Vernell Dunams is one of five students across the university to be named a 2017 LSU Discover Scholar for his research achievements.
Each year, LSU Discover awards the top undergraduate research students with the Discover Scholar Award. Recipients receive a $1,000 travel stipend and are promoted at LSU Discover Day.
Vernell, a third-year LSU student majoring in Spanish and studio arts with a focus in photography, fell in love with language as a child attending a Montessori school in New Orleans. “We had to learn romance languages and English simultaneously, which sparked my interest in Spanish,” he recalled. He continued his education at an arts-oriented high school, where he worked in two-dimensional visual arts, mostly printmaking, which led him to explore alternative processes and, as he put it, “the switch from printmaking to photography was kind of natural.”
He chose to attend LSU due to its proximity to his hometown and its reputation in studio arts and foreign language studies. Vernell said he works mostly in the fine arts side of photography, and his work is conceptual and often involves research.
His ongoing research was initiated in Assistant Professor Kristine Thompson’s course, “Special Topics in Photography: Artist as Researcher.” In the course, students are asked to think of themselves as researchers in order to engage in an informed, extended project over the semester. Research methods and contemporary artists who use them are introduced; strategies are discussed for working through difficulties in ideas or technical processes; and regular group critiques help move the projects from initial inspiration to exhibition-ready.
“I am incredibly proud of Vernell and how his work has grown over the past year,” Thompson averred. “His ambition, level of experimentation, sense of craft, and ability to pick the best material form for his ideas are exceptional.”
The photo book Vernell created in Thompson’s class became the first in a conceptual, bilingual series that juxtaposes Shakespearean literature with contemporary social themes. His primarily black-and-white photography is interspersed with his personal experiences in an uninhibited flow that often variates from English to Spanish mid-sentence.
“I do a lot of automatic text,” explained Vernell. “Sometimes it comes off as poetry, but it’s really me writing from stream-of-consciousness—contemplative text related to personal experiences. But the point of it is I’m trying to reach this point of my brain where it’s not being censored, text at its truest form.”
Vernell’s first book, If You Please: A Contemporary Exploration of Attraction, focuses on gender and denotes Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” He is currently working on completing a second photo book, LIS’N (La Importancia de Ser Negro): A Modern Memoir from the Transracial, begun in Assistant Professor Johanna Warwick’s advanced photography studio, in which he focuses on the “social experience of being colored in contemporary society.”
In If You Please, inspired by Ganymede/Rosalind from “As You Like It,” Vernell writes:
I apologize to you my viewer because my skin will never spawn fur, and because of that my body will never comfort you. My skin will always be cold. My collar bone will cut your cheek if you attempt to rest it there . . . Me cansaré un día. Un día cuando todos mis huesos son rotos.
[I’ll get tired one day. One day when all my bones are broken.]
When I have let the last lover break me, I will leave. I cannot be the object that I have been since I was a child, forever . . . One day the mountains will be my grave and the sea will have been my cradle and that is the day that I will tire from the cracking of los huesos de la espalda. Este día voy a vivir por una segunda y voy a morir por años.
[I will tire from the cracking of my back bones. On this day I will live for a second and I will die for year.]
Vernell received the LSU Discover Scholar Award for his proposed third book, titled Toumai Words: Songs of Your Primordial Ancestor, in which he will explore sexuality and the experience of being male, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet as his literary inspiration. This third book will also be part of Vernell’s Ogden Honors College thesis, advised by Thompson.
“I love the ways that languages change,” stated Vernell. “That’s actually part of my research. Something about that evolution of language fascinates me to no extent, the desire to connect to something culturally but also the science behind the language.”
Also a recent recipient of the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Distinguished Scholarship for the Arts, Vernell plans to use those funds and his Discover Scholar Award to offset his travel to Madrid, Spain, next fall, where he will begin his third book and get a head-start on his plans for after graduation—to attend graduate school for Spanish and/or photography.
“Gender, race, and sexuality are the core concerns that recur in Vernell’s projects, and I have seen him visually explore these issues in increasingly sophisticated and nuanced ways,” shared Thompson. “Writing the photo books as bilingual and referencing well-known literary text or characters widens his audience for the work, which helps them understand more of his personal narrative in the process. I know that Vernell’s semester in Spain will be transformative, and I can’t wait to see how it will help shape his thesis project.”
Meanwhile, Vernell continues his studies in photography and Spanish and spends his spare time as the photo director for LSU’s chapter of Spoon University, an everyday online food resource where college students can find recipes and the best restaurants around campus.
“As a student, Vernell is also invested in the work of his peers,” added Thompson. “It’s heartening for me to see that kind of community and camaraderie develop in the classroom; it helps to continually raise the bar in our class critiques and discussions.”
On April 4, 2017, LSU Discover will host the fourth annual LSU Discover Day undergraduate research and creative endeavors symposium. Students from all disciplines and colleges at LSU will compete in the poster, oral presentation, or visual display competitions, which will be judged by LSU faculty and staff. All LSU Discover Day events and presentations are free and open to the public.
For more information about the LSU Discover and for a schedule of LSU Discover Day events, visit discover.lsu.edu.