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mfa study (long)

updated sun 22 dec 02


Linda Arbuckle on fri 20 dec 02

I only read ClayArt occasionally, as I am slow and life is fast. The MFA
topics made me stop to check out what was being discussed.

The sagas of the worst things and telling of negative stories on various
people made me think of daytime t.v. and the tabloids. Not pretty. I
hope the people telling these stories are willing to tell them to the
people involved face-to-face, as it's a small world. There are some
wrongs that should be made clear, and on the other end of the spectrum
there's just plain kvetching. When in doubt, take the high road.

In response to the question about whether an MFA is valuable for someone
who doesn't want to teach, my answer is YES. The MFA is not a teaching
degree. The Masters in Art Education is. The MFA is a degree about
advanced visual research. It gives students time and community for
asking difficult questions and researching answers. If you have the
facilities and tech information to make almost anything, what should you
make? What are you, personally, interested in saying in your work? What
thoughts do you entertain, and how can your many choices in studio help
you convey those things in your work? In many programs students also
learn more about the context in which they work (art history and
electives) and address other studio disciplines to help research their
ideas (studio electives). This creates a hothouse environment for
developing work, with the relentless calendar forcing people to find
strategies to resolve impasses. The community of people entertaining
similar questions is a very strong part of this educational process.

I've seen people make amazing changes in their work over the course of
three years. This work is self-driven. The student has to be willing and
disciplined, as there are many time demands (just like the real world)
and studio is always needing more time. For some people, the challenge
is defining a personal problem and learning how to dig deeper. For
others it's how to understand the issues of something they already love
and make it a resolved personal statement. You learn to accept a lot of
uncertainty. There's a Wendell Castle statement: The dog who stays on
the porch finds no new bones. It's really hard to come to a new place
(leaving your support system behind) and make bad work, which is bound
to happen. Some people just freeze up at this prospect and have trouble
prioritizing studio work.

MFA programs are usually small in comparison to undergraduate programs.
It takes a lot of time and thought and space to work with people
developing their own individual problems. More people apply than there
are spaces available. So, some people are declined admission. In some
cases, the portfolio look like the person is not ready for graduate
study and will have a hard time succeeding in the program (e.g. the work
in the portfolio either lacks basic skills or is skilled but
un-focused). In other cases, people are declined because a program is
balancing studio population. Most programs I know of try to select
people doing a spectrum of things in clay. The space available for fall
depends on the number of people graduating in spring. The type of work
selected is often colored by the type of work being done by the people
continuing in the program. This means that people we reject for a
specific year may have been happily accepted another year (e.g. 3 people
doing sculpture graduate and the studio is full of potters, so in that
year we would probably favor accepting sculptors). Some years we've had
the good fortune to have more people who looked ready to do graduate
work, and only a few people graduating. Some years our funding for TAs
has been cut. It's all a turn of the wheel of fate, in addition to the
applicant's perceived readiness to take on the issues of grad study.

No one likes to be rejected. It's not fun. But there are a lot of issues
in play.

The reason to do MFA study is to focus and grow your studio work, and
learn more about how to learn and yourself. The MFA is also the teaching
credential for college-level studio art because people want someone
who's had this experience imparting that to other aspiring artists. Many
people have wonderful skills and work without the MFA experience, but it
is a particular kind of learning challenge to do the MFA. The experience
changes the perspective and the work for most people, and provides a
life-long tool for in-depth creative problem-solving. The work is an
artifact of the experience. We should probably keep "before" and "after"
portfolios. We've had people just out of undergrad school, but also a
number of people who were older, had been around the block and had
successful careers, and returned to do MFA work because they wanted to
take their work to another level. Lynn Duryea, an active studio potter
and founding board member of Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, and
Wynne Wilbur (15+ years teaching high school art and working as a
potter) and two of our recent grads. They presented a discussion group
at NCECA a couple years ago on "Is It Ever Too Late to Go to Graduate

So, I'd say go to NCECA. Ask around. Ask a lot of people who did go to
grad school what the experience was like for them, and what happened to
their work. Look at work you admire, and investigate the people making
that work. How did they arrive at that work?

Admittedly, I'm a product of the university system, and forever grateful
for the help and insights it's provided.

Linda Arbuckle, Professor

University of Florida

School of Art and Art History

P.O. Box 115801

Gainesville, FL 32611

(352) 392-0201 x 219

frank ozereko on sat 21 dec 02

Linda Arbuckle's addition to the dialogue about the of the merits of an
MFA was appropriately cool and to the point. It was important to hear that
we should not judge the merits of the MFA degree on the personality of a
particular professor or the lack of sensitivity used during a potential
student's interview. Linda's comments also reminded the Clayart community
that the MFA is not for everyone and is not a teaching degree.

No one program, professor or location/facility could possibly be
appropriate for the wide variety/needs of students working in clay who wish
to further their education and experience. Every MFA Program is different
and , like all commodities, should be examined thoroughly before purchase. A
student who wishes to improve h/.her techniques or learn about a specific
method of firing may be better served by participating in a workshop or
reading a good instruction manual.

Linda's comments also reminded us that MFA programs are not scams or hoaxes
foisted onto the unsuspecting public. The professors and institutions
provide a service, an opportunity and an environment in which very specific
activities can take place and be encouraged. Most of these scholarly
pursuits would be difficult to do in any situation other than a college or
university. If this experience was rarified , unwanted or inappropriate,
students would not be interested in applying and participating in it.

When one examines the needs of other artists working in other media, one
finds that the discussion is somewhat similar. A photographer who wants
only to hone his portraiture skills may also have reason to complain about
contemporary MFA programs. Most MFA photography programs stress issues of
gender, politics, mixed/multi media presentations,voice, culture and
history, not f stops or the zone system . Clay artists, especially
utilitarian potters, are not alone in feeling "left out" of higher
education. Examining one's needs and the avenues one chooses to pursue
these needs is a preferable to condemning MFA programs for what they were
not designed to do.

I do not recollect reading from any clay sculptor or non-utilitarian ceramic
artist in this discussion as to whether h'she felt badly treated by an MFA
program that focused only on pots and did not know how to deal with the
sculptural issues in h/her work. Many MFA Programs would not be able to
give a ceramic sculptor the attention that h/she needed to develop h/her

Frank Ozereko, Professor,
Department of Art
University of Massachusetts, Amherst