Retaining Enthusiasm as an MFA

Whenever I talk with my non-MFA student artist friends, I’m struck by their genuine excitement and optimism about art making and the art world as a whole.  There seems to be an intensity to the total emersion/seclusion as a grad student which has the potential to encourage a cynicism not-so-helpful in the studio.  Reflecting on close to five semesters in an MFA environment, I would like to offer advice on retaining a sincere enthusiasm in the studio:

1. Get out of Chicago at least once per semester, if possible.  And not just to go home for Christmas, but to experience  another city’s art scene.  Obviously, Chicago has plenty of venues for art viewing, but, like any city, it has its aesthetic trends and preferences.  It is important to remind yourself that the art world expands beyond Chicago.  If you don’t feel you fit into the chi-town aesthetic, it is easy to feel slightly alienated.  Go out of your way to expose yourself to other scenes as a way to both widen your perspective and feel out where you may want to end up after grad school.

2. Limit your negative conversations.  There are always complainers in the group.  Although it is important to be critical of your program, its easy to get worn down by negativity which can be toxic in the studio.  Gossip runs ramped in grad school.  Try not to get involved.  Negativity is contagious.

3. Nurture relationships outside of school.  They will offer fresh perspectives not influenced by the attitudes of your tight-knit studio community.  I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to eliminating all normal social needs outside of school, but a balance is vital.  They will keep you from veering too far from reality, and might even be able to verbalize things about your work without talking in crit-speak.

4. Excitement about your work comes in cycles.  When one of those moments comes, when you find it impossible to sit still because you are so excited about an idea, record your enthusiasm on paper.  When you cycle back into uncertainty, the writing will help to balance out your frustrations.

It is a certain type of person who thrives in an MFA program, but, at its roots, I assume every practicing artist has a genuine love and interest for art making.  Clearly, there’s the imparative and often grueling critical side to balance out the joy of making, but the MFA experience should not stifle the 2nd part of the equation. It is a significant privilege to be an art student and enjoyment should not be dismissed.

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