The Studio MFA: Introduction
April 23, 2015
That’s what I’m going to do. This is my big idea. Ex the MFA. I’m going to prioritize the experience over the actual degree. I want to identify all the things I want about a Visual Arts MFA, check off the things I’ve already experienced, plan out what’s missing, and cross out the things I don’t want. I’m going to blog about it (omg am I ready to commit? here goes nothing?) and research it (I already started, pre-accident), and I might even find a way to gather + organize like-minded artists in need of an #exMFA. I know I’m not the first to do this, in this form or in some other. But this is the first time I’m doing it. For me. And maybe for other artists, too.
So here I go.
Let me spell out my impetus and my intentions, and then I will sign off for the day.
How it started: My impatience. I’ve been looking for something out of my artwork, my studio practice, and for 2008 through now, despite all the working at it, I still feel so far behind. (After this little statement, I’ll add a not-little look back at my recent years as an artist. I’ve already written it, and it gives me some grateful perspective, along with knowledge that I’ve actually done a lot these years, even if I still feel a great need for more.)
It’s 2015. I thought I was supposed to have something figured out by now. When I started focusing on the professional side to my practice in 2008 (age 33), I thought that seven years would be plenty of time to set the tone of my work, know my personal trajectory, and establish myself in some way. Having it figured out by age 40 didn’t seem like too much to ask. At times during the past seven years, I’ve thought that maybe gallery representation was my goal. Then I realized that I wanted to make my best work, and that took precedence over securing a spot with someone who could sell the work before I’d fully articulated myself. Even selling work out of my studio didn’t seem as important as clarifying my voice. Then I recently returned to an old question I’d had for myself: why was I making work anyway? Why was I painting? Is that what I want to do with myself? I came to the San Francisco Art Institute as a sophomore at age 17, a declared Painting Major. That first semester, I had one class in New Genres; I explored art-making in a way I’d never done before. In that class, we bonded in a way I hadn’t in my other classes, and in fact, I never had that experience again. You see, one of the students in that class was killed in a motorcycle accident during those first fall months. She hit the back of a MUNI bus, and it exploded. I had a life-moment. I asked myself big questions about what I wanted as the purpose of my life. The importance of people and their wellbeing inched (maybe launched?) above artwork itself. And that was the beginning of my collegiate art education. By age 20, I had a Bachelor of Fine Arts, but I’d really lost the sense of what that should mean to me. I didn’t want an MFA (or more debt) at that point. I wanted to live my life.
Earlier this year, I started painting without thinking much beforehand. That’s never been my habit, nor has it been something I aspired to. I’ve had certain themes that I’ve researched and held close for years and years, and I’ve constantly fed them into my work. I didn’t want to make mindless work. Now, having established a visual vocabulary, I trusted that I could just paint, and that what I needed to say would be said. I love what I made.
And I still find myself wanting more.
Which is where the MFA comes in. I want: rigor! critique! feedback! exposure! local connections! current dialogue! depth! I want more but I want it on my terms. With the MFA being the terminal degree in my field (or is it PhD now? oh please), and with the only reason for an accredited Masters of Fine Arts being that it would make me eligible to teach at a (rare) (low-paying) adjunct professorship, why would I seek out such a thing?
I won’t argue a formal MFA education vs. the autodidact thing I’m proposing. I’m certain there’s huge value in having consistent dialogue with practicing artists who are vested in paying attention to & demanding the best of my work. There are artists who’ve made part of their career the conscientious development of other artists. Of course I’d love that. But I’ll have to find another way, a way among peers, a way among experience seekers like myself. How can I semi-replicate the MFA without the actual MFA? Who else would do this except those who make the learning community part of their art community? Maybe people like myself, people who want it bad enough, we will find a way. I will find a way to come as close to the MFA experience as possible, on my schedule, on my terms.
Maybe even: Starting Now.
Here are my recent years as an artist, the years since I’ve started focusing on the profession of my work as an artist. I’ll leave most of the personal life narrative out (even if it doesn’t look like it), but if you know me (or have read other blog posts) you can fill in the blanks.
