On a cool day in 2020, visitors poured into the Carmen Argote exhibit at the Visual Arts Center on The University of Texas at Austin campus. A stranger handed visitors a pair of Bluetooth headphones through which they heard the voice of Bella Cheng telling them to imagine falling into a vat of black sludge. Unseen and at a distance, Cheng guided visitors through her latest performance art piece, an interactive and meditative audio tour through the installations.
“It was one of the few times I’ve gotten to show a performative, interactive work to a public audience,” she says. “Performance art can really help get you away from perfectionism because it can be so abstract and amorphous. It’s a flexible medium to work with since it’s so loosely defined.”
Cheng is a multidisciplinary artist and one of our outstanding graduates from the class of 2022. She has exhibited her work and performances in over a dozen venues, including the Visual Arts Center and Austin Co-Lab Projects, and during East Austin Studio Tours.
She sculpts, paints, draws, films, performs, makes paper — you name it. A Kay Pearson Harrison Endowed Presidential Scholar, Cheng will graduate this year with a fine arts degree in studio art and a minor in art history. Fitting for an artist with skill in many disciplines, Cheng already possesses a ton of experience in the art world and many insightful philosophies about her craft.
During her sophomore year, Cheng began interning for Landmarks, the university’s public art program, where she learned key insights about her industry.
“I learned that the art you may expect to only see in New York or LA is not just limited to those places,” she says. “There’s art everywhere. It is even hiding all around the UT campus.”
Cheng speaks in a very thoughtful and humble manner — a quality that has undoubtedly helped her excel as a teacher to learners of all ages. Through her work as a programs and education intern at the prestigious UMLAUF Sculpture Garden, Cheng currently leads tours and translates exhibits to better connect with children’s sensory learning styles.
During her time as an undergraduate teaching assistant for Yuliya Lanina‘s Drawing for Designers course, Cheng guided students through drawing exercises, provided feedback on their work and even occasionally acted as a figure model.
“Not all of the students had previous art experience, meaning some were unfamiliar with how to draw a figure in motion,” she says. “So, at the beginning of every class, I would stand up and do a bunch of poses,” she says laughing.
Both experiences helped foster her love for teaching art, which she hopes to explore in her post-graduation career, alongside work in arts administration.
“Teaching and learning are very much reciprocal,” she says. “As an instructor, you can always learn just as much from your students as they can from you.”
Cheng credits her professors for imparting wisdom and providing opportunities to explore her creativity in unique and exciting ways. Cheng’s audio tour at the Carmen Argote exhibit was a part of a larger art intervention alongside her Intermediate Performance class taught by the esteemed Katy McCarthy. And Cheng’s professor and mentor Dan Sutherland provided her with opportunities to learn the importance of play and experimentation in art.
“Thinking about art as play is a way to make without pressure,” she says. “I want my work to be made with care and love. And that translates best when I’ve been making in a way that’s fun and makes me feel like a child exploring something for the first time.”
As an Austin local, Cheng chose to attend UT in part to stay close to family. Much of her work focuses on themes of home and the accumulation of items that people build up throughout their life. Fittingly, Cheng also finds herself tapped into the larger Austin art community. Through her work with UT alumna Emmy Laursen, Cheng helps write the 7up Austin Art newsletter, which brings recipients a weekly curated list of Austin arts events.
With years of experience under her belt in creating skillful pieces and learning the communication and technical aspects of art, Cheng advises incoming Longhorns to be wary of perfectionism.
“College is actually a really exciting ground to experiment and try things out,” she says.
In one of her early sculpture classes, Cheng had the idea to create an ambitious giant pink sculpture named Sasha. Somewhere along the way, she was unable to execute the vision as she originally intended.
“I had to show it anyway,” she says. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, the world doesn’t end if this idea I had doesn’t totally work out.’”
“I think it is good to try to be open to being bad at things at first,” she says. “In the college setting, it sometimes feels high stakes, but it really isn’t, you know? Your peers are generous. Your professors want you to grow and try new things. So now is the time to do all of the weird ideas you have in your head, try them out and see what happens.”