Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
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Community and art making: Three graduating MFA students examine and celebrate the human experience

Veronica Y. Pham, Heather Kohlmeier and Esther Cho pose together with big smiles and arms around each other.

Whether it was happenstance or fate, the graduating 2024 cohort of the Human Ecology MFA in Design Studies program were meant to meet. Esther Cho, Heather Kohlmeier and Veronica Y. Pham found their home at the School of Human Ecology where mentors like Mary Hark, professor of Design Studies, encouraged them to create and collaborate in the world of papermaking.

“We happen to have personalities and sensibilities that really work well together,” Kohlmeier said. “We have become a family for sure; heart sisters.”

The trio have spent countless hours in their shared studio space located in Nancy Nicholas Hall.

“It’s been such a special time to be able to go through life together,” Pham said. “It’s not just about the making in the studio, it’s about the community aspect of art making, which exists among all of us.”

Cho, Kohlmeier and Pham consider Human Ecology a magical place that has benefitted them with generous opportunities and funding. All three have taught in various teaching positions as graduate students. Cho and Pham were recent recipients of the Robin A. Douthitt Graduate Teaching Fellowship, through which they received valuable mentorship from Hark and Marianne Fairbanks, associate professor of Design Studies, an Audrey Rothermel Bascom Professor and Kohl’s Center Innovation Faculty Fellow.

As a Robin A. Douthitt Graduate Teaching Fellow, Cho was a lecturer in the Design Studies 150: Pixels and Pencils course where she taught undergraduate students within a studio space. She led hands-on demonstrations and techniques that put her problem-solving skills to the test.

“Marianne’s [Fairbanks] mentorship helped me consider how to deliver information in a way that students would easily understand, apply and be inspired by, all while critically thinking about how to create an inclusive learning environment,” Cho said. “I came out of this fellowship as a stronger educator, yet still curious of how I can continue to learn.”

Three years of studying, teaching and creating has neared completion as the soon-to-be MFA graduates bring their studio work to the public through their exhibitions, on view in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery through April 12, 2024.

Tangible Secrets: Esther Cho

Cho, a first-generation Korean American whose background is rooted in woodworking and furniture design, came to the School of Human Ecology to complete a second MFA. Her interest in papermaking began in 2017 when she dove into traditional Korean crafts. She was introduced to Eastern Korean papermaking while studying in South Korea as a Windgate Fellow.

Esther holds up and examines a large piece of wavy, off-white paper in her sunlit studio.
Esther Cho, graduate student in the School of Human Ecology MFA in Design Studies program, is pictured in her papermaking studio located in Nancy Nicholas Hall. Photo by Sarah Maughan

“I’m drawn to craft practices and traditions that don’t often get the recognition they deserve,” Cho said. “The materiality and fluidity of paper allows it to be manipulated in a way that gives me the freedom to explore creative possibilities I couldn’t with wood.”

For her exhibition, Tangible Secrets, Cho learned jiseung, a Korean paper weaving technique that involves cording and twining paper into woven sculptural vessels. Intrigued by the chalkboards in Nancy Nicholas Hall’s bathrooms where people write secrets and confessions, Cho focused her exhibition on exploring the raw emotions that are often kept hidden.

“I wanted to deconstruct those secrets and asked myself ‘What does this secret look like? What form does this secret take in shape, color and texture?’” Cho said.

Visitors of Tangible Secrets are encouraged to write down their own secret and place it within the exhibition space — creating a community for inner thoughts, free from judgment. Cho interpreted the secrets she collected by making nine jiseung woven sculptures and through a display of vinyl hung on the gallery’s walls.

Inside Out: Heather Kohlmeier

Before enrolling in the MFA in Design Studies program, Kohlmeier earned a degree in clinical laboratory science and practiced massage therapy for 10 years. Life took her in a different direction, and she enrolled in the UW–Madison Art Department, studying watercolor and ceramics with a focus on translucent porcelain. Kohlmeier met Hark while taking her papermaking class.

