Student Spotlight: Painter and photographer Amara Ihionu ’17

by Will Tackett | 4/13/16 5:01pm

Amara Ihionu ’17 is a studio art major who cites painting as her favorite medium.
by Tiffany Zhai / The Dartmouth

Amara Ihionu ’17 found her passion for art while trying to fulfill a distributive requirement. After taking “Drawing I” her freshman spring, she realized she wanted to explore more of what the department offers and decided to take “Painting I” and “Photography I” her sophomore year. Now, with more than enough studio art credits to her name and experience that includes multiple mediums within the department, she has embraced her major in studio art.

Of the three mediums she works with, Ihionu named painting as her favorite, despite the finicky nature of the oil paints that initially daunted her.

“You really have to develop a relationship with [painting,]” she said. “If you make a mistake while painting, you have to either let it dry and work over it or work around it.”

Once she became more comfortable exploring ways to work her perceived mistakes into her final piece, Ihionu realized the vast benefits of the medium.

“Painting has been really rewarding,” she said. “It’s taught me patience and creativity.”

But the path to success was not smooth like a thin layer of paint on a canvas. Much like the textures that come from adding thick layers of paint, Ihionu experienced initial fluctuations in her confidence when painting for the first time.

“As a perfectionist, I was really scared,” she said.

However, once she understood mistakes could be hidden or transformed, she embraced the artistic process and the medium more. When characterizing her current style, Ihionu called it realistic because she enjoys painting what she sees. However, she said she is looking to branch out more by experimenting with abstraction and a more expressionist style.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable with being able to convey what I see on the canvas and not worrying so much as to whether or not it’s a faithful reproduction but rather just that experience and the feeling,” Ihionu said.

Fellow studio art major Dondei Dean ’17, who has worked alongside Ihionu in the painting studio, said she has developed an attentiveness to the surface she is painting on, whether it be canvas or masonite, a wooden hardboard.

While painting may be her favorite medium, she noted that one of her most memorable projects was an independent study that focused on portrait photography. The project played with the idea of accessibility to the subject. For many of the portraits, she obscured part of the subject’s face with an opaque cloth or by casting a shadow, establishing a dominant contrast within the image. Ihionu said she made this artistic choice to challenge the viewer’s conception of a normal photograph and to explore ideas of intimacy with the subject.

Beverly Alomepe ’17, another studio art major, said after taking “Drawing I” with Ihionu she began to see a lot of emotion come through in her early photography work, which focuses on portraiture and black-and-white inversion of the subject matter.

“[She] takes something that seems to be mundane and makes it seem a lot more abstract than it is,” Alomepe said.

Because photography was completely new to her, Ihionu said she has seen the most artistic development with this medium. She enjoys photographing people, usually her friends or acquaintances and adjusting the lighting and framing to make her subject interesting and to capture their personality. Citing contemporary trends and opinions of what constitutes a good photo on Instagram, Ihionu said she is not interested in making her subjects appear cute or nice. Rather, she wants to focus on conveying emotion and capturing a person’s essence.

“I want it to be powerful,” she said. “[It’s] the difference between art photography and a ‘good photo.’”

Even in her paintings, which are typically still-lifes, Alomepe said she notices a human quality to them that echoes the themes that Ihionu photos evoke.

“A lot of [her art features] draping and the movement of a curtain as it falls and even in that I see elements of her portrait work,” Alomepe said. “I tend to see faces and figures behind the curtains.”

Dean echoed Alomepe’s comments, noting that Ihionu’s still-life painting of a spring conveyed a portrait-like quality to it.

Having seen both a painting and a photography series of Ihionu’s, fellow Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority member Leslie Fink ’16 said she was struck by the contrast of muted backgrounds and bold subjects used in her paintings. Fink described Ihionu’s photography series as arresting but not necessarily inviting.

“The subjects were compelling but not always clear,” Fink said. “I was captivated by the force of the focus and the gaze of the subjects.”

Regarding post-graduation plans, Ihionu mentioned a couple options. She said that she is considering pursuing an M.F.A. or something involving psychology, her other major at the College. Another option she is considering combines her two majors into one field: art therapy, a branch of health care that uses art to help people express their feelings and emotions and improve their wellbeing.Meanwhile, Ihionu said she hopes to focus more on painting and photography and potentially combine those two media in one piece during her senior year. Perhaps more meaningfully, she said she is seeking to turn inward with her work.

“I feel most of my work is me looking outward with still-lifes,” she said. “[It would be like] taking my artistic vision and looking back into myself and tying it back to me.”

Quick quotes:Favorite band: My Chemical RomanceFavorite snack: sunflower seedsFavorite museum: The Metropolitan Museum of ArtFavorite television show: House of Cards