As a comedian, Erin Mabee is used to feeling vulnerable in front of an audience. But on opening night of this spring’s master of art in graphic design thesis exhibition, No Blank Space, her full identity was on display for the first time. Closeted to all but a close circle at the start of the pandemic, Mabee used the project—which students research, design, and refine together over more than a year—to explore and comment on gender, sexuality, and the realities of her life as a queer woman.
“I had many, many, many nights of being like, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't do this. Maybe we should change course,” says Mabee, Class of 2022, whose deeply personal thesis project, Dykotomy, uses self-portraiture and larger-than-life posters reminiscent of an anatomy textbook to “dissect gender expectations” and examine the complexities of femininity and gender expression.
Standing alongside family, friends, faculty, and the peers she’d collaborated (and laughed and cried) with to create the exhibit, Mabee felt proud of her work and grateful for the opportunity to delve into something so meaningful.
“What's cool about the Suffolk program is that you are encouraged to do what you want. It's both kind of scary and debilitating, but also freeing, that we can pursue whatever we're interested in through a design lens,” she says. “Not only did I gain confidence in my identity, I've gained so much confidence as a designer.”
Mabee’s fellow design students also used their skills to explore important themes, causes, and passions in a show crafted to provoke thought, a purpose noted in its description:
This space is not still. This space is not standard. This space is not hiding. This space is not simple. This space is not alone. Este espacio no es en vano. This space is our story and we are taking our space. We have worked from the heart and dug deep into topics others may avoid.
Each thesis project was grounded in thorough research (Suffolk’s graphic design program was recently named the “Best Private Research University” by Intelligent magazine) in a painstaking process spanning the final year of the program.
For Ebby Afghani, that meant opening up about the joys and struggles of her life as a mother of three, including a daughter with complex health challenges.
Her exhibit, Difficulty, which focuses on breakthrough moments during difficult times, is “intended to be overwhelming, with multiple layers, typography, colors, and languages [because] that’s what living with a person with different abilities and medical challenges feels like.”
Among the impressive multilayered floor-to-ceiling panels in Afghani’s space is work that incorporates notes she wrote on each day of her daughter’s recent month-long hospitalization. She was surprised to see visitors take the time to read through the text at the opening, and gratified when they shared their own stories with her.
By being open about the reality of caring for a medically fragile child, Afghani hopes to hold space for those who are differently abled and make other families like hers feel seen.
“My goal through my designs is to provide comfort and support to others who are on similar journeys,” she says. “I want them to have the strength to share their fears, challenges, frustration, and breakthrough moments.”
Mabee says it was easy to see the beauty in Afghani and her other classmates’ pieces, even when she felt insecure about her own work. Creating the exhibit together boosted everyone’s confidence: “It was exhausting, but I do feel exhilarated and a lot more comfortable in my own skin.”
As commencement approaches, Mabee and Afghani both say that pride in their accomplishment is tinged with sorrow over leaving such a supportive program.
“I am sad to have to say goodbye to this community, but we will definitely stay in touch and use each other for feedback and critiques because you don't get that in the real world,” says Mabee.
In fact, that collaboration became so essential to Afghani that it has changed her future plans entirely. A former educator and instructional designer, Afghani entered the master’s program with the intention of becoming a freelancer. Now she can’t imagine working without feedback and support from other artists.
“Graphic Design Program Director Keith Kitz’s support was a big thing for us,” she says. “We all had a lot of moments where we thought I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know where this is leading. But he had faith and trust in us. He kept pushing us to not question ourselves or our strength. And honestly? Now I know I can do it.”