Tyler Sullivan was a business and graphic design student when he first arrived at TMCC three years ago. It was the semester before the COVID-19 pandemic would send us into a world of remote learning and work, and Sullivan’s journey, like many of ours, began to shift thanks to so many changes that were happening around him.
“I switched degrees probably around six times... before I decided on double-majoring in Graphic Arts and Media Technologies and Fine Art. It took a little longer, but it was worth it,” he said.
Sullivan would take classes at both TMCC and other institutions, but returned to TMCC because of its smaller class sizes, which made the program of study feel more personalized and “...just better in general. You get that connection to your instructors that you just wouldn’t get in those bigger classes elsewhere. It was really good to start out here where I ended up getting so much more attention from my instructors,” he said.
Painting 1 and Painting 2 would rise to the top of Sullivan’s academic highlights while a student at TMCC. “Both classes made me realize I have a deeper connection with wanting to put paint on canvas and wanting to work with color and textures,” he said. Sullivan took those classes—as well as another favorite, life drawing—from TMCC Art Professor Rossitza Todorova.
These classes introduced Sullivan to acrylic and oil paints, media he wants to work with more intimately. They also set him on his future path, which will take him to Arizona State University where he will begin pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fall 2022.
Interestingly, Sullivan’s most challenging class was his Biology 101 class. However, it wasn’t so much the subject itself, but the circumstances around it that made Biology difficult. “I took all of my general classes that first semester because I was still figuring out what I wanted to do,” he explained. “I made it through and I learned everything I needed to, but that class was a struggle, especially learning that I had ADHD... and that was the reason why I was always struggling to pay attention in my classes.”
In fact, looking back on his three years at TMCC without hesitation Sullivan names his journey to commencement “dedication.” And at first, the name seems to fit with a personal narrative that, in addition to the typical challenges of attending classes, also included a diagnosis of ADHD.
“Finding out that I had ADHD was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself in the long run,” he said. “I didn’t do very well in elementary school, junior high, and high school. And I always thought that everyone dealt with this kind of challenge. But finding out that I had a problem was reassuring. Also, I found out during the pandemic. So, it was a struggle... but once I got through it, it made a huge difference in my academic career.”
Going to mental health professionals for his diagnosis was key in helping Sullivan to stay on track with his academic and career goals. “Organization is a big part of it. I have everything set to a ‘T’ now. My entire schedule is set, my notebook is set... I know what I’m doing throughout each day, and that’s something that really helped me out,” he said. “Organization is probably the best thing you can have while being a student.”
The process of discovering his disorder was not easy nor was it quick, but Sullivan said the process underscored, for him, the importance of taking care of yourself, especially in terms of mental health. “I have a strong will,” he said. “When I set a goal for myself I don't stop. I try to get where I need to be.”
Success and Learning to Lead
Despite facing considerable challenges to his health, Sullivan said that his experience at TMCC continues to improve as each semester passes. A part of this has been due to Sullivan’s increasing involvement in student clubs, exhibitions, and other events. “This last semester has been very productive. I’ve gotten myself to where I am fully organized... and I feel like I've been more active in the art community and the TMCC community.”
His work has been commissioned several times in the past year, a mark of success for a young, up-and-coming artist. Additionally last year, Sullivan showed his work at three exhibitions. He’s also the President of the Art Club. Sullivan started as the lead graphic designer for the club, creating flyers for club events. “This semester, I was asked to be the President as well as the graphic designer,” he said, laughing. “But, it’s really fun, actually, being able to put my insight on things, my knowledge. I’m excited for what’s to come.”
While the BFA degree is on Sullivan’s immediate horizon, he ultimately sees himself pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in either Germany or Italy, which would enable him to teach art at a college or university. “But, I only want to teach part-time,” he said. “I would still want that opportunity to put my work out in the world.”
Using Art to Tell the World about Mental Health
Sullivan's painting "Alone" in acrylic on canvas demonstrates the personal nature of his artwork.
Influenced by the Surrealist Art movement and in particular the work of Dorothea Tanning, Sullivan's work explores imaginary and symbolic spaces.
Mental health is a topic Sullivan recently explored in his work, as evidenced by this painting titled "Insomnia."
This painting, titled "Nobody", won first place in the Student Art Exhibition.
Creating art—everything from the canvas to the paint itself—is an expression of Sullivan's desire to make his art his own. This painting is titled "Underwater."
Exploring personal experience and trauma is also the territory of Sullivan's work, of which "White Lie" is a part.
Even though painting is where Sullivan feels the most passion about his work, he also works in drawing, digital illustration, screenprinting and works heavily in design and layout. His work is influenced by the Surrealist Art movement, and in particular the works of Salvadore Dali, Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Tanning. Tanning, especially, has influenced Sullivan’s work, which is also heavily based on imaginary landscapes that hold symbolic meaning for lived, personal experiences.
“In addition to my work coming from my imagination, I have a ‘design aspect’ in my artwork that is distinct to my personal aesthetic, and I feel like that has a lot to do with the graphic design background, too,” he said.
Sullivan’s last series of paintings illustrated his personal experience with trauma from early childhood until now. “The art touched on many topics, including mental health, and traumatic experiences like homelessness, insomnia and ADHD,” he said. Despite the serious, weighty subject matter, he also infuses his work with a light touch.
“Even if the subject of my art is a dark subject, I try to bring a little bit of light humor to it as well to show my personality,” he said.
Bottom line? His artwork is an exercise of taking ownership of his lived experience as well as his internal world. This is something he is looking forward to extending in the BFA program at Arizona State University where all elements of his work—the composition, the canvas and even the paint itself—will be his own creation. “I just want everything to be mine,” he said. “I’m excited... I feel like a change is coming and it is not so far away.”
Sullivan’s word for his journey to commencement on May 20 is "Dedication." For him, this is not just a two-dimensional word: instead, it speaks to not only his outlook and actions but also the environment within which he was able to develop as an artist and professional. “I was dedicated to learn and all of my instructors were dedicated to teach... if anyone has the chance to take classes from teachers in our Graphic Art and Media Technology or Visual Art programs, you should,” he said. “I got really lucky to learn from my instructors. They are so dedicated at TMCC, to make sure you get what you came here for. I really loved that. That’s why I picked the word ‘dedication.’’’
For students who are starting on their paths, Sullivan advises them to take care of their mental health. “No matter what, college is going to be a process—a journey— please make sure you put your mental health first,” he said.
Celebrating the Class of 2022: My Grad Story
Every year, TMCC celebrates our graduates through a multi-platform campaign that tells the stories of our students’ perseverance to reach the commencement stage. However, members of the class of 2022 will have a unique experience of having their academic and personal lives altered due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our graduates embody diversity in every imaginable way, and in this series of stories, we will celebrate their journey to the graduation and beyond. This is one part of a multi-story series we will continue to run through May.