I restarted my studio practice. That’s the summer that we (my husband and I) realized we actually couldn’t proceed with adopting a third child, a girl (we already had a five year old and a two year old, both boys). My heart broke in a thousand pieces–I felt loss at not having a daughter–and I returned to my studio. That’s the summer that I made work for a juried show (and felt the sting of rejection), and also the year I started to gather documentation of previous work completed.
I went to the MFA portfolio reviews at SFAI, to get a sense of where I stood, what I could do. It had been 14 years since I’d graduated from there with my Bachelor of Fine Arts, emphasis in New Genres. (That portfolio review day is a whole story in itself, not sure I should retell it. I won’t name names. Actual words said to me were along the lines of, well you chose to have children so that must mean you didn’t choose art. Adorable, considering I’d had a child vomit on me that morning as I left the house for the one hour drive to hear some guy tell me I didn’t care enough about art-making. Nice.) I entered more local juried shows, got awards at them. Felt like I was going somewhere. Pleased with myself, but I also had an eye on artists I went to school with and their awesome trajectories. Simultaneously admired them and looked at them through squinty eyes.
Age 35 loomed in front of me. I started to read more, look more, for what I needed to know as an artist.
I talked with a gallerist in San Francisco. She pointed me to talk with a gallerist in Oakland, for tips, opportunities (like interning). I did. I name-dropped the said SF gallerist’s name and ended up interning in Oakland. Paid someone for childcare so I could gallery sit & phone call and plan things for free. But it was worth it, really it was.
I turned 35. Felt worried about what was possible to accomplish in five years. Whatever I wanted to do, do it by age 40, right? Was kind of frantic with nervous energy as I had one kid in first grade and one in preschool. Made art in my studio but more often, at the kitchen table. Read an article about some art reality show. Watched it. Mind blown with recollections of conversations I’d had in college, reminded of the harried making of art for assignments, opened my eyes to a tiny slice of art-world as-seen-on-TV. Read an artist who railed against the show, hated it. Felt compelled to stay up late (so what if the boys would wake me up at 6am anyway) and I wrote a rebuttal about what that show meant to me. Pressed send. Went to bed.
I woke up and started seeing friend request friend request friend request on Facebook. The artist had been kind enough to add my super long rebuttal comment on his blog, and suddenly I was connected online to artists from all over and specifically, NYC. I was surprised and thrilled. Until then, I’d been isolated. Very isolated. Now, I followed that argumentative (and thought provoking) artist to twitter, and from there, I connected to so many more artists. All of a sudden, via Twitter, I was loosely up to date with what art people were talking about. I both listened in on conversations between people who knew each other in real life (but who, for some reason, took their conversations to twitter instead of text messaging), and I also totally butt in on conversations where I was either benignly not wanted or didn’t belong. I enrolled in a “the Profession of Being an Artist” type class at a local arts center. I kept constant (and really, I mean constant) contact with my new colleagues on Twitter. I was there when two artists (including that one I’d sent a rebuttal to), organized a collective (um, Social Practice Art? lol) project for the Miami Art Fairs. I told the group of artists at the art center class, shared with them the project proposal as stated, told them that anyone who sent in a project proposal would be added to that Miami Art Fair show (it was “uncurated”!) and I asked them if I should do it. Absolutely yes! they replied. And so I did. I worked my butt off (sadly, not literally) on a performance idea and script, I bought airline tickets to Miami for that December, and I enlisted my brother to join me for my adventure. Two artist colleagues from that Profession class came to Miami, too, and suddenly this became a real moment for me (the lack of accolades notwithstanding.) 🙂
Post Miami, late December 2010, I became frustrated with the lack of thingness in my work. I explored the idea of going back to making things. Having been mostly interested in performance, installation and research based work until that point (my degree was in New Genres, after all) I decided to take the risk that instead of innovating and becoming more new-genres-y, I’d return to making things, specifically, 2-D works. Since I’d only stayed one semester in the Painting Dept at SFAI, for me this was a radical step.
