Age 23 • Hometown Akron • Creates Yale University, New Haven, Conn. Learned BFAs in printmaking and painting from The University of Akron’s Myers School of Art; Expected MFA from Yale
By Amanda Koehn
At 23, Alexandria Couch already has a relatively prolific career – including painting a mural in Public Square downtown and beginning a Master of Fine Arts program at Yale University. But for Couch, connecting herself and her work to her community and other artists in it is one of the best parts.
For instance, she remembers running a mural class a couple summers ago for high school students with the Art Bomb Brigade, an educational mural program affiliated with her undergraduate school, the Mary Schiller Myers School of Art at The University of Akron. Getting to know and work with other artists – and the next generation – has been core to her practice.
“A lot of what I learned growing up that I think kind of shaped me into the artist I am has to do with people that I came across in non-traditional educational environments,” says Couch, an Akron native. “I didn’t go to the local arts high school … but a lot of people just kind of offered the best they had and filled a lot of these gaps for me, so that was really special to me.”
As a child, Couch wanted to be an artist and her parents saw potential in her. However, she says “I kind of lost my way” at the beginning of college, thinking for a bit she might study English and education. Hui-Chu Ying, an art professor at Akron, advised Couch to quit her English major and pursue art alone.
“Even so far as, she went to my mom’s studio,” Couch says, adding her mother also works in the arts. Ying told her mother, “‘Convince her to quit’. And so they did, and that’s how I ended up doing art as a full major.”
Working in painting, printmaking and mixed media, Couch’s process often begins with mental photographs “tucked away,” building one piece from multiple such images. Her subject matter predominantly revolves around “themes of dissonance between Black people and the environments they inhabit,” she explains.
“Especially in the wake of the shift in Black narrative from margin to center, I think there’s this confrontation with hypervisibility, versus invisibility that we’re dealing with now, on complete polar opposite ends of the spectrum,” she says.
Couch has been working with these themes for some time. However, the weight of the work became more prevalent after the Black Lives Matter movement’s rise and the societal shift that began last year toward reckoning with a long history of systemic racism.
“I think it just more had to do with exploring the psychological environment for Black figures because I think, at least in my experience, people have had a bit of trouble in viewing Black figures and people – this is going to sound weird … as humans with feelings or that are more than surface level or that don’t exude this like constant what people perceive to be as confidence,” she says. “I think it was more born out of this idea that people misperceive Black people often, and that’s just come out of my everyday life experience and watching family members navigate space and watching friends navigate space as well.”
Recently, Northeast Ohioans may have seen Couch’s mural, “Where We Meet In The Middle,” at downtown Cleveland’s Public Square. Completed in the spring, it was a project with LAND Studio.
This past summer, she also had joint shows with her Akron friend and colleague, Kwamé Gomez, at two Los Angeles galleries: SoLA Contemporary and New Image Art. Although she couldn’t attend the shows in the middle of a busy summer working at Summit Artspace in Akron, she says the exposure to a broader audience was “a really cool experience.”
Couch also counts getting into graduate school as a major feat accomplished. Graduating from Akron in 2020, she applied to master’s programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She didn’t find out until she began her program at Yale in New Haven, Conn., this fall that it was an especially challenging year to get into graduate school as spots were slim.
Near the end of October, her first Yale show, “Action Required” opened. Among works shown by the university’s first-year graduate class, she submitted a piece she describes as “an angry little girl sitting on grass.”
“And I guess this is up for the viewer’s interpretation, but engaging the viewer – either inviting them or gate keeping them from her and her psychological world that she’s built around her,” Couch says.
At this point, Couch says one of the biggest challenges is navigating the market side and pace of the art world. And with a large focus on Black artists broadly, she says she doesn’t expect that trend to last in the same fashion forever. It’s a race to meet the moment, while also knowing opportunities could dry up.
“Finding out a way to kind of navigate that and build a sustainable practice into a polarized moment, and what happens thereafter, has been really difficult,” she says.
Balancing all the various facets of showing and selling art – the business side that doesn’t necessarily have to do with creating it – is also an adjustment, she notes.
Looking ahead, Couch says she will likely seek projects for next summer, when she plans to be back in Northeast Ohio. Now, she’s looking to hone in on her craft instead of seeking concrete projects, she says.
“The reality is you have to be a one-man band until you’re like Andy Warhol,” she says. “So I think I’m really focused to be in grad school and just focusing on work, but I’ll have some group shows possibly in 2022 with some really cool folks.”
“Alex was a leader and consensus builder while a student, and that ability to energize fellow artists has continued past graduation. It was a pleasure to watch her find her voice and visual language and has been even more thrilling to see her begin to use that voice in collaborations with other artists and organizations, and multiple public projects. Alex has an innate empathy that shines through the figures she shows us in her compositions.”
– Arnold Tunstall, director, university galleries, Myers School of Art, The University of Akron
• Details about “Action Required,” hosted by the Yale School of Art, are at art.yale.edu/exhibitions