Break Week 12

It’s another Friday, and it’s been almost three months since the last semester ended. My how time flies. Thankfully there are things to write about this week. It will be interesting to see how many of you read all the way to the end (not that I can actually tell). But I am going to write a big jumble of words in the last section of this week’s post, and I expect some won’t be interested in it. Apologies in advance for that. Still, I need to get some stuff out of my brain, and this is where that happens.

But First…

I actually did a tiny bit of work on the wood bowl. It’s not much change, but I have a clue about overall direction now, and have just barely started to round the corners. The interior is evened up a bit as well. I hope there is more to share next week, and should that be the case there will be more pictures.

In other news — that I should have shared last week — enrolment for the fall semester has happened, and I got into the classes I need/want. Specifically, I will be taking the following:

  • Advanced Ceramics 1
  • Public Art 1
  • Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory is the last class required for me to graduate from Langara with my diploma, though I plan on taking classes in the spring as well.

And just so you know, gentle reader, these classes will eat me alive once they get started. I plan on writing these posts once a week regardless, but it may get more interesting to accomplish that. Both studio classes will require a ton of time on campus. The schedule says I will only be on campus two days a week, but in reality I will be down there seven days a week for most of the term.

In any case, registration is done, and I know when things get rolling again, which is good.

With those items out of the way, it’s time for the promised long rambling section. The one that might send a few of you off to do other things (like clipping your toe nails and digging the lint out of your belly button) because it may seem like anything is better than reading what follows. If so, I totally understand. You have my blessing to wander off if that’s what you need (or want) to do. But if you have any interest in ongoing arts education and my thoughts thereupon, you might consider sticking around.

To begin, I finally got around to clearing out the backlog of potentially interesting articles to share here, and only one made the cut. That link is coming, but first here’s the (hopefully related) background, as promised.

I’ve waffled a lot about my goals after I finish my Langara diploma. It’s complicated, and my opinions change with time. I see the following options:

  1. Go on to a BFA (Bachelors degree in Fine Arts) — possibly followed by an MFA (Masters degree in Fine Arts) — in visual arts
  2. Go directly into an MFA program in visual arts
  3. Stop my education in art with the two year diploma and go on to create art on my own terms
  4. Stop my education in art with the two year diploma and do other things once I have finished the program

Each of these has rattled around my brain at one point or another, and part of what I need to do is ponder them more — here — to help myself (any any of you that have read this far) see the pros and cons as I currently envision them. This is also a vehicle for getting you — the reader — to send me your thoughts on this matter. Please!

First off, I think I can eliminate going straight to an MFA. While there are probably schools that would admit me into an MFA program on the strength of my previous university education and my Langara diploma, I suspect in most cases it would be a cash grab on the part of the school, rather than an honest attempt at education. I’ve seen engineering graduate students with completely unrelated undergrad degrees. They could be woefully unprepared for what they were getting into. And given the way schools are (or aren’t, more realistically) funded these days, such things have probably only gotten worse. I have no desire to put myself in the position of not having a clue, or of being fleeced by some institution, so I think going straight on to an MFA is not an option. (If any MFA holders out there amongst my readers have different opinions about that, I would love to hear them. Particularly if you have experience with schools in the Vancouver area.)

So, what about option 1 — going on to a BFA? That’s tougher, but speaking only for myself, I’ve come to have some doubts about value of formal art education beyond a certain point. To be clear, while I see significant, personal value in art education — exposure to new media, critique, an introduction to art history, a chance to develop one’s own style and/or point of view, not to mention the opportunity to create a lot of work while surrounded by highly creative people — I’m not sure of the value (again, to me, specifically) of more fine arts education beyond the diploma I am currently working on. I’m not certain of anything, but I have been noodling it around for some time now, and that’s where I stand at the moment.

The first thing to ponder in this regard— in my case, at least — is life experience vs. formal education. One thing college does is give students many new experiences in a brief period of time. It also provides more general background, rounding out the student and helping them be a better citizen. That has real value when you’re 20, since your life experiences to that point are probably fairly limited. I, however, am a lot older than 20, and I already have a bachelor’s degree. At this point, my advancing years have exposed me to much more than my original university experience, and additional advanced study in art probably won’t significantly add to my store of new experiences. Thus, I think “exposure to new stuff” is probably not particularly relevant to my case.

Of course, university education also imparts knowledge in specific areas. And again, if I was 20, some of that might be helpful. I suppose there might be additional value (to me) in ongoing art education. It could help refine my style and artistic interests, for example. But 18 years of carving (and teaching carving) combined with my studies at Langara have done a lot of that already. I can’t completely discount the value of additional fine arts study, but I also can’t discount the value of what I’ve already done. Put simply, compared with the average undergrad art student, I’m old, I’ve experienced a lot, and I’ve done a lot. That has value, and it replaces a lot of what I could get from going on to a BFA. Therefore I have my doubts about going that way.

But let’s assume I did that, what about an MFA after that? There are (as far as I can tell) two main reasons for considering such an effort:

  1. To get the credential necessary to teach in an accredited institution
  2. To gain legitimacy in the eyes of some of the gate keepers in the art world

For me, teaching at a university is already out. I’m old enough that even if I finished an MFA in record time, the odds on my getting a teaching job are just about zero. And even if I did, I’d only be able to teach for a limited time before retirement was either what I wanted, or was forced upon me. Thus, if I teach again it will be through unaccredited institutions, the way I did it in California.

