Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

Medieval tapestries with a digital stylus

The model of a modern artist, Anna Chupa uses digital technology as her medium, yet her work is steeped in traditional images and subjects.

Chupa, AS '96M, an assistant professor of art at Mississippi State University, designs richly textured, colorful works evocative of medieval tapestries, created with a digital stylus as her paintbrush and a screen as her canvas. Her digitally produced pieces have been exhibited in New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Darmstadt, Germany, and as part of a group show that will travel this year to Milan, Singapore and Paris.

Chupa's collages have been published in such leading journals as Leonardo (MIT Press) and ACM SIGGRAPHs Interactions. The former high school art teacher's current passion is a CD-ROM project, called "African Vodun in New Orleans." Combining elements of virtual reality with digital video and collage for an interactive media experience, the CD-ROM will provide an inside look at an actual Vodun temple. Chupa, whose MFA thesis at Delaware also focused on the African religion, has met with a priestess in New Orleans, who has allowed her to photograph the temple extensively for the project.

The work, which combines elements of anthropology with art, raises some interesting theoretical questions of being the objective observer vs. the involved participant.

Chupa-whose son, Zach, a senior art major at Delaware, is assisting her with the filming-joined the temple and has helped the members apply for non-profit, tax-exempt status. "My CD-ROM is in that danger zone," explains Chupa, who has applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the project. "On one hand, the CD will have my interpretive artwork, but, on top of that, it will have historical information. The question is, how do I let the participant know where the dividing line exists between my artistic interpretation and historical analysis? Or, is it important to delineate the boundary? From the standpoint of an objective observer, I'm not one at all. My voice will be quite clear. It makes the process more honest."

This type of rigorous academic study is one for which Chupa, who also holds a master's degree in liberal studies from Dartmouth, is well-prepared. Before she ever sat down in front of a computer with the idea of creating art, Chupa was an accomplished mixed media artist, as well as an award-winning teacher.

Chupa, who taught high school art for a dozen years and at Delaware State University for five years, was Delaware Art Educator of the Year in 1991 and the recipient of the 1993 National Art Education Association Presidential Citation Award. Since arriving at Mississippi State in the fall of 1996, Chupa has continued to provide leadership in teaching. She is the graduate coordinator of the Electronic Visualization Program, an art department program that offers an MFA in animation or multimedia. And, she's just wrapped the videotaping of a six-part series for the Satellite Educational Resource Consortium, in cooperation with the University Television Center, on "Multimedia for Secondary Schools," which will provide an overview of digital technology for high school teachers.

"I was fortunate in that I had good mentoring in undergraduate and graduate school," Chupa says. "My mentors stressed rigorous research and aesthetic integrity. I fear for the student who has no passion for the underlying content and themes behind their work. It is easier to guide someone through technically weak moments if there is a clear sense of passionate commitment to the work in all of its aspects-content, form and technical execution."

Through her teaching experiences and her own studies, Chupa is well-versed in art history, two-dimensional media and environmental installations. That broad experience has served her well as she has moved on to the more experimental digital format.

"I think it was invaluable to me, but I've met visual artists who came into the medium completely fresh, without formal training," Chupa says. "If you think of outsider and folk art, that's without formal training. There are artists in any medium that can produce incredible work without having the formal training. I just found for myself that the formal training was crucial."

Her transition to digital media occurred for several reasons. She had used computer programs like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator for desktop publishing, but hadn't thought about integrating them into the artistic process. Then, in 1990, she was looking to improve the results she could get from printing collages directly on silk.

"My transition to digital media was at first reluctant," she says. "I wouldn't have moved to that if the computer hadn't offered a solution-a way to increase saturation prior to using solvents to transfer the image. With the computer as an interim step in the process, I was able to address the low-contrast results I was getting from solvent transfer."

The challenge for an artist like Chupa, whose works are exceptionally detailed in design, is deciding when a computer-based project is complete.

"There are two types of finish, as far as I'm concerned," Chupa explains."One is an image that never quite made it and it's just not going to. This particular image, no matter how much I manipulate it now, is just not going to go any further. That's not a satisfying sense of conclusion. The other kind of finish provides a sense of real satisfaction. It's complete; it's whole; it's resolved. The work has done more than I anticipated, but that doesn't happen very often."

Yet, she knew when she began her graduate studies in photography at Delaware, where she focused solely on digital art, that she had found the right medium. Unlike many of her younger contemporaries, Chupa had not grown up with the computer as a common tool. But, her extensive art training transcended her lack of high-tech savvy.

"I was one of the first graduates to work purely digitally," recalls Chupa, who counts among her Delaware mentors John Weiss, Priscilla Smith, Randy Bolton and Rosemary Lane of the Department of Art and Peter Weil of the Department of Anthropology.

"We didn't have those tools available during my undergraduate training. I didn't know what my medium was. I went through quite a lot of media just teaching. I had to be such a generalist. I was doing a lot of collage work in the 1980s. I became dissatisfied with using imagery derived from magazines. I didn't have control over how those images were shot.

"I was never really in a program where I had the opportunity to work with photographically based printmaking processes until I came to the University of Delaware. I gravitated to the computer because I could develop images that had a photographic base but left the compositing methods within my control. With a focus on digital imaging while I was at the University of Delaware, I had a real feeling of coming home-intellectually coming home-when I started working almost exclusively on the computer."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88