A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Emerging Artists

By Mary Lee Clark on November 11, 2019

Year after year, College of Visual and Performing Arts faculty watch students hone their art and craft during their time at Mason.

“Then we watch with such pride as they graduate and apply their training in their fields,” says Rick Davis, dean of the college. “However, emerging artists always have more ideas than resources. They need the precious gifts of time, materials, and space to explore their work.”

The new Young Alumni Commission Project is one way the college is taking its support of alumni to the next level. Last year, the college invited young alumni to submit proposals across all artistic genres for an award to support the creation of a new work. In the program’s inaugural year, three alumni received awards for their theater, photography, and film projects.

Zachary Wilcox, BA Theater ’15, received the $5,000 Young Alumni Commissioning Project Award, while both Valerie McKenna, BFA Art and Visual Technology ’18, and Andrew Jorgensen, BA Film and Video Studies ’17, received $2,500 Young Alumni Creative Development Awards. In addition to financial support, recipients will receive marketing and production support for their projects.

All three will present their projects to the public during the college’s 2019-20 season.

Zach Wilcox was awarded at $5,000 commissioning fee to write a play about Tangier Island. Photo by Lathan Goumas

Wilcox, the grand prize winner, remembers the conversation he had with a friend from Tangier Island, a small island in the Chesapeake Bay with a population of just more than 700, that sparked an idea for a one-act play.

In the play, a reporter visits the Virginia island to learn about the community’s isolated way of life. With the award, Wilcox saw an opportunity to turn his play into something bigger.

“I’m not a reporter, but my team and I could go to the island and interview people, and then turn this little idea for a one-act into a full-length project,” says Wilcox. His full-length play with film, Tangier Island Is Sinking, is the story of the island based on conversations he had there.

Tangier Island has been in the news recently because of climate change. As sea levels rise, experts predict the island will be underwater in the next 50 years. Towns may need to be abandoned as soon as within the next 25, meaning the island’s rich culture and unique accent will be lost.

“It seems like the right time to tell their story,” says Wilcox.

McKenna didn’t want to choose between pursuing environmental science and art, so she chose both. Originally an environmental science major, she switched to an arts degree when she realized she enjoys the two subjects together.

Valerie McKenna was awarded at $2,500 commissioning fee for her photography project. Photo by Lathan Goumas

“There is science within art, and art within science,” says McKenna.

Her project, “Albright,” is a continuation of her senior thesis, in which she used polluted water from the Cheat River watershed—instead of the typically used distilled water—to develop photographs she took of the site. For “Albright,” the film that captures her landscapes will be exposed directly to the elements—such as dirt—that make up the landscape she is photographing.

McKenna’s project investigates landscape portraiture and how the subject can influence its own image, but she believes this technique could be a way to discuss environmental issues like soil contamination in future projects.

Jorgensen seeks to tell an old family story in a different way with his short film, “The Sun and the Medicine Man.”

The story that inspired the film belongs to his great grandfather, who suffered from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that left him unable to walk for most of his adult life.

He traveled to upstate New York to see a medicine man, who gave him instructions and a jar filled with a mysterious liquid. After a few weeks of following those instructions, he was able to walk for a short time. After running out of the mysterious liquid, he attempted to seek out the medicine man once more, only to find the medicine man had been run out of town, leaving him again immobile.

Andrew Jorgensen won a $2,500 commissioning fee to create a short film. Photo by Lathan Goumas

Jorgensen will dramatize his family’s story by telling it through the experiences of his wife’s family as immigrants to the United States from Mexico.

“I want to tackle some modern socio-political issues while still telling a story deeply rooted in my family history,” says Jorgensen.

The Young Alumni Commissioning Project is made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of Linda E. Gramlich for the support of young artists, and by donors to Mason’s Giving Day, including Shugoll Research. If you would like to support emerging artists, visit

To find out more about the project and how to apply, visit bit.ly/CVPAYACP for guidelines and deadlines.

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