Armed with a realtor’s license and yoga instructor certification, Eliza Culp (C ’20) could sell you a house and teach you warrior poses at the same time. Even without knowing her, one can immediately tell that this quirky, witty junior from Sarasota, Florida is a girl of many talents. However, after just one conversation, it’s clear that Eliza has one passion that stems deeper than the rest—art. As a member of the Collctve, stylist for The Walk, and seasoned fine arts major, Eliza works across all mediums to bring a variety of eclectic visions to life.
Eliza’s most recent project, titled “Hair we are,” was equal parts personal reflection and social commentary. Growing up with a single mother, Eliza was missing a male role model throughout most of her life. Because of this, she looked to the media for an idea of what a man and father should be. The impression she got was centered around one common trait: hair. “I thought true men were all like Tom Selleck—men with full heads of hair, suave and Superman–like,” she says. “It was so judgmental, but I thought that since that’s what the media said, it must be true.” But this year, she realized that men her age (aka the ones next to you in class) were beginning to lose hair. Hairlines were receding, and the hairs themselves were thinning. Determined to explore this issue, Eliza put her plan into action one early October weekend. She put up flyers on and off campus asking people if she could shave their head for ten dollars. At first, the response was slow. Many called but were hesitant to be shaved entirely bald. However, soon enough, two Penn students—Ayaaz Versi and Ari Bortman—bravely took a chance.
“The amount of respect I had for these guys to seek out this odd opportunity was insane,” Eliza says. As she shaved the two men’s heads and captured striking photographs of them, she found her concept of masculinity flipped upside down. “I imagined society’s gaze on them, casting opinions of what masculinity should be, and them looking back and having the strength to combat this gaze,” she says. Since then, Eliza’s phone and email have blown up with questions asking what the project is about and whether she could raise the pay. In hindsight, she’s grateful the two men who responded to her flyers were Penn students. “If someone who really needed the money ended up meeting a stranger to shave their head, that could have been exploitative,” she says. Throughout the entire project, she was humbled by the opportunity to shed light on the issue of hair and masculinity with her camera.
In addition to photography, Eliza is also heavily involved in graphic design. “I’m all over the Adobe Creative Suite,” Eliza laughs. With Illustrator, Indesign, and Photoshop all in her arsenal, she does freelance work and also designs for VPUL Communications. Her work can be found all over flyers, T–shirts, websites, and bandanas, as well as making special appearances on CAPS socks and the Family Weekend brochure. For Eliza, limiting herself to just one medium is out of the question. “I’d just get bored,”she says. “I like being able to take different areas of expertise and meld them together. I take experiences, make them into tools, and store them for when I need them later.”
This toolbox has developed over the course of her entire life. As a child, Eliza has always loved drawing and even took art classes. Her mother, who studied fine arts in college as well, harbored dreams of becoming an artist, but decided to make it a hobby in the end. Her support helped Eliza greatly on her journey, though she ultimately took a different path than her mother by diving fully into the fine arts.
Eliza’s path was not without its rough patches. In her first semester at Penn in the fall of 2015, she launched herself into mechanical engineering. However, a concussion in February 2016 caused her to take a medical leave, and she eventually had to take a gap year. When she returned, she found herself wholly unhappy in engineering and, after around a year, shifted course to fine arts. Eliza admits that the decision was a difficult one. “There were a few nights of looking myself in the mirror, asking, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’” she says. The answer soon became clear: she wanted to be happy every day, and that meant letting mechanical engineering take a back seat. It was a brave leap into uncertainty. As a mechanical engineer, Eliza had roughly known what fields she wanted to go into: robotic prostheses, medical devices, mechanical engineering, and more. “I had a clear path,” she says. “But now, with fine arts? I mean, who knows?”
Thankfully, she’s truly found her home among students in the fine arts community, all of whom she considers kindred spirits and inspirations. As soon as she joined the community, she saw the projects her fellow students were working on and immediately fell in love. “I’ve been trying to get to know everyone in the junior class,” she says. In fact, this year, she’s planning on organizing an art exhibition for fine arts students. After meeting with department head Matt Neff to discuss logistics, Eliza has garnered departmental support and the exhibit is becoming a reality on January 18th of next year. She sees it as a rare opportunity to make art while meeting other art students. Her passion for her community is contagious—“I feel like the entire junior class is going to be a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “I want us to be unified as artists.”
Eliza’s dream is to graduate and combine everything she’s loved throughout her years at Penn—art, design, medicine, and more. While her journey to this point has not been easy, she has now found clarity in what she wants. “At the end of the day,” she says, “I just always desire to design.”