From Summer Academy student to ASE exhibitor

As a high school Summer Academy student in 2018, Safiya Wharton was a dedicated, serious painter.

She spent the school year at CAPA, Philadelphia’s public high school for creative and performing arts, surrounded by creative peers. But she wanted more. So she spent a summer studying with PAFA’s faculty and getting a head start on the portfolio, eventually getting accepted to PAFA’s BFA program where she planned to study painting.

Fast forward nearly 5 years and Wharton is preparing for graduation and the Annual Student Exhibition (ASE). But instead of showing paintings, she’s debuting part of an animated film that she’s been working on since 2021.

“I was really enthusiastic when I started at PAFA, being a part of each class and learning these things. At the time, I wanted to be a painter, which is completely different from what I'm doing right now. I'm an Illustration major with an Animation minor.”

Even though Wharton trained as a painter in high school and enjoyed her painting classes at PAFA, she felt pulled to animation and her connection to it growing up. As a child, she enjoyed animated movies and Saturday morning cartoons, so Wharton saw changing her major to Illustration and Animation as going back to her roots.

But as she learned at PAFA and in the process of hand-drawing the 2D animation film she’s showing at ASE, “animation is not as easy as Pixar movies make it out to be.”

Pixar movies use CGI animation whereas Wharton’s hand-drawn animation style is more similar to classic Disney movies.

She picked up the techniques and skills needed for classic animation in all of her classes at PAFA, even the ones beyond her Illustration and Animation concentration.

“Learning traditionally definitely helped me with creating my characters. Knowing about proportions from my traditional drawing classes helped me tremendously. And from my painting classes, I learned about color theory, and just like how colors react with one another. This was especially prevalent when I'm working with one of my characters. She has dark skin in the film, and I learned a lot about how color reacts to her skin.”

Animated film to premier at the ASE Preview Party

Wharton’s film, “Dance To The Grave” centers around a 19th-century interracial lesbian couple and the evolution of their relationship. Originally developed in a class in 2021, Wharton’s been working on the film on and off for nearly two years. She’s premiering the first part at ASE and hopes to finish the film after graduation to begin submitting it to film festivals.

This is the first part of her plan for a professional career in animation. She credits the Professional Practices class she took with PAFA Illustration chair Jessica Abel with helping her develop a career path and a plan to achieve her goals.

“That was a class specifically for us to understand what it's like to be an artist outside of college and getting us ready. We're getting advice about contracts and building our portfolios. She really helped in teaching us to hold ourselves accountable. This was the class that made me feel like I was ready for graduation.”

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the United States’ first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers a world-class collection of American art, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and educational opportunities in the fine arts. The PAFA Museum aims to tell America's diverse story through art, expanding who has been included in the canon of art history through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, while classes educate artists and appreciators with a deep understanding of traditions and the ability to challenge conventions. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.