Thoughts about an MFA degree

A couple of years after retirement, I decided in 2013 to take my art practice to the next level by undertaking the two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. I began the program in the fall of 2014 and completed it in September 2016, at the time of this post, hot off the editing floor! I thought that I would make some notes about the degree and understanding more about what my work is all about, starting with this post.

In a nutshell: I spent two years trying to figure out what my work was really about. What that means is immersing yourself in theories of structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, affect, gender and queer theories, the body in art, montage, modernism, post-modernism, the role of galleries, anthropology (in my case), the fluidity of meanings between artwork and viewer, and so on. In short, a bewildering array of ideas at first, that could inform my art practice. As a result, I think that the MFA degree is about at least three things: figuring out what you want to say, finding a way to say it, and shrinking the gap between what you think your work says and what it actually says, to yourself and anyone who cares to take a look. It is also just as much about building up your ability to work through a problem and learning to engage in self-criticism without self-flagellation.

In a way, the MFA forced me to find ways of describing the material I had already made and was in the process of making. How I edited and put it together to create something that was coherent became an on-going, and agonizing, process of feeling continually that what I was saying and what I was making were quite wide apart. And not just wide apart, but lacking cohesion. Thinking that I simply wasn’t cut out to be an artist after all – nothing was working, the struggle was just too painful- it was at the point where the pain was at its most unrelenting, that a thought would appear, seemingly from nowhere. Like a drop that finally overwhelms a crack to become a flood, a tentative solution was enough to go on to produce a body of work. Making art is partly about confronting this pain and not letting go until something happens. You can’t stop believing in what you’re trying to do.

A collateral benefit, and one not to be underestimated, is that you get practice in showing your work in a gallery setting, with all the issues that implies, and submitting to critiques from instructors and colleagues. And what that means is learning to still the ego and to look at one’s work more critically – that is to say, in a thoughtful way. Why is this working? Why is that not working? What is the work saying versus what it is I am trying to say? The combination of one’s own reflection, putting the work out there, writing about it and it’s connection to art, and hearing the responses of others are what helps shrink the gap between intention and execution.

I knew that my art making would be different at the end of two years, but of course I thought it would be close to what I had set out in my application essay. I had originally wanted to explore sequencing photographs in the form of a photobook. And then a photobook would become the thesis project. What happened was that I wound up focusing on the fragment as the basic unit in my art. I didn’t expect moreover to consider memory, transitions and the city as well. And I didn’t think I would shift my practice from the still photograph to photomontage and then to the moving and sound image as a video artist. In effect, I had taken the photobook and the sequence and added concepts from montage, time, motion and sound that partnered ideas I was exploring about transition, loss and memory.

It was a big risk, but thought that MFA would be the best place to make these leaps. I believed that I would figure out how to make art worthy of a graduate program and meet my own desire to make art that would express what I wanted to say. It was a challenge and exhausting. Learning a new medium, on top of an already demanding academic load, is not for the faint of heart I can assure you. But, you have to be true to yourself and go where your ideas take you. Otherwise, why bother?

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