Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Designing Classes: My Curriculum, My Way

Going forward, the way I want to differentiate my ex-MFA program from the previous independent learning I’ve done is to address the aspects of my art-making that have tripped me up the most. There are recurring blocks to my practice. This whole ex-MFA idea comes from the knowledge that if I don’t work on these issues, I will keep spinning my wheels, only half-making things that don’t mean as much as I want them to. I might enjoy myself, but it wouldn’t be enough.

I know that I need to delve deeply to find answers to my most frustrating questions, I need to keep working creatively in whatever way I can, and I need to engage with the outside perspectives of other artists so that I can see how my work acts in the public art conversation. I also want to know how to verbally participate in that conversation as I discuss my work.

Each time I post on this subject, I’m just barely elaborating on the last one. I sort of feel like I’m repeating myself; maybe I am. I’m trying to get more and more detailed, thinking about what I need to plan next in some areas while fleshing out details in others. I’m making decisions about how I’m going to set up my ex-MFA program for myself as I write this, because writing this is the note-taking that clarifies the direction I want to take. Concurrently, I’m trying to think through the best way to present this information in case others want to have a starting point to to craft an ex-MFA for themselves. I even rearranged these paragraphs into a different order than how I originally wrote them, hoping it makes more sense. Documentation and presentation of this information is a slow process.

So I’m thinking about how I want to format my learning for Semester 1. This will be four to six months (per semester) of delving into three particular subjects, as well as working in the studio, figuring out how to find a mentor to work with me in a semi-formal way, and starting a rigorous critique group. I might track the amount of time I spend working on this, breaking it down between reading, writing, studio time, meeting with others & attending events. I honestly have no idea what the ratio is for the ways grad students in MFA programs spend their time. How many books are they assigned? Or is it more studio/critique based? I really don’t know; I’m totally making this up. I’ll be flexible as I move forward.

Crafting Classes: Choosing Subjects

I want to differentiate how this ex-MFA experience is more than just reading books. I’ve usually chosen subjects/books organically as I’ve followed my curiosities; I love non-fiction books. These have informed my studio work up until now. I’ve read at least a few books on each of the following subjects in the last couple years:

  • portraiture, self-portraiture, and spectator vs subject
  • history of humanity & world cultures
  • psychological classifications
  • fictional portrayal of relationships
  • impact of technology & social media on society

The past few days, my focus has been identifying the subjects I need to study as well as the books I want to read. So today, I’ll explain how I went about the process choosing my Semester 1 subjects and books. First, I articulate (again) what problems I’m trying to solve at this point in my studio practice.  I want to push myself to come to some sort of closure, if possible. Instead of being in a grad program, choosing from pre-planned classes and reading books that introduce new issues to consider in my work, I can now zero in on the ones that trip me up the most.

What’s driving me crazy in the studio?

  • I value my work as an artist with visual language, and making art is an essential part of human culture… so, how do I keep physically making things (drawing, painting, sculpture, video), loving and enjoying the process, when I feel so ambivalent about how it gets out of my studio?
  • And yet I do want to get my work into the world. I want to be part of the recorded art conversation because I love that language. I want my work do something. Making work just so I can make it, just so I can look at it, or even to make a small income from it, that’s not enough for me (I wish it was).
  • I am inspired by ways that art can effect real change in the world and I’m trying to figure out how to take this into consideration in my studio.
  • I get disillusioned with making art for sale and am looking for a way to either come to terms with the construct so I can just make what I need to make, or I need to find an alternate way to get my work into the world.
  • Part of me wants to just stop being an apologist for what I’m doing as an artist and just get busy with making work. (Tho helping people still really inspires me, sometimes more than making things. How can my artwork do something that helps people? I want to find a way.)
  • There’s another part of me that can’t feel comfortable just making more & more things. Because: for what? Where will I put them? If I’m not selling them (and that’s a whole thing, like, who am I selling it to & why? and why are they buying it? what will they do with the things I make?), then when I die, what will my kids do with all of it? Will my art just be another thing do be sorted, dispersed, stored, or disposed of? How can my work take up less space? How can I be useful?
  • And WHY DO I HAVE THESE QUALMS in my own work when I have no problem with others making work, showing work, selling work: I love to look at works of art! I love the way art speaks to me! OMG I’m a little nutty. Oh well.

Identifying my anxiety got me identifying the subjects I want to focus on as I begin my ex-MFA. I decided on these books through knowing & owning some of them already (but now I can spend quality time with them). Others, I found them through through perusing course descriptions for courses online, or through Googling, or by clicking around Amazon using certain key words and the “customers also bought” feature. I’ll make comments on the books following the titles below.

So, here’s where I’m at as of today.

Semester 1


I’d like a group of 5-6 committed artists who can meet in person once per month. I can’t start this yet since I’m currently still recuperating at home from my bike accident*.


This is something where I need to

  • a.) make a list of who I’d like to work with who might be interested/able to do this
  • b.) consider an amount I can afford to pay, since this is a valuable service that deserves compensation
  • c.) outline what a mentor experience looks like (it would probably vary depending on the mentor)
  • d.) create a contract that spells it out clearly for both myself & the mentor.


I need to make a list of in-real-life art events I want to attend, from exhibition openings, to lectures, to artist talks. This is one thing I haven’t been active in doing before now (maybe one opening & one other event per quarter), but since one aspect of MFAs that I was drawn to was the way they place artists in their real-life community, I’m hoping this part of the ex-MFA will do that for me.


  • Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change
  • Artists and Object-Making in the Art Market
  • The Artist as Writer


These are the list of books I’ll work from for the classes I’m designing for myself. I’m open to suggestions. Several of the books can work for more than one of my subject areas, so I’m making one long list of books instead of assigning them to specific subjects. Building up my library like this all at once is a bit expensive, but it’s certainly cheaper than an MFA semester tuition. If I didn’t already own the book, I used Amazon Prime, because I’m currently pretty much homebound since that bike accident*. Otherwise, I would’ve tried my local used book store, the only independent book seller nearby. One more thing: I got real paper books so I could write notes in them.

  • Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming by Anthony Dunne & Fionna Raby (found thru Amazon clicking, fingers crossed that it’s good, seems to focus on product design that creates change vs. designing for the way things are. I’d like to think like this, finding out how art/art-making can create change.)
  • Evocative Objects: Things We Think With edited and introduced by Sherry Turkle (ditto to above as to how I found it thru Amazon clicking; it’s not directly art related but I like the essay’s focus on finding meaning in objects. I was unable to find a book that specifically looks at an artist’s relationship with process + working on things vs. planning events, interventions, having assistants, and sending things to market.)
  • Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life (a selection of essays by working artist educators from all over. Btw I didn’t get my blog title “art + life” from this book, because I named my blog before this book was published, but, it’s not that unique a title, right? Anyway, I’m sure there are selections from this volume that will speak to my subjects, but I don’t plan to read the whole thing this semester. It’s pretty huge. I can probably use a little for each of my four semesters.)
  • Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity & Get Discovered by Austin Kleon (I admit, this title makes me queasy but it seems a real counterpoint to the crazy amount of questioning I give myself as I make work; this title communicates to me that the author is totally at peace with making & selling work, and if you’ve read this far, you know I’m not. However, does buying/reading this book make me look like a shallow artist? Never mind, who cares.)
  • Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain (I discovered this book through key word searches that led me to a review of sorts on Huffington Post. It took me a while to decide to get it. Something about the reviews, although glowing, seemed like they were written by personal friends of the author. Still, the author, now deceased, was clearly an in-depth thinker & writer. The excerpt on Huff Post really addresses the “why artists make things” question I had; it being about the brain, and with the author being a vascular surgeon too, well that made me go ahead & purchase. So far the writing is a bit flowery new-agey, but the author ownes up to it, and even so, there’s plenty of neurology material that’s super interesting so it’s turning out alright.)
  • A Decade of Negative Thinking by Mira Schor (I already have this but want to spend more time with it. I admire her work and a bonus is that she just posted a lecture from RISD about art + writing on her blog A Year of Positive Thinking.)
  • Daybook by Anne Truitt (ditto above, a classic book written by an artist I admire)
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate (I discovered this book in some course description but I can’t remember which one! Not all colleges publish their reading lists; it might also have been from an online course that’s not currently active. I’ve already read the intro & wow, I loved it. It already felt like I took a class. Now I get to read historical precedent for what I realized is my preferred writing format: The Personal Essay. Maybe that’s why this informational type post is taking me so long? So many items to arrange so that it can be simply understood & replicated? OMG, is anyone even going to read this? Never mind, whatever the case, I’m doing this for me.)
  • The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design Creative Practice by Rosanne Somerson (I haven’t totally added this to the list. It’s a maybe. I need to figure out how much this focuses on RISD vs. the subject matter; I prefer the subject matter. Something about it makes it seem like an ad for RISD or is that just me?)

OK! Onwards! Time to immerse in reading these books, keeping my studio work going as much as I’m able (since I’m homebound for at least two more weeks), and writing about it… along with other life stuff. I hope this hacked MFA thing is basically just a super-charged way of figuring out what skin I want in the studio so I can get comfortable wearing it. Etcetera. 🙂 -mrk

*About that bike accident, I have symptoms that haven’t resolved yet although it’s been three and a half weeks, but I’m definitely better than I was at first. I had something between a minor & a moderate traumatic brain injury. While my pain level is low and pretty tolerable, and functionally there are things I’m able to do (like read, write, watch TV, do stuff on my iPad), there are things that are still, let’s say, tricky. It’s tricky to talk to several people at once; organizing information (like this post!) is hard; I can’t listen to music or audio books (I can follow TV & movies because of the visuals, as long as there’s no jarring music); when I talk, it takes me a beat or two longer than it used to when I’m trying to recall words or explain things; sudden or high pitched noises go deep inside and make me feel yuck; and the scar where I hit my head still feels tender (duh). If I “do too much” (something I can only learn as I go, it’s not obvious), I get weak, nauseous, slightly dizzy, and strangely tearful without actually feeling sad. I promise, I’m resting. I can’t drive for another week or two, and when I do it will be simple routes. Other that that, I’m doing great. 🙂 Now that I’ve written this post, I think for a little while I’ll just write about what I’m learning. This post with its lists, its specificity, its organization of information… it took me a couple days to write, and I’m tired now. I’ll keep it simple for a little while more. 🙂 You’re welcome, Self.

The exact same encaustic on panel, with photograph 8.5″ x 11″ February 19, 2013
Ruiz-Kim, “The exact same”, 2013, encaustic on panel with photograph, 8.5″ x 11″
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