Sunday, February 19, 2012

Here at the End of All Things

Final Residency Summary:
A Master’s Thoughts on 
The Art Institute of Boston’s MFA Program

“Well, I’m back” (Tolkien, 1008).

And, like a Tolkien character, I have been greatly altered by my experiences. Expectations were such unknown quantities at the start of the program (save to obtain Master status in two years), all I could do was, as I’ve said in the past, remain as objective as possible. Admittedly, it wasn’t always possible, but I can say that I entertained new and difficult material with a great deal of consideration. This mindset helped enormously; it changed me. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that it effected a maturation - one that occurred at a critical, personal, and especially - an artistic level. In hindsight, this was a very necessary transformation.

Before I begin in earnest, I’d like to share this little anecdote: “Journey,” as a word to describe one’s participation in our program, is an insinuated taboo for students, especially when you’re writing thesis and appearing as a Group 5 in the last residency (at least in its first few days). We all try really hard to not say it, for fear of reprisal: “You said the ‘j’-word, you noob.” It is a little trite, perhaps; a little new-agey for a program where critical language is employed. Maybe it’s because the word suggests more of a travelogue than sheer experience? Still, though I did hear the expression bandied about, albeit unintentionally, I always gave the speaker the benefit of the doubt. One can argue that such an excursion is one of the mind - traveling to places in your head that you’ve never been (let alone knew existed). And, truth be told, I personally logged quite a bit of actual mileage back and forth to New York in order to visit mentors, shows, museums and the like. So, despite the mildly illicit nature of the “journey” as a descriptor for one's time in the program, it is somewhat apt.

In those travels (speaking of which) I was able to meet and talk extensively with artists who operate on the upper tiers of the contemporary art world. Some of them are now considered friends. I’d never dreamed of such a thing. By virtue of the program, it became a reality. I went to shows that, in the past, would have held no interest for me, but instead, I found great edification in critically engaging with the content. It’s true that I travel with my family every so often to New York, but these visits were nearly monthly, and the need for continued scholarship justified all these trips - otherwise, I would not have bothered... And I did feel that NYC was the only place, really. Yes, I was born, raised, and completed my undergrad work there, but I also knew - inherently - that there is no substitute when it comes to its great wealth of art and artists. For me, in order to complete my MFA work to the best of my ability, despite the 400+ mile removal and the difficulty such travel imposed, it was there or nowhere. It was the best decision.

Of course, those who set the tone for how to approach and participate in critical thought deserve the greatest amount of praise. I cannot stress the incredible pedagogical strength of the AIB MFA faculty. The diversity of scholarship, the way in which critiques were addressed, the sheer depth of information they all (individually and collectively) hold amazed (and still amazes) me. Their presence was a gift, no mistake. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for me. If I can remit payment in any real way, it will be through the fact that any achievements of merit in my future shall sit as testament to the quality of these individuals.

Yes, I did learn a thing or two. But it was only through investing in the opportunities as presented to me by the artists and scholars I met along the way. Much of what I’ve gained can be found in the text of my thesis. The thesis is, in many ways, cumulative, though not necessarily an aggregate of the texts I’d penned in prior semesters. It marks more of a confluence and fruition of all the thematics I’d been exploring -- and some with which I had not yet come to terms. Research, writing, style, content -- it is all fully actualized in this final document. The latest paintings are reflective of this, too, and are but the inkling of the thesis project as a whole; a new platform upon which I can base many more paintings. This is, I believe, the crux of the thesis -- and any MFA program worth its salt. So, then, I developed: a new understanding of art (cumulating in the contemporary); a richer understanding of my own art as it relates to contemporary art; and through this, established a new and solid base from which I launched a project that reflects these understandings. In other words, the thesis acts as a touchstone to bigger things, post-Masters.