Heather stands in a gallery space and poses next to an oversized, white pair of pants and shirts hanging from a clothesline.
Heather Kohlmeier, graduate student in the School of Human Ecology MFA in Design Studies program, is pictured with the oversized garments she created for her exhibition in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery. Photo by Sharon Vanorny

“Mary [Hark] provided the most human and relatable guidance and powerful critiques of my work,” Kohlmeier said. “I felt that if I was going to continue in papermaking, I was going to pursue a MFA and work with her.”

Kohlmeier created handmade paper with natural avocado dyeing for her exhibition Inside Out. The show originated from the idea that life is hard — some days your clothes fit well, while other days they don’t and you struggle to understand why. And, you might not be able to distinguish this distress from being physical, emotional or both.

“The show stemmed from these pieces of oversized, overwhelmed, haunting garments that represent that struggle.” Kohlmeier said. “Sometimes life feels like you can’t really ever get everything on.”

From her career as a massage therapist, Kohlmeier thinks a lot about the body and how much time we spend in our heads, often off to the next moment before we’ve processed the last. The intention behind her exhibition’s work is to make visitors feel their body in the space.

Along with the oversized garments, Kohlmeier installed a macroscopic view of the body’s microscopic parts — a piece reflecting the body’s response to life’s many moments. Inside Out’s final element is a recreation of Kohlmeier’s studio, which is located in Nancy Nicholas Hall.

“I wanted to bring a little bit of what makes me feel at home, what makes me feel good in my body,” Kohlmeier said. “My studio is the place that brings that energy to life.”


Papermaking is a medium for Pham to explore her cultural identity. As a child, she turned to art and creation to make sense of her lineage — Chinese, Vietnamese and American. Curiosity about her heritage is reflected in Pham’s interest in papermaking’s history. In her work, she constantly questions where materials come from and their impact on the environment.

Veronica sits behind a table in the center, smiling and surrounded by equipment and artwork on the walls.
Veronica Pham, graduate student in the School of Human Ecology MFA in Design Studies program, is pictured in her papermaking studio located in Nancy Nicholas Hall. Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison

Drawn to Hark’s papermaking work, Pham enrolled in the MFA in Design Studies program to gain her mentorship. The origin of papermaking offers endless pathways for Pham to explore and create two-dimensional and three-dimensional paper forms.

In her exhibition THE LINE ALONG THE KNOT, Pham constructs an experience for visitors to walk through a space filled with net-like paper structures.

“You look at the paper and think about migration in terms of how we travel across bodies of water or stretches of land,” Pham said. “This narrative comes from the perspectives of my family — focusing on the refugee and immigrant experience.”

On display within the netted space is a video installation that showcases the process of making bark thread out of paper mulberry. Connecting to the through line of family, Pham’s mom will come into the exhibition space to musically interpret the paper nets by playing the guzheng, a traditional Chinese plucked zither.

The continuous momentum of making

After Cho, Kohlmeier and Pham graduate, the next chapter begins. Their curiosity and drive to create will continue, taking them each to exciting, new places and emotional spaces.

Kohlmeier will assume the role of artistic director at the Textile Arts Center of Madison, which she co-founded during her MFA studies. In this role, she’ll create workshops and an educational exhibition program.

Cho and Pham have their sights set on fellowships and learning opportunities to grow their papermaking skills. In May, they will both travel to Vietnam and Korea to conduct research on traditional screen and tool making throughout the regions.

The Robin A. Douthitt Graduate Teaching Fellowship honors the transformative work of Robin Douthitt, Vaughan Bascom Professor Emerita and Dean Emerita of the School of Human Ecology. As Dean of Human Ecology from 2001 to 2012, she spearheaded a decade-long $52.5 million renovation and expansion of the school’s state-of-the-art facility, now known as Nancy Nicholas Hall.

Equally transformative is the impact of dozens of individuals whose gifts created the Robin A. Douthitt Graduate Teaching Fellowship, which pairs each graduate student fellow with a faculty member and gives students substantive experience teaching in the classroom.