As for legitimacy, I am pretty convinced I will never make it big in the art world. I will never be selling pieces for astounding prices, and even if that was possible, I wouldn’t do it. That isn’t me, or how I want to work. And even if I wanted to, that kind of success is very, very rare. It’s rather like becoming a professional athlete: tens of thousands of kids start out playing any given sport, but only a few ever make it to professional status. At my age, planning on being a big star in the art world would be unwise at best.

Beyond that, I’m not convinced what happens in an MFA program is anything I am interested in. I’ve spoken to several artists whose MFA experience destroyed their interest in creating art for a long, long time. And I have conversed with others who have wondered aloud about the value of the degree overall. Most interesting to me, though, is the appearance that an MFA looks like an entry ticket to a very small club. And to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t really want to be a member of any club that will have me as a member.

Put in terms of art, what I am seeing and learning about the current, more educated art world is that it often respects art that I find less interesting, and it very specifically devalues some things that I think are important.

I’ve seen unintelligible and boring work in the Vancouver Art Gallery made by MFA graduates from Emily Carr University. It clearly took effort to create, but I found nothing to latch on to or recommend it. This is not to discount all work by MFA holders, or anything like that. There is plenty of recent work that I find interesting, but there is also a lot that is not. Clearly I am not aware of what makes art great in the eyes of the institution that creates great artists. But I do have my own standards and interests.

Fundamentally, what I see from the more educated side of things is a rejection of both beauty and quality work, the later sometimes referred to as “craft” in a dismissive way. As if “craft” is lower on some Hierarchy of Important Things in the MFA world than something else, something present in art that doesn’t exhibit “craft.”

I don’t agree with the rejection of beauty and craft. In fact, I feel strongly that such rejection is unwarranted. I appreciate beauty in the way a mathematician or physicist does. It’s an indication that the work is on the right track. It isn’t required, but its presence is a good thing. Beautiful works can be both striking and emotional. They can bring the viewer to a new understanding of the world. For me, realism is not required for beauty, though I suspect it is often mixed up with beauty in the minds of some.

In addition I have an engineer’s appreciation for work that is well executed. In the same way I can see and appreciate good carpentry, I also appreciate art that is well done technically. The act of mastering a medium — of really getting good at it — has value in and of itself. That skill can allow an artist to create a deeper, richer work than someone who has only dabbled in the same medium.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t consider myself a painter. I have not mastered the medium, and any paintings I produce are — not to put too find a point on it — bad. Perhaps I could be a better painter, if I spent years working at it and learning the craft, but just learning the current lingo and something of the philosophy of art that goes with it (something that clearly comes with an MFA these days) would not make me happy with my own work.

I’d rather struggle to get good at painting and skip the highfalutin contents of an MFA degree. If I succeeded, I’d wind up creating beautiful paintings I liked. I might not sell many, and they wouldn’t not sell for all that much, but I would be happier as a person if I took that path. That said, I am much more likely to attempt that as a sculptor, rather than as a painter, but who knows.

And I note an interesting dichotomy: MFA programs in writing strive to create great writers, not people who can just randomly string words together and claim there is a point behind them. Being a great writer means both knowing the craft and creating beautiful work. To my mind, MFA programs in visual arts largely ignore (or are actually antagonistic to) both craft and beauty, and that isn’t for me.

Having (nominally) ruled out ongoing formal education after finishing my diploma, the question remaining is continuing to create art in some way, or not. How that will go is hard to predict. There are things I do not control, like the cost of a place to carve stone, which is outrageous in the Vancouver area. And sculptors have a huge problem with storing works. And what do I do with work I create anyway? Could I show it? Sell it? Give it away? I honestly don’t know, and I have yet to get into the local art scene in a way that would let me figure that out. That’s hardly a surprise, but it does mean that time will pass before I figure it out.

And of course there is always a question of what else I am doing and what else I am interested in. Maybe I will go study math for a few years just to drive myself nuts. Anything is possible, at least in theory, but I hope to keep on creating as time goes on. What, exactly, remains to be seen.

Enough of that. Sorry. I did say it would be long. But writing it out has been good for me. I’m very interested in the opinions of anyone willing to share. Anything at all. Tell me how I am all wrong about MFA degrees. Show me that beauty still matters in academia. Convince me that I can outsell Damien Hirst. I really want to hear from you. Anyone who read this far deserves to be heard. Thank you!

Finally, here’s the article I promised. It’s an opinion piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in advanced education in the visual arts. I had more or less come to my stated positions (above) already, but this take is interesting and valuable regardless.

And In Conclusion

Thanks again everyone. Comment away, or send email.

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

An Open Letter to Austria’s Minister of Education

Sweet Phone Chicago, Part Two

What Accountability Measures Don’t Account For

America: The Land of Equality

Anxiety, Rankings, Perception, and Transparency — Thoughts of a high school senior.


Youth Coding 2018–2019 League Final Competition

Technology alone isn’t enough — why humanity needs the arts

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jeff Powell

Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

More from Medium

Design Thinking on Set-Based Design (SBD)

Weeknotes s02e01

Project Kickoff