Taking the MFA to the Next Level

A young, female college student painting in a studio.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Art school isn’t just about traditional visual art anymore. Increasingly, MFA programs and the resulting art pieces include multidisciplinary fields of study, whether it’s combining different artistic mediums into one piece or taking student design out into the community to make a difference.

Several prime examples come from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), whose students recently exhibited their work on a three-part show divided into visual studies, print media, and collaborative design. In fact, most of the pieces featured mixed media. Angélica Maria Millán Lazon’s Engendradxs is made up of portraits of the artist’s aunt and grandmother, as well as smartphones mounted on the wall playing videos. Meanwhile, Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between features triptychs, textiles, and movement through the physical space of the exhibit.

On the other side of the country, the School of Visual Arts in New York is ground zero for innovative productions like Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s 121212. The piece uses video, performance, and installation to tell the story of a day in the life of Lynnese Page, focusing on her daily rituals.

But it’s not just a matter of mixed media. MFA programs themselves are expanding to include the broader study of how art impacts the community around it. PNCA’s MFA in Collaborative Design focuses on getting students out into the world to collaborate with businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations looking for design solutions.

Back at SVA, students can choose from both a traditional MFA in Fine Arts and an MFA in Art Practice, which its chairman, David Ross, describes as being for “artists working in more hybrid areas, incorporating a number of different media or selecting the particular medium based on what they are trying to accomplish at a given time.”

Even MIT, traditionally known more for tech than for art, is jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to this kind of innovation. Its Master of Science in Visual Studies program focuses on “the development of artistic practices that challenge traditional genres as well as the limits of the gallery/museum context.”

Other schools with offerings focusing on art and design in the community include the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art.

While studio art will always have its place, MFA programs are increasingly going beyond tradition to offer programs that contextualize art within the communities that need it. From mixed media productions to programs focusing on community engagement, it’s a brave new world when it comes to arts education.

411 Portraits

Phillip Sossou won his way into an AP art class at his high school by his reputation. He didn’t have a portfolio and hadn’t completed any of the other prerequisites, but his references were glowing. So Stephen Harris, the instructor, let him enroll, with a few caveats. He had extra work to make up for his missing prereqs.

His very first project in Harris’s class was a charcoal self-portrait. It was a new medium to him, but he took to it like a duck to water. That first portrait led to more, and then straight to his idea for a grand project – he would sketch every one of his classmates in the senior year at Boston Latin School.

All 411 of them.

He got a list of students from the office (public information), and got started. But after months of steady progress, he arrived at February and realized two things.

First, he’d not been making enough progress. To finish by graduation, he’d have to do several portraits a day.

Second, he really didn’t want to leave a single student out.

Sketching became his full time job. He would stay hours late at school and then keep working into the evening at home, fingertips and the sides of his hands always black with charcoal. He worked from memory, from Facebook pictures, and from his own photos taken discretely in the school hallways. Discretely, because he had a plan for this massive and growing body of work.

On June 3rd, the last Friday before graduation, a day when parents would be on campus, Sussou got permission to be in the school very early. With just a few of his closest friends, he hung the corridors with his collection. The walls were covered.

“Parents were crying. Students were crying,” he recalled. “Since I was working on it for so long, I became desensitized. But yeah, I guess it was pretty cool.”

“Cool” is an understatement. Sussou’s gift made certain that every single one of his fellows felt seen, felt that they had been known to be a part of the Boston Latin Community. It will be talked about in those halls for decades.