Varvàra Fern Paving the Way for International Students

A lot has changed since 2018, when a young Varvàra Fern (BFA ’22) entered the undergraduate sculpture program at PAFA and felt the culture shock from Moscow to North Broad Street in Philadelphia. “When I came to PAFA, I had so many problems I had to solve...With the student visa time here is pretty limited, so I think it’s very good to use the time we have in the most productive way.” Having completed her undergraduate studies this spring, she is returning to PAFA in the fall to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Varvàra was a trailblazer on her own behalf acclimating to an entirely new culture and the many tasks that are baked into the workload of a PAFA undergraduate. Determined to smooth the way for those who come after her, she then passed on her knowledge as an International Student Ambassador.

Varvàra found her ambassador position through PAFA’s Career Services, whose director, Greg Martino, could tell it would be a good fit for her. “I enjoy it way more than I thought,” she reflects. “It feels like I’m helping my younger self.” 

Among other opportunities, she has provided a leg up to other students with art calls and venues in which to showcase their work. “We try to think of ways to make it easier for international students to start their professional career,” says Varvàra, referring to her involvement in the 2022 show Once Upon a Place, which was made by and for PAFA’s international contingent. The theme centers on young artists who have chosen to leave their place of origin to expand their art, a fitting one for Varvàra. “We had different students from all parts of the world—from Korea, from China, from Belarus, another student from Russia, and so on—and we decided that the best focus for us would be our cultures and how unique they are,” she says. “This is also a reason why we decided to include artist statements in all our native languages.” In addition to their art, the exhibit also included domestic objects from each artist’s home country.

The show was run collaboratively, with participants even voting on which snacks to share at planning meetings. “We had to balance making all the students happy with their placement and at the same time making it look good,” Varvàra recalled.

Though arranged in a democratic manner, Once Upon a Place provided Varvàra with her first experience in a curatorial role. “It was very interesting because it was like seeing the process of other artists from the inside. I realized that curating is also a sort of art,” she reflected.

It was a good stepping stone to the presenting her capstone work at the Annual Student Exhibition (ASE), where the sculptor had full control over her exhibited works.

Varvàra learned some practical lessons during the course of ASE too, like how to make pedestals instead of purchase them—“It’s super expensive!”—the benefit of laser levels, and the importance of flexibility. “Even though you have the picture of what it should look like in your head, in real life it can look different,” she says. “I’m very critical of myself, so it was really hard not to kick myself all the time if something looked not the way I want.”

Varvàra’s thoughtful display at ASE included selections from her Travel Series. She credits the traveling she did as a child for much of her inspiration. In particular, she learned to find beauty in rural landscapes following a transformational trip to the U.S. She was also inspired by the photography of Mike Brody—the Polaroid Kid—who traveled by hopping trains. “I just got obsessed with this. That’s when I say I started sculpting travelers or rail tracks,” she says.

The weighty subjects of her travel series (pun intended, once her dream to work in bronze casting pans out) are tempered by one with a far more whimsical theme. “When I was a little girl, I had two English Bulldogs. I just adored them and they were probably my first source of inspiration.” She decided to harken back to this childhood endeavor when she needed something new to fit an art call. “I really enjoyed sculpting them and I just kept doing it.” Admittedly her yen to own a French Bulldog is helping to direct her focus on these subjects.

Both ends of her artistic spectrum have resonated with audiences, earning her PAFA awards including the Fine Arts Venture Fund, the Stewardson Award for Figure Modeling, and the Perez and Mary Epstein Prize for Sculpture, among others from the National Sculpture Society. “My dream is to continue to work in the U.S. after graduation, so these awards are important in that they may attract support from a sponsor or art gallery and allow me to apply for a creative person immigration status,” says Varvàra. Her dream is well on its way for now.

Wherever her path leads her next, her example will surely shine for PAFA’s international students as a way to make the most of the time.

—Diana Wensley, content writer

Varvàra Fern in mask adjusting art work on wall
Varvàra Fern prepares for the Annual Student Exhibition
Resin sculpture of figure walking along railroad tracks
"Step into the unknown"
Resin, acrylic paint
9.5 x 30 x 4.5”
Plaster sculpture of bulldog kicking up its legs
"Everybody dance now" (old plaster color)
Plaster, acrylic paint
6 x 5 x 4.5"
Varvàra Fern hugs a mass of plaster
Varvàra Fern in the studio

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Thomas Eakins, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.