Skip navigation links

May 28, 2024

MFA thesis exhibit offers deeper understanding of queer, neurodivergent experience

Emily Burkhead
Emily Burkhead with her Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else thesis installation at the MSU Broad Art Museum. Photo by Lilli McCredie

Emily Burkhead is an intermedia artist and filmmaker from Memphis, Tennessee, who graduated from Michigan State University in Spring 2024 with an MFA from the Department of Art, Art History, and Design. She exhibited her thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else, as part of the 2024 Master of Fine Arts Exhibition, at the MSU Broad Art Museum.

The Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else installation is comprised of a wall of mixed media made of faux fur, 3D filament, clear marine vinyl, and found objects. In front of the mixed media wall, there is a multichannel video installation with two text videos and one short skit video. The text videos are parts of a manifesto that describes how Burkhead’s social experiences as a queer, neurodivergent child manifest into larger institutional systems and how she came to embrace her “otherness” from a young age. The middle channel is a socio-surrealist film that uses humor and satire to examine the neurodivergent experience.

“Through this composition, I explore my sensory ‘triggers’ and ‘glimmers,’” Burkhead said. “I take on the role of ‘Mrs. Bubblegum,’ a children’s show host whose story she reads to the audience that takes a strange turn.”

Burkhead was selected as this year’s recipient of the Master of Fine Arts Prize, which was presented during the MFA Exhibition reception on April 6. She earned the MFA Prize for her thesis project. Presenting her with the award was guest juror, Teréz Iacovino, Assistant Curator of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“Winning the award has been a tremendous honor,” Burkhead said. “It was a shock to say the least. I’m very grateful to everyone who helped support me on my MFA journey including my primary advisor, Lara Shipley.

Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else
Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else, on display at the MSU Broad Art Museum.

Burkhead’s journey into the world of art was unconventional. Initially driven by a deep-rooted interest in film, she tried to abandon this passion in college and pursued a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Rhodes College, graduating from the program in 2020. However, her passion for art reignited during her junior year when she began taking digital art classes, leading her to work on experimental film and video.

The absence of a traditional film production program at Rhodes College prompted Burkhead to seek interdisciplinary film and studio art programs, which led her to MSU’s MFA program.

Without a traditional MFA background, Burkhead spent the early part of the program honing her studio practice. During this period of hard work, she found a balance between intuitive creation and guided practice.

“I went into art and film because it helps me answer complex personal questions, but I want to make those questions accessible to others. Otherwise, how else do I learn if I’m just making things in an echo chamber?"

“I begin by following my gut, then examining the work, getting feedback, figuring out what it means, and lastly setting goals for more production, if necessary,” she said. “I went into art and film because it helps me answer complex personal questions, but I want to make those questions accessible to others. Otherwise, how else do I learn if I’m just making things in an echo chamber?”

Burkhead’s work encompasses various mediums, including video art, experimental textiles, found objects, collage, and 3D printing, as she navigates existential questions and seeks a deeper understanding of herself and the surrounding social landscape within a broader cultural context.

Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else
The mixed media wall that is part of Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else.

“I follow intuitive inquiry that seeks a deeper understanding of myself within a broader cultural context,” she said. “Why am I so apprehensive to be overly or inadequately feminine? Why do I feel othered? Why am I attracted to this garish material while being afraid to wear it? Since making the shift from creating films that are structured with a beginning, middle, and end to fostering a fluid studio practice, I have found freedom following my investigation of the material wherever it leads guided by my introspective exploration.”

Burkhead’s approach to translating complex emotions into visual form is rooted in vulnerability and experimentation. Embracing risk-taking in her craft, she explores new avenues of expression, allowing her work to evolve organically. She was first influenced by experimental filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Cecelia Condit. She continues to draw inspiration from their exploration of the feminine psyche and the broader artistic tradition of feminist film and art. Some of the more recently discovered artists she looks up to include Mika Rottenberg, Bonnie Lucas, Hito Steyerl, and Diana Cooper.

Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else
The text videos that are part of Emily Burkhead’s thesis project, Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else.

“In my current body of work, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the queer, trans, disabled, and neurodivergent communities online,” Burkhead said. “Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have so much content that allows people like me to embrace their inner child regardless of what they may have lost while coming of age.”

MSU’s MFA program has shaped Burkhead’s artistic practice, providing opportunities for growth and interdisciplinary exploration. Looking ahead, she envisions expanding her practice to encompass mixed media, textiles, and performance art while integrating surrealist video. She aims to create art that resonates with neurodivergent, queer, trans, nonbinary, and disabled individuals, challenging societal perceptions and fostering understanding beyond social media platforms.

In Trigger/Glimmer/Something Else, Burkhead hopes to reveal the complexity of neurodivergent minds and queer childhood experiences while subverting typical expectations. Through her detailed and multifaceted work, she invites viewers to contemplate the intricacies of identity and existence, sparking conversations about inclusivity and acceptance in contemporary society.

For more information on the MFA Exhibition, see the 2024 MFA Exhibition website.

This story originally appeared on the College of Arts and Letters website.

Media Contacts