Essential Questions: What Did You Learn in Art School?

Edited by Jane Guthridge

In this group we often talk about the value of an art education. I’m interested to know: What did you learn in art school?

Leslie Sobel: I was exposed to a lot of artists, art history, and technical skills including composition, color, and most of all critical thinking about what I was saying and how best to express it given constraints of media and time.

Patricia Dusman: I learned process but most importantly how to study the work and think critically about it. How to conceptualize as well as talk about it.

Screenshot 2015-07-30 16.46.02Cat L Crotchett: I learned how to conceptualize. [I learned] critical thinking skills, professional practices, process and technique, research skills, art history, how to talk about my work and other’s work, self motivation and the discipline of creative research. I was also influenced by the critical mass of other artists studying the programs, both undergraduate and graduate.

Joanne Mattera: I learned to see as an artist, and to think of myself as an artist. I learned to talk about art in a language that respected both the art and its maker. The design and color stuff–first and second year foundation–was useful, too, as was drawing.

Important to me as a painter is that I took a painting materials class in which I learned how to make and use four paints: encaustic, egg tempera, oil, and acrylic–and with each, I learned the appropriate substrate and ground. I’m not sure I would have gotten involved in encaustic had I not had that initial base to return to. Equally important is that I met people who provided opportunities that have helped me become the artist I would become.

On the negative side, I was given very bad career advice (“Selling well means selling out,” “It will ‘happen’ for you if you just work in the studio,” and “The dealer is your enemy”). I even had a professor who said to me, “You have an excellent color sense. But you have to decide whether you want to be a woman or an artist.” The second wave of feminism was just building, but I found it in me to respond, “I don’t see that you’ve limited yourself to being a man or an artist.”

Cat L Crotchett: Joanne, your post has reminded me that one “great” complement when I was in art school was to be told, “you paint like a man.” By the time I was applying to graduate school, I did so using my first initials and, when I got acceptance calls, discovered that the schools had assumed I was a man.

Joanne Mattera: Women really got the shit end of the stick in art school back then, didn’t we? That negative stuff was very negative. It is better now.

Nancy Azara: I learned to look and see, a revelation because that’s not an often mentioned skill and then to translate into a visual form.

Kate Miller: My program was edgy, not based on technique and materials. Rather, I was inundated with conceptual critical thinking with no limits on how to go about expressing what I wanted to say. I think that is the type of artist I am anyway so I naturally drifted more towards professors who were more interested in content and context than technique and design.

Deborah Kapoor: My undergraduate experience was a mix of technique and conceptual emphasis. At the time I was very interested in the physical making of mixed media works and that really hasn’t changed. Art history was important. In graduate school I felt like I was in a dream. I had a full scholarship and had a huge studio and time and money. I took a materials and techniques course, and color theory, both of which have proven invaluable to my process of experimentation.

There was some attention given to the business of art too but I think that within both experiences I found good and bad teachers. Some were busy becoming famous and others were devoted to teaching, and as a result, I learned from both (especially what not to do in later years as a teacher myself). I have a relationship still with my graduate advisor and he has been for me a great example of being a working artist, teacher, and human.

Screenshot 2015-07-30 16.44.54Fanne Fernow: I learned the value of intentionality. I learned how to consider a painting and develop my critical thinking. I also learned some skills that I later adapted to my own methods. But, the skill part is secondary.

While I was teaching at Mount Holyoke, I took a class called Methods and Materials. Ultimately, that’s the learning I find I draw from so many years later.

Kathy Cantwell: It helped tremendously to have the hands on learning of the basic foundation courses with an added focus on my major, painting. Sculpture, printmaking, drawing, color theory and art history were awesome. The only regret is that no one guided me towards getting a master’s nor did anyone ever really discuss what one had to do to make it as an artist. The school gallery director’s advice to me on graduating was to walk the streets of SoHo. At that time I didn’t know where SoHo was. It was 1978.

Jane Allen Nodine: My undergrad experience was mostly about technique with a strong dose of art history, but my grad experience was almost all about theory. Lots of reading, artspeak discussion about what IS art, and maybe what is not art. No real-world advice–that was learned after I was out on my own.

Graceann Warn: I did not go to art school and for years wrestled with that. The two times I did return to school as an older student (making art) I chose fields that gave me stories and inspiration for my work (Classical Studies and Theater Design). I find it interesting that I could never just dive in and go for an MFA. My degrees are in design, and from that study I got color theory, composition, thinking in three dimensions, defending work and maybe most importantly, problem solving. In grad school I learned a great deal of professional practice, which set me up beautifully. Cat, I laughed when I read your post. One of my most memorable crits from school included a professor “flattering” me by saying I was a male designer. I’ll never forget that.

