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Artists in the arena

A new art project by two USF graduate students bridges the gap between a master’s of fine arts (MFA) and mixed martial arts (MMA) in a high-concept event with even higher stakes.

Chalice Mitchell and Stephen John Ellis will face off Friday for “Masters of the University,” a combination MMA match and performance art piece.

This is no ordinary sparring, however – both students are offering their academic futures as the antes.

According to a press release, the loser of the fight has agreed under contractual obligation to fail their spring semester review. In the Fine Arts department, two failed semester reviews result in expulsion from the program.

“The risk adds to the spectacle,” Mitchell said.

Though “Masters of the University” is partially meant for entertainment, Mitchell said, there are also deeper issues at play.

“We’re using fighting as a metaphor,” Mitchell said. “The project is meant to explore the balance between collaboration and competition in art.”

Mitchell said the event hopes to highlight the nature of these two contrasting couplings – as well as ideas of success, failure, gender and artistic merit.

“There’s a certain dynamism to it,” Mitchell said. “When you have a rival, it’s like you can’t exist without one another. It’s this ambiguous nature to collaboration and competition.”

Ellis said the combat sport offered a way to literalize the delicate balance that comes with creating artwork with another person.

“When you collaborate in art, it’s like a dance between your ego and someone else’s,” Ellis said. “The dance is the fight and the psychological dance.”

The two graduate students met last semester and quickly started planning a project together. Ellis said he was interested in video games while Mitchell was interested in fighting.

After six weeks, they decided to pursue her idea.

“She’s my roommate too,” Ellis said. “We live together and work together.”

Mitchell said this will be the first time she or Ellis have been in a fight, but both have trained for it. They may have to fight others’ perceptions about the event as well.

“There’s been debate by the faculty on whether this is a valid art form,” Mitchell said.

Claire Selman, a sophomore majoring in creative writing, said she didn’t understand how the match could qualify as art.

“It seems weird to me,” Selman said. “Considering an athletic fight as art just seems odd.”

Steven Williams, a senior majoring in anthropology, said he didn’t like the idea at all and believed it didn’t fit within the standards of fine arts.

“I see this competitiveness as poisonous to any creative endeavor,” Williams said. “This linking of competitiveness with violence is a symptom of larger problems that exist in U.S. society, and that the fine arts have a responsibility to counterbalance.”

Yet Jennifer Dearden, a sophomore majoring in psychology and a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, said she could see artistic merit in the event’s concept.

“I believe that aggression is an innate sense of the human structure,” Dearden said. “I think it will be interesting and thought-provoking.”

Mitchell and Ellis have added another provocation in the role gender is playing in the fight. Ellis said he has a unique situation in the fight, with no real way to win.

“It’s a Catch-22 for me,” Ellis said. “If I win, I beat up a girl. If I lose, I’m a sissy.”

With the debates already in play, Mitchell said she is excited to see the crowd that “Masters of the University” ultimately gathers.

“It’s like a psychological experiment,” Mitchell said. “I want to see people’s reactions.”

The event starts at 7:30 p.m. at Hurricane Boxing Gym, which is located at 2326 E. Seventh Ave, and admission is donation-based. Live video will also be streamed online for those unable to attend.

For more information on the event, visit The fight will be streamed online at