MFA graduate | Fine Arts

Tess Martens performs Slow Change

"Slow Change" Tess performs part 3 of her thesis show
Photo by: Scott Lee

Tess Martens’ performance art serves as a self-portrait of her childhood, through to adulthood, as well as times of mental health and illness. In her four-part thesis show, 1, 2, 3, 4, Tess invites her witnesses-- termed this way because in performance art theory, active participants witness revelations that are shared-- to explore her experience as a young woman artist in a world that can be misogynistic and that objectifies female bodies. This is done as she interacts with objects from her childhood in the new context of her adulthood.


As Tess progresses through performances, she becomes more exposed, both in the details of her life she reveals to her witnesses, and physically with the skin she bares. She performs before her witnesses despite major stage fright including visible shaking and her difficulty speaking.

Supported by her supervisor Professor Boyana Videkanic, a performance artist, Tess executed an interdisciplinary fine arts thesis by utilizing several mediums including performance art and painting. Professor Videkanic reflects, “Tess is very good at tapping into the space and place of performance and therefore can successfully reach and touch the witnesses who are present. This is where performance is at its best.”

In Announce It! a witness selects one of Tess’s childhood journal entries, inserts it into the slot at the top of the cardboard box, and from within the box, Tess reads the entry aloud, much like a confessional, via microphone. The diary entry is then inserted in the shredder and the remnants are expelled from the box.

For A Second Hand Emotion, while on a mini stage, Tess serenades her witnesses to a medley of hits. Her performance shows her engaging with a public that at times doesn’t want to engage back, highlighting the unpredictability of the witnesses, the reality of rejection and the role of improvisation in her work.

Tess Martens singing

"A Second Hand Emotion" Tess performs part 2 of her thesis show. Photo by: Scott Lee

In Slow Change, Tess performs her ritual of getting ready, from disrobing and putting on her bathing suit and makeup to pressing “Play” on her music and reenacting her synchronized swimming routine without water for her witnesses. Tess says that her struggles with mental health brought an end to her competitive synchronized swimming. Through her performance, Tess acknowledges that synchronized swimmers have oversexualized movements. When Tess recreates this experience as an adult using bathing suits from her childhood, the experience shifts to become barbaric.

Tess Martens painting

"Portrait-Self-Portrait" Tess performs part 4 of her thesis show.
Photo by: Scott Lee

In Tess’s final performance Portrait-Self-Portrait, she assumes control by painting her witnesses without warning, clothed in her hand-selected smock and beret, while she stands nude at an easel in the middle of the room.  “I hope that witnesses change their perspectives a bit regarding how they view the female body, and how they view me as a female existing in the world,” says Tess.


After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Guelph in 2013, Tess completed a Recreation Therapy post-grad college certificate at Georgian College with an internship at Toronto Rehab.

For Tess, the idea of a Master’s degree in Fine Arts was always on the horizon, it was only a matter of time. The program has included some exceptional opportunities, including a trip to the Venice Biennale with her classmates. She says “Looking back, I’ve enjoyed being able to meet practicing artists, receive constructive feedback to better my work, and I’ve liked being in a place where I’m constantly inspired by other artists.”

All MFA students are invited to pick an artist anywhere in the world with whom they would like to work, learn from, and be mentored — this is unique feature of Waterloo’s MFA program funded by the Keith and Win Shantz International Research Scholarship. Tess ended up in Brooklyn, New York, to work with Todd Bienvenu, an artist who her peers had likened her to for the pervasive confessional theme in their art and the similarities in their painting styles.

Tess has applied to present her work in one show in New York where she hopes to perform 1, 2, 3, 4 for a new audience. She also continues her work as a Recreational Aid in Waterloo Region where she executes seniors programming that integrates recreational therapy with her fine arts background.

Photos by: Scott Lee