Exhibition by OCAD U graduating class reflects challenges of pandemic life

Part of a painting on display at OCAD University's annual graduate exhibition, GRADEX 108. This painting, Ice in My Veins, is by Ariana Di Sanzo. Materials are acrylic paint, watercolour, photo transfer, glitter glue, glitter, cellophane, and various gems on stretched canvas. The painting is: 'The story of a late night out dancing, drinking and calling your future self.'  (CBC - image credit)

An exhibition dubbed the largest free art and design show in Canada is displaying works by more than 800 graduating students in Toronto this week.

OCAD University's annual graduate exhibition, known as GradEX 108, show cases drawings, paintings, product designs, furniture designs, fashion pieces, photographs, mobile apps, animations and architectural designs.

Ana Serrano, president and vice chancellor of OCAD University, said the works by this year's graduating class reflect the challenges of pandemic life. Those themes include the isolation, stress and loneliness, and the lockdowns, as well as having to live and learn online.

"You need artists and designers to help solve our problems of the day and you need artists and designers to enliven the entire kind of soul of the city," she said on opening night on Wednesday.

"We've lived through two and a half years of the pandemic. This is how you recover from it."

The 108th graduate exhibition, which opened Wednesday and runs until Sunday, features work from several programs at the art school downtown.

'A celebration of the fact that I made it'

Grace Emerson is one of the students who contributed.

Emerson, who started as a landscape painter and is now an abstract installation artist, said her artwork explores the connection between spending time in nature and caring for one's mental health.


One piece of hers on display was done on unstretched canvas. She said she used bright colours and acrylic paint. She used yarn to intertwine all of the pieces and added fake and natural flowers to make the viewer think about the connection between the highs and lows of mental health.

"I myself struggle with my mental health and how I present myself to the world and I don't think that it should be as taboo as it is in our society," Emerson said.

"Throughout my youth, I have anxiety and depression and it's been like a battle going through the education system. I really just wanted to make a celebration of the fact that I made it with all of these issues."


The installation caught the eye of Xiaoping Li,  who attends the show every year with his daughter because she enjoys art.

Li said the piece by made him see a fractured society being brought back together, and he thanked Emerson for her work.

"I myself, I experienced depression, especially the COVID thing that she also mentioned, that the connection as well where we were so isolated," he said.

Art 'digs deep' into themes, administrator says

Reactions like that are part of why Serrano says art matters. OCAD U is critical to the "lifeblood" of Toronto, she said.

WATCH | CBC's Dale Manucdoc takes a look at OCAD U's graduate exhibition:

Serrano said the entire campus has turned into an "art experience" where members of the public can view the work all week. Each work is typically a student's thesis project that "digs deep" into the particular themes that the student was exploring.

The result is "large-scale, robust, well thought out experiences" in such art forms as paintings, sculptures and installations, she said.

Some of the work is available for sale.