Krista Svalbonas: I learned many formal and theoretical ideas, historical context, but most of all how to challenge myself and feel comfortable in my own skin. To have a strong dedication to the work I make and to never give up and see it through. Loved school, both undergrad and grad and I hope I take that love and passion and give it to my students now.

Jane Guthridge: I came across “What I learned in Grad School” by Quinton Bemiller. The things that really resonated with me were:

•Your work is the most important thing. The quality has to be exceedingly high. Do this and the shows, reviews and sales will follow
•Know art history and contemporary art as it applies to your own art
•Guard your reputation as an artist. Don’t show your work just anywhere. Don’t sell your work to just anyone
•Teachers/artist never share all their secrets. Some things you have to learn on your own
•Know what the driving force is in your work, the main concept or premise on which all other things are built
• Your peers will do more to help advance your career than anyone else

How many of you learned anything about professional practices at art school?

Jennie Frederick My experience at the Kansas City Art Institute was fabulous, however I have to say that my knowledge of and experience with professional practices came during my MFA and apprenticeship with Twinrocker Handmade Paper. That is where I learned the business of art/paper-making.

Screenshot 2015-07-30 16.46.19Debra Claffey I went back to school in 1977, when the Museum School in Boston offered its first-ever professional practices class. Aside from that I experimented with all the mediums I wouldn’t be able to afford after school. I learned how to listen to critique (painful!), how to think about intention, and to think of making art as my vocation, regardless of sales or attention.

Deborah Martin I earned my MFA in the early 1990’s. At that time I was the only older student in the graduate program. It was a fabulous experience for me. I learned about hard work, never giving up, trusting myself, critical thinking, how to talk about art and who to trust, things that proved invaluable on the road to becoming an artist. I also discovered that I could teach and was awarded a scholarship and a teaching position. Graduate school gave me the focus and the determination I needed.

Joan Stuart Ross In undergraduate school, I had a wonderful art professor, Richard Lukosius, who tried to teach me self-reliance and self-confidence. He Socratically watched me as I followed my path in my own time. I learned color theory. I developed an increased love of drawing and of oil paint in graduate school. How to manage day jobs, studio time and art biz stuff were ongoing and never-ending lessons in later schools of some very hard knocks. I often muse on these varied lessons.

Kate Miller I’m not sure that higher education is the right place to learn the business of art . It should perhaps be preserved for the pure academics of research and experimentation, real world slams you into marketplace competitive mentality soon enough, that is one reason that conferences like Joanne’s are perfect places to learn from panels and presentations.

Joanne Mattera Thanks for the kind words about the Conference, Kate, but I respectfully disagree about the business of art. Art is a two-sided coin. On one side is the theory and practice of artmaking. On the other side is the business of art. You can’t have one without the other, especially now that the bill for undergraduate and grad school can hit a quarter of a million dollars. Having a plan for showing and selling, for thinking entrepreneurially, allows us a way out of the poverty ghetto.

Fanne Fernow The Conference does provide a great place for those of us who did not get the business of art anywhere else.

Joanne Mattera Yes, of course! That’s why I schedule so many professional practice events. I know that any artist over 35 or 40 did not get this information in school–and they need it, because students now (undergrad and grad) are getting Professional Practice courses and seminars. The Conference is helping to even the playing field.

Kate Miller A course covering the business of art near one’s educational end might be a pragmatic and useful addition but I still think that the emphasis in universities especially at the MFA level should remain on theory, research and expansion. When else but grad school do most of us really get the opportunity to go way out on a creative limb, as far as we can get with support, materials, space and critical analysis available at all times. I know a few people who continue to push boundaries in their work and keep growth as the central component, but most of us find that we must “bring it down to earth” to one degree or another in order to 1) sell, and 2) have the time and concentration to teach or find other art related business that will make a living.

Jane Guthridge To me taking risks and pushing yourself in school and also learning the basics of business and professional practices are not at odds with each other. I think you can and should take risks with your work in school and as a professional artist it’s the only way to move your work forward. There are not many jobs other than in academia that are going to hire you to be an artist. As a professional artist you will be self employed. I think knowing some basic business skills as well as professional practices will help you to be able to make your way in the world as an artist.

Carol Pelletier Professional practices is a must these days. It needs to be incorporated into the curriculum. There are too many students in excellent programs who leave without the confidence or knowledge of how to create websites, manage their portfolio, create catalogs, artist statements and resumes. The artwork might be there but they don’t always know what to do with it, or how to approach a gallery or even prepare a packet for grad school. Some students do have the mentorship and guidance from either a faculty member or visiting artist (or an artist they may have interned with) if the professional practices component is not built into the degree. These relationships are very valuable. The students recognize it and maintain these relationships for years.

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