The inaugural cohort of LRVS students arrive on campus for a summer of intense art-making, debate, and creative growth.
In early summer 2012, the first cohort of graduate students for PNCA’s new Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies program arrived on campus. They picked an ideal time to arrive: Portland is at its best, sunny and warm, and full of possibilities. People throng the sidewalks and cyclists zip through neighborhoods late into the still-lit evenings. At this time of year minds, as well as windows and doors, are flung open to possibilities and possibilities. Into this “anything’s possible” attitude and into the collective breath that professors and students take at the end of each school year, the new LRVS students arrived to wring from every experience all that could be wrung by deliberate, focused, and concentrated enthusiasm.
The Low Residency MFA in Visual Studies, LRVS for short, is PNCA’s newest addition to the school of graduate studies. This vital program fills a hole in the College’s offerings and is designed specifically for students with individual drive for whom external obligations make it impossible to enroll in a full-time program. Without exception, these students are quite serious about being in a graduate program. They’ve made a serious choice and are wholly committed to it.
The program spans three years and can be extended to four to adapt to individualized study plans. Twice each year – for eight weeks during the summer and for four days in the winter – students meet on campus for intensive periods of coursework and critique. Simultaneously, throughout those three years, students are maintaining rigorous personal studio practices. Though the typical program threads through summer-winter-summer-winter-summer, students can adapt the program to fit their schedules, spreading the courses over four years, for example.
“One of the benefits of this degree format,” explains Tracey Cockrell, chair of the Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies program, “is that learning is directly infused with the demands of life. We see our students bringing a richness of life experience – experiences that twenty-four year old may not have – to pair with the rigors of challenging education. Here, our students find a compatible peer group to meet this challenge with.”
During this inaugural summer students worked with and in sculpture, animation, video, book arts, printmaking, installation, performance, painting, drawing, and photography.
For each summer session LRVS students return to Portland for an eight-week long institute featuring graduate seminars, critique sessions, visiting artist lectures, and intensive periods of studio practice. Students participate in onsite graduate seminars and unique subject focused institutes run by PNCA faculty, and by visiting artists and scholars. The LRVS program also invites an artist-in-residence to work alongside the students during the summer. This year, Cockrell collaborated with campus curator Mack McFarland to invite artist and theorist Tom Zummer, whose exhibition Thomas Zummer: a partial retrospective of works I should have done, was on view in the Feldman Gallery + Project Space from July 21 through August 5, 2012.
“With Tom Zummer, we expanded our basic understanding of the 18th-century sublime and how that compares or has evolved into the modern American definition of the sublime,” describes Cockrell. “He brought a collection of films and videos with him, which we would watch and discuss.” She laughs, reflecting on the experience. “Students were encouraged to visit him while he was installing his show in the Feldman Gallery and Tom graciously hosted all manner of dialogue throughout the installation process.”
For each of the eight weeks, the LRVS program invited a visiting artist or scholar to speak, mentor, and critique the students. This past summer’s visiting artists included artist and PNCA faculty member Hayley Barker; feminist scholar and art historian Kristin Swenson; printmaker Jim Reid; artist Cynthia Ona Innis; neuroscientist Brian Dunn; creative collaborators Peter Suckecki and Lauri Twitchell; and Tom Zummer for an extended stay as Artist-in-Residence. Each week is framed in large part by the questions and issues provoked by the visiting artist. During their visit to campus, the artists integrate and interact with the students. The result is a constant flow of new voices.
“They were all unique and different,” explains Cockrell. “Students can expect some variety from the artists.”
She elaborates: “Tom [Zummer] exhausted us all with his questions. He asked that every student arrive with a joke to share launching an amazing conversation about compositional strategies. Hayley Barker focused on the working process within the students’ studios. She talked with us about marks, about mark-making, about the pleasures of making. Her visit was characterized by long one-on-one visits in each studio.”
Summer coursework is substantial and intensely condensed. After all, students only have eight weeks to take it all in. They are expected to move and learn quickly. But the Low-Res program is grounded first and foremost in a solid studio practice. All resources and studios are within walking distance of the main campus.
“It’s a theory-based program,” said Cockrell. “In addition to artist’s lectures, students take seminars in contemporary art and design, Critical theory and art history, and have a text-based introduction to art and design.”
For example, among many other writings, students read Foucault, and Roland Barthes’ “Death of an Author,” debating artistic autonomy and the influences of culture on every artist. They watch films and study paintings, discussing what makes an image an image. With their mentors and professors, students discuss their studio practice. What habits are useful or not useful? How do you cultivate a rich, sustainable creative practice or career?
