assignments and deadlines helpful or hindrance in the creative process?

: I think deadlines are very helpful for me because it keeps me on track in my process. Knowing that I have to finish something that I'm working on by a certain time helps me stay motivated. Assignments can also be very helpful because it forces to me to think outside of the artistic box that I've created for myself. I would consider myself a functional potter so for me to have an assignment that involves sculptural or nonrepresentational pieces helps me grow as an artist by learning new techniques, processes, and concepts. The only hindrance about having assignments and deadlines is having too many at once!

Bella Szabo. "Ivy Canteen." 2019. Glazed Stoneware, 8"x2.5"x10". NFS.

RP: How have you overcome pandemic challenges in your creative process / education?

: When the national quarantine happened in 2020, I set up a home studio in my parents’ basement after my university went fully remote in March. I typically stick to wheel thrown pottery, but at that time, I was hand-building my ceramics. It was a challenge for me because I have not had to hand build in what feels like years. It reminded me how valuable hand building can be, especially in combination with the wheel-thrown pottery I make. This challenge turned out to be valuable because it helped inspire my current body of work that I am making for my upcoming BFA show this April.

Bella Szabo. "Bowl 4." 2020. Glazed Stoneware, 4"x5.75"x5.75". NFS.

RP: What do you find most challenging/rewarding about the creative process?

: The most challenging thing is finding a concept that means something to me. Since most of my art is functional and not sculptural, I never had to find a concept to inspire my work. During my time at school, I have been challenged by my professors and myself to break out of that habit and I have been very pleased with the outcome. I have been able to create work that combines my love for functionality and beauty with conceptual, sculptural forms.

Bella Szabo. "Narrow Vase." 2020. Glazed Stoneware, 4.125"x2"x2". $55.

RP: What is your future creative life?

BS: After I graduate this May, I plan to move to St. Louis with my partner to pursue a career as a full-time artist. I would love to work in a gallery as well as a pottery studio to stay active in the art community. Eventually, I plan to do a residency with another ceramic artist and maybe even go on to get my masters.

Cape Giraradeau, Missouri-based artist Bella Szabo in the studio.

Learn more about Bella Szabo: https://bellaszaboart.wixsite.com/mysite and www.instagram.com/bellaszabo.art and www.facebook.com/bellaszabo.art

Roxanne Phillips
is an artist and art educator based in St. Louis since 2001. She earned a MFA in Printmaking & Drawing from Washington University in St. Louis and BFA in Painting & Drawing from University of North Texas. Roxanne is an adjunct art instructor at Washington University in St. Louis and has worked with Art Saint Louis since 2017 as Administrative Assistant and Installer. From 2018-2020 she was Master Printer for Pele Prints. Her works have been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout the St. Louis region including at Art Saint Louis, COCA, Crossroads Art Studio & Gallery, and St. Louis Artists’ Guild. Her work is currently available at Union Studio in St. Louis. She has served as exhibit Juror for several regional exhibits & art fairs. Roxanne is past Board member of St. Louis Women’s Caucus for Art.