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Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Provides Art Awards and Exhibition Opportunities to SMU Division of Art Students and Recent Grads

Program includes cash awards, Berlin residency and show at Fort Worth offices

Holly Haber

Last summer, Julia Jalowiec (B.F.A. ’18) had a life-changing experience as one of a dozen international artists in residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien contemporary art venue in Berlin.

“It changed my worldview on how we make art and why we make art,” she says. “I got to meet artists who make art even at the risk of their own lives. It brings you to this realization that art is a profound way of expressing the deepest things.” 

Jalowiec won the Emerging Artist Award, a two-month, expenses-paid art residency from Mercedes-Benz Financial Services USA (MBFS), which has become an invaluable asset to the visual arts program at SMU. 

In addition to offering the coveted trip and cash awards, MBFS also exhibits more than 100 artworks by SMU and Texas Christian University (TCU) students in its Fort Worth offices.

“This program is about supporting artists in the communities where we work and live, and also employee engagement,” notes Katie LaLone, brand identity, design and art programs manager at MBFS USA headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich. “It’s an element that is not common for corporate offices, but we see the benefits.”

Exhibiting at MBFS is a “fantastic opportunity for artists,” affirms Nida Bangash (M.F.A. ’19), who recently had a solo show at Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas.

“It’s done at a very high professional level, and it gives the students first-hand experience,” Bangash says. “It’s really good for a corporate institution such as Mercedes-Benz Financial Services to be doing. You don’t see these opportunities very often.”

LaLone runs a similar program in the Farmington Hills office with the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. That started in 2001, and Fort Worth followed in 2008.

Every year, LaLone and others at MBFS select works out of hundreds of submissions from SMU and TCU students and recent graduates.

“They are pretty strict about the quality of the work that they present,” notes Bangash, whose art explores dislocation, disconnection, and the lasting implications of colonialism.

She won a $2,500 prize from MBFS at a reception in November. At the same time, Angie Reisch (B.F.A. ’18), received $5,000, and Nathalie Alfonso (M.F.A. ’20) got $2,500.

Graduates remain eligible to participate in the program for five years, and Bangash plans to continue to submit work.

MBFS employees “tend to gravitate towards artworks that are colorful, so landscapes and abstracts come across really well, but every year is different,” LaLone explains. “We are sensitive to subject matters like religion and politics. It’s important that our employees feel comfortable in their corporate environment.” 

Many pieces are professionally framed by top-flight Debra Stevens Custom Framing in Dallas, and sculptures are displayed on pedestals unless they are big enough to stand on their own.

The company hosts a reception for staff, artists and community partners to celebrate the annual installation, and the show remains up for about 10 months, coming down during the spring semester. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the current show will remain up an extra year, until spring 2021

“It is a learning experience for the student artists,” LaLone says. “There are things they haven’t necessarily had to think about, like how does this work function when it’s displayed for a year, the fragility, and standing elements. They are also introducing their work to a whole new audience, an audience that is not comprised of ‘art people’ like they are surrounded by in college.”

All of the student art that’s been displayed at MBFS USA since 2009 can be seen at https://art.mbfs.com/. The artists are permitted to use the professional photographs in their portfolios.

The Emerging Artist Award alternates every year between SMU and TCU, as do the cash awards. Jalowiec won the 2019 residency.

“They pay for you to go to Berlin, to stay there, and there’s a stipend of $5,000,” Jalowiec marvels. “You think that’s the big prize, but the biggest prize of all is to grow as a human being. How incredible is that to offer to students? It’s amazing.”

Jalowiec explores the meaning of family and community in her work, which ranges from paintings to bronze and iron sculptures. She exhibited in a group show called “Thingness” at Ro2 Art in Dallas in December and still has pieces in the gallery.

Jalowiec also plans to continue to submit art for consideration at MBFS as she pursues a graduate degree this fall at Alfred University or Columbia University. 

“I enjoy being a part of what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s so pure, and they love the art, and it touches all the people who are there. You feel like it’s an environment where it’s really about the art. It’s not like some promotion they are putting on. That is really special.”

Ironically, LaLone gets the most comments from staff between exhibitions, when the walls are bare between installations.

“That’s when they notice what a difference art really makes in their environment, and the anticipation builds for all the new work that comes in,” she says.

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