Since this is a pretty informal document, I will be candid here and let the reader know that this program - again, like any program worth its salt - makes high demands of the MFA candidate. That said, in the low-residency format, where one might hope (note the word choice) to fold the required work into one’s daily life, while not in-residence, instead, just adds to the challenge. It becomes an imperative to harness the self-discipline to NOT sink into domestic regularity. I realized that this required, of course, a great deal of effort, and I was familiar enough with the task, having spent a decade as a freelance artist for a New York illustration agency. The routine - or, at least, operating under an art-based sword of Damocles - came back soon enough. The more pressing issue was how to promote the idea that I was actually a full-time student. It is terribly hard for anyone save your AIB peers to understand the reality of the situation. Even close family and friends cannot really fathom the fact that, for two years, you have adopted a lifestyle of art and scholarship, as opposed to a part-time dalliance. But your presence (or perhaps conspicuous absence, since you might be trapped in your studio or library) at the table - yes, your very corporeality - makes it seem as if you are some sort of ivory-tower hobbyist, play-acting at something of tertiary importance. Now, I can’t say that this is the absolute truth of the matter, but, from my interactions with my fellow students, it is not at all an uncommon experience. Relationships can become strained, and feelings of guilt can encumber your process. Sleep gets to be luxury. Stress is your familiar. All you can do is put your head down and work through it all. It’s the only solution, because sublimating your difficulties through any other activity is ultimately a waste of time. Time is in extraordinarily short supply; it's the ultimate luxury. The warnings proffered by advisors and peers (like me, as a recent alumnus) - especially regarding the subject of time - seem like so much rhetoric. They are not.

If you heed all this, you will get through it. As with anything, it sounds easy on paper, but the real-time execution is something else. Personally, however, I wanted far more than to merely “get through it.” I wanted to know how far I could push myself without throwing the positive aspects of my art (i.e., my painting skills) under the bus. Holding on to representation and skill was, in hindsight, a harder road -- and I’m glad I took it. But that was not the driver. The driver was, oddly enough, the intellectualization of art and its relation to the world at large. Again, my thesis explicates this more fully, but I still marvel at my naivete coming into the program. When I was introduced (immediately) to all I had missed (the sociopolitical, theoretical, and philosophical components of art), I became extremely disturbed at my lack. This super-motivated me to remedy the situation. I daresay I almost overcorrected in my second semester, but some well-placed admonition set me to rights. Again, in hindsight, I think if I had cruised along semester to semester with little issue, it would have meant I was doing something very wrong. As creative thinkers, we need to go off the rails in order to see where the track lies. Once you re-orient, there is far more clarity and trust in future judgement.

If I can give, with this brief essay, some sense of closure to my own experience, then I must conclude with some remarks about my “people” - my peers. Realistically, we do not spend a great deal of time together as compared to perhaps any other program - only 20 days out of the year. But, the crucible of the residencies are truly white-hot and the bonds we form are hard and fast. I’ve gotten to know some incredible people who also happen to be incredible artists. The last residency is truly a gift, in that I was able to be with members of the other groups in the formal settings of critiques and seminars. Also, it needs to be disclosed that the social activity at the bars in Kenmore Square after an ever-long day of residency is an integral part of the experience. This decompression is vital. To suss out, over various libations, the sheer density of the 12 hours of theoretical art discourse in which everyone had just engaged, is perhaps the only way to stay balanced. Without this, I would have hit the wall of non-receptivity pretty quickly. Now, to speak specifically of my own group, the 15th graduating class of the MFA, is to speak of family. We underwent perhaps the greatest personal transformation of our adult lives, and, as mentioned earlier, we were the ones who most fully understood how much it meant to one another. In the loneliness of the semester, physically separated from my art companions, I could still rely on their understanding, compassion and sheer want for my success (as the feelings were mutual) to get me through any dark period. We were all in it together, though apart much of the time. It made the times we were together that much sweeter. I’ve said it before - in fact, I publicly announced it in our final ceremony: I could not be more proud of us, nor be more proud to call myself part of the 15th AIB MFA Graduating Class, January, 2012.

This is not the last of my writing. Not that I am an essayist, but I am also, as it turns out, not merely a painter. I am an artist. The written word is another function of my creative vision, and I will engage in writing when it is prudent to do so. In fact, as long as I am painting, I will no doubt also be writing.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 ed. Print.

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