Student artists at Penn have taken the classic theme of love as a muse and revolutionized it through their acting, photography, poetry, drawing and filmmaking. A short selection of their work makes up this online Valentine's Day exhibition exploring self–love, romantic relationships, companionship and heartbreak. 


Chelsea Cylinder (C'17) and Peter Beik (C'18) were cast as romantic leads in a musical by Penn Singers. They clicked instantly and have been dating for over a year now. They've collaborated on multiple shows on campus and found themselves sharing the same passion for theater and becoming better actors. "It's amazing to be with someone who really cares about the arts and who is talented and knows how to do these great works of theater justice," Chelsea says. While acting, both feel comfortable and motivated by each other's company. Peter says, "Having someone there that you are close with is like a nice, safe blanket...It's inspiring to have her around. That kind of makes me want to push myself to do better." 

Chelsea echoes, "When he's there...I feel like I have an audience...It's not like a pressure, but I just want to do well for him." This semester, Chelsea and Peter were cast as love interests again in Penn Singer's The Sorcerer. Since this is her last show at Penn, Chelsea feels particularly special. "To be doing my last show with [Penn Singers] and have him be my love interest is amazing and a nice way to end," Chelsea says.


Love often becomes stronger when it endures hardships. Isabella Cuan (C'18) captures the selfless and multi–dimensional love between her grandparents in a series of black–and–white portraits. "I wanted to break down the traditional image of love into its parts, rather than create an artificial image of a happy couple," Isabella says. Born in Havana, her grandparents were stripped of all of their belongings in the years following the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro's takeover. Later, they immigrated to Spain and eventually the US. Isabella wanted to express their love despite the turmoil, and she chooses to convey both strength and vulnerability. The photo's monochromatic scheme creates a genuine and powerful result.

For a class portrait project, Chaz Smith (C'17) promotes the importance of self–love. His work responds to certain people's belief that in order to feel loved, they need to be in a relationship or have sexual interactions. Highlighting the beauty of Black women's natural hair, Chaz explains his photograph: “Mainstream media has pushed the narrative that straight hair is the norm of beauty...I wanted to let Black women know that they are loved and...they don't need anything but their own bodies to be beautiful. In order to love your neighbor as yourself, you first have to love the image that you were created in.”


A spoken word poem for his girlfriend, "If the Skies Get Rough," is Benjamin Silva's (C'19) way of commemorating their first year of being in a long–distance relationship after going out for two and a half years. As a reassurance that the future will be just as smooth, the poem is a perfect vehicle to convey his feelings about a significant other because it is written in his own voice. "There's something special about the fact that when my girlfriend reads the poem 2,000 miles away, she reads it in exactly the same way that I would read it to her," Benjamin adds.

For Tochukwu Awachie (C’19), poetry allows her to reveal only as much as she wants, depending on the concrete versus abstract imagery, or the explicit versus implicit ways of expression she employs. She uses poetry to create order out of the different feelings that arise in. "[Poetry] allows the combination of what one sees, experiences and feels at the same time," she explains.


In a series of stream–of–conscious and autobiographical drawings titled "You Think You Know Me," Mengda Zhang (MFA'18) draws inspirations from her dating experience and ponders the performativity involved in romantic relationships. "We will never know a person completely because we are always performing a kind of role. Sometimes you know the person from the perspective he or she wants you to know," Mengda explains. Characterizing the project as an irony of two people getting to know each other, she incorporates a train of thought of her former date. From remembering having drinks with him—drawing his profile view and his music hobby—to illustrating a flu virus he got and the vegetable he put in his smoothie, Mengda attempts to visualize him in a symbolic and snapshot–like way, yet will never be able to capture his true, full picture.


Relationships, however, can sometimes be challenging and disheartening. In a short film titled Aspects of Modern FarmingAlexander Atienza (C'17) explores the reality that some relationships fade away rather than end abruptly. The film depicts a couple breaking up and their inability to communicate with each other. "Though they ultimately part unsure where to go next, both achieve greater understanding of themselves than either of them could have of each other," Alex explains. Despite the potential pessimism, the film is also about being realistic and moving on.


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