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Illustrations provide medium for graduating students to commemorate college

Graduating students often schedule photoshoots to celebrate their academic achievements. But with current stay-at-home orders in place, many are turning to digital portraits as an alternative. (Ashley Kenney/Daily Bruin)

By Julie Lee

April 8, 2020 2:57 p.m.

Graduating students are tucking away their sashes and white photoshoot attire to go digital as they celebrate their academic achievements.

With the transition to online instruction in response to COVID-19, many graduation photoshoots have been canceled, leading alumna Murry Soriano to take commissions for illustrations of the soon-to-be graduates on the UCLA Free & For Sale page on Facebook. Soriano said although she graduated two years ago, she began illustrating by gifting graduation portraits to her close friends who still attend UCLA. With the ongoing pandemic, she said she felt the need to offer her work to all seniors to help capture their bittersweet final moments at UCLA.

“When I found out that a lot of UCLA students wouldn’t have the opportunity to walk the stage, I realized that I took my opportunity to walk the stage two years ago for granted,” Soriano said. “I didn’t realize how important that was for me when I did it.”

[Related: UCLA moves spring graduation ceremonies online to curb spread of COVID-19]

So far, Soriano said about 36 students have expressed interest in her graduation illustration commissions. When a student reaches out to her, Soriano asks that they send a few reference photos and choose options ranging from half-body illustrations to those including multiple people, she said.

With the current stay-at-home order in place, fourth-year political science student Justin Ambrosio said it was inevitable traditional photoshoots on campus would be sacrificed. He said to combat this he requested one of Soriano’s illustrations to showcase his achievements despite his last quarter of college taking place online. In addition to the illustration route making it easier to practice social distancing, Ambrosio said he also wanted to support the creation of art during the current state of uncertainty and anxiety in the world.

“I honestly appreciate it because (the illustrations) show the importance of the fine arts, especially in a time like right now, where we’re all practicing social distancing,” Ambrosio said. “These artists are also giving students like myself the ability to celebrate their accomplishments in a form for everyone to see.”

Although seniors do not have the luxury to do in-person graduation photoshoots anymore, he said online illustrations still provide the perks of creative originality. Ambrosio provided the artist with seven full-body photos for reference, and made sure to include photos from different angles. He said he chose photos he felt most confident about in order to capture his best features in the final illustration. Soriano said to cater to her customers’ specific visions she allows them to choose every detail of their photos, including props, facial expressions, outfits and backgrounds.

[Related: Graduate student exhibition highlights innovative works utilizing various media]

She also collaborates with her customers to ensure every detail is the way they want it. After examining the reference photos he had sent her, Ambrosio said Soriano noticed his arms were consistently crossed in every one of them, and drew him with the same pose. Throughout the process of her work, Soriano notes these patterns and sends her customers rough sketches and drafts, along with questions in order to gauge their satisfaction, Ambrosio said.

In one instance, Soriano said one of her customers, who is currently a master’s student, wrote her thesis on boba. Soriano was asked to incorporate the drink into the student’s graduation illustration, so the final product showed the bubble tea drink placed in the student’s hand. In the same vein, Ambrosio said he took advantage of the personalization aspect by asking Soriano to customize his outfit to incorporate his Filipino heritage.

“In my illustration, I’m wearing a barong, which is a traditional Filipino garment only worn for really special occasions,” Ambrosio said. “I told her to put that in because graduation is so important to me, and I wanted to tie that in with my culture.”

In the period between canceling their photoshoots and commissioning an illustration, some students were disappointed the time planning for photos had been lost. Fourth-year international development studies student Valerie Gan said she had already bought dresses and mapped out ideas in anticipation for her photoshoot in spring quarter. However, amid a global pandemic, Soriano’s illustrations have provided students the opportunity to have this experience within a different medium, Gan said.

“It made me feel like I kind of had a photoshoot,” Gan said. “Most people post their graduation photos around this time, and even though I wasn’t able to physically take my pictures, I was still able to post my own in a different way.”

It is evident illustrations do not have the same effect real-life photos have, because of the absence of in-person experiences and memories. However, seniors who have lost a great chunk of their college experience have found comfort in Soriano’s illustrations. When reminiscing on the times that could have been spring quarter, students are able to fill that void by creating exactly what they’ve missed out on, Soriano said.

“I’ve received a lot of emails from students who were really happy to have another opportunity to do their grad portraits,” Soriano said. “Even though it’s small, (those messages) make me want to help out and capture the last bits of their college experience for them.”

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