Students also participate in a critique seminar, in electives, in specialized workshops (this past summer offered access to an exclusive workshop with Master Printer Jim Reid of Gemini G.E.L. and a joint intensive with the MFA in Collaborative Design; this coming summer promises more such intensives including access to the Boundary Crossings Institute in Contemporary Animation), and in the provocative graduate visiting artist lecture series.
The last two weeks of the summer session are set aside for intense studio time: time to digest the summer session and to integrate those lessons and debates into one’s work.
Cockrell saw her students make enormous strides – artistically and theoretically – in their work. An established printmaker experimented with performance. A journalist and designer expanded into high-art photography. A painter made her first forays into abstract sculpture. “I think grad programs can be places to return to a beginner’s mind, to apply your talents to a new set of tools.”
“It was intense,” says Cockrell with a wondering shake of her head, “and extremely fast-paced. I think everyone was surprised they were still standing at the end of it. Everyone saw tremendous growth and change because of the intensity of the program.”
“As an example, one student made a terrific breakthrough. She really fortified her judgment and skills,” says Cockrell. “Each student is struggling to find his or her own voice within choices one knows one can make. We’ve paired each with stable mentors to help sort through these crises.”
While at PNCA, Low-Res students have free rein of the expansive Stevens Studios. During the traditional school year, the Stevens Studios are divided into small, private nooks for thesis students and advanced painting students. Specifically for the LRVS cohort the partition walls are removed, transforming the building into a spacious retreat for creative concentration in large individual work spaces.
A terrific rapport developed among the students. It was built, in part, upon their mutual dependence on each other in a new city, learning to navigate and travel together via public transportation, to get to library, to galleries and museums, to the Bison Building (home to the MFA in Applied Craft and Design program) and the Thurman Street Building (home to the MFA in Visual Studies). Together, the students learned to make use of the program, to share both critiques and coffee, to seek out films, beer, and dinner together. They chatted with Applied Craft and Design students over informal Happy Hours, and discussed studio work with Visual Studies students at Disjecta.
“Our students come from all over the country,” says Cockrell. “And with the relationships they’ve made here, over the summer, we’re encouraging them to organize exhibits in different cities, to travel and visit one another, to introduce each other to different arts communities and cultures. We’re pairing a rigorous education with mobility.”
They had a group dinner with each of the visiting artists, took advantage of one-on-ones with visiting artists, guest critics, professors, local artists, alumni, graduate students from other programs, and each other. There was a constant flow of conversation that bridges studio work, seminar classes, lectures, and critiques.
“We did everything together,” says Cockrell. “We were exhausted but extremely elated, so tired that we couldn’t lie anymore.”
Low-residency programs like the LRVS program at PNCA are more important than ever in today’s economy. They are a means to pursue higher education and pursue professional development and advancement while maintaining an active career.
Cockrell has long been interested in low-residency programs and has worked with low-residency programs at other colleges.
“The question of ‘who precisely is education for’ is very important to me,” explains Cockrell. “In a time when education is so expensive, what options are there for a non-traditional student? Here, we make a high level of education available to students who might have already developed an ongoing studio practice, but who want to push it further.”
Low-residency students are often curious about developing new practices but don’t have access to the materials, teachers, or time they need to become proficient.
In this format, students can pursue rigorous, high-standard education that’s on part with traditional graduate art programs, but can be fit around existing jobs and obligations. PNCA’s LRVS program was developed to maximize the infusion of learning into an already rich life practice.
Cockrell elaborates. “Students work independently in their studios and return each summer and winter to PNCA for an immersive program experience. That rhythm is important because it more closely mirrors what we do in real life.”
The first cohort of LRVS students are in their home studios right now. Cockrell worked with students to pair each student with a mentor in their hometown. Students meet with their mentors weekly to develop and to maintain a plan that suits the practice of those students. They’re learning to connect with a larger peer group and professional network, and to seek out formal and informal mentorship opportunities in their own cities. In Los Angeles an LRVS student is studying alongside the Co-Director for the Program in Art at CalArts.
Students will return to campus in January for a four-day intensive that will include a review of work they’ve been doing in their home studios. They’ll spend those days studying research methodologies, gathering resources, and preparing to begin their thesis work.
Cockrell’s already lining up the visiting artists and scholars for next summer.
“These artists and educators are fantastic for the types of students attracted to this program, and as we put together our next incoming cohort I’ll be choosing additional visiting artists according to student interests.”
“Already, I can see this becoming a culturally, artistically, aesthetically, and intellectually diverse program,” says Cockrell. “One where rich dialogues engage creativity across, within, and through different disciplines. I want students to go do something and have an impact.”
The LRVS program will be hosting an open house on January 17th, 2013 at 6:30pm in the MFA Central Gallery at PNCA. All are welcome to come meet Tracey Cockrell, Department Chair, and current students.