I started with watercolors. It was terrible. Then I tried oil. Worse. Acrylic had it’s good points, but it dried too fast. The making of things had me thinking about the value of adding more things to a thing-filled world. But I kept at it. Spring of 2011, I took a class at that same art center (same as the Professional class), to learn encaustic painting (wax + resin + pigment, painted hot then cooled off). I’d loved the material properties of the stuff since college but had always been process phobic. From that class, I turned my whole studio encaustic-paint-centric, and I became completely comfortable with holding a burning blow torch as I worked. I painted, carved it back, blended, erased, and totally fell for the material. Still, the paintings I made were only almost complete, even when I was done: they were there but not there. Something was missing, but I had so much more happening with them than I’d ever had before. Already an artist, I was becoming a painter, an image refiner, an object maker.
I kept up my online conversations. I also kept my eye on calls for art in the San Francisco area and saw one for a no-sound video. Something clicked, something urgent crystalized, and something I had to say joined up with that moving image medium. I made a video that has continued to mean so much to me even four years later. It was selected for the screening that was part of an art fair and it was projected huge on the side of a many-storied building. That was a moment for me, too. I even had a painting juried into a show that year, in a Geary Street (!) art gallery; it was a show of abstract paintings juried by the then Chief Curator at the Oakland Museum of California. I worked at acting like this kind of busy art exhibiting thing was totally me, but, well, you know. That summer, I was invited to an art show & gathering in Santa Fe, my second art trip in a year, I was amazed. Already it was more than I had hoped for or imagined. I stuttered along in the studio (the work itself was consistent, but I didn’t sense that the work was what it needed to be.) I kept at it. I knew I was in the middle of a long visually explorative time; I was anxious to hurry it along but I also knew that time was what I needed. I took another class, this time with UC Berkeley extension, about how to put together an art show. No matter the number of experiences I’d had to that point, something about organizing a full show still seemed mysterious. As a class we organized a show, and I showed five works together. In the Fall, I was curated into a small show in a small semi-public space in New York City. This was more than I ever really really imagined happening. I was very amazed. By the end of 2011. I had been in eight shows in three states across the country.
I put in even more hours working at my painting practice with encaustic. I went to my first encaustic conference (Provincetown, MA.) I was curated (vs. juried) into a show by an artist that only knew me by my work. It was the first time Ever. I organized a show of my work (7 pieces) in a hotel art fair room as part of the conference experience. It was the first time I’d shown so many pieces of my own, together. My video work (the one described in 2011) resonated with a gallerist; the gallery has since shown my work three times. The end of that year (October), life stopped for me when tragedy hit my family. I didn’t work again until the New Year.
I returned to painting. The previous year, all year, I’d kept at my painting; in January, I devised a project to compel myself to work despite my internal condition (that tragedy.) For one month, I worked every single day to complete an artwork. By the end of February, I had 28 pieces and a completed project (and thus, an online show). Instead of being in many exhibitions after that, I invested myself in “only” two additional ones for the rest of the year. I collaborated with artists I’d met in that 2010 convergence of artists on Twitter. I was also honored to learn I was invited into ProWax, an association of professional artists who use encaustic in their work. By September of 2013, I’d proposed then launched an off shoot of ProWax: ProWax Journal. It was my baby, and so I became the Editor-in-Chief.
I started to feel that anxious sense again, that the visual articulation of my work was missing the mark. An art friend invited me to her studio to work at encaustic monoprint. (I had previously taken a color class then a works on paper class with her). I went weekly (if not more.) I started to discover the marks that had been in me all this time, but I found them in new and exciting ways. I found a way to use wax that allowed me to discover that line: liquidy melted wax, drawn on the plate, pressed into the paper. I made work that excited me. By Fall of last year, I’d had a two-person show that allowed me to fully express my work in a show of nine pieces side by side.
And here we are at 2015. Painting, thinking, reading, and digging in, I’m embarking on this, the #StudioMFA.