From the Archives

Back to School

In honor of the time of year and the general nervousness, excitement, and relief that come with the advent of the regular school year, this week we bring you a post written by Bean Gilsdorf entitled “Back to School,” from her weekly Help Desk column for DS. Her advice to the student behind the question “What to do before I graduate?” is sage: take advantage of all that you can. Meet teachers, take elective classes, review old work. Use the resources you have, and you will be better prepared when you graduate. Her advice can go for just about anyone, though, so take heed and as the French say, “profitez-en!” The following article was originally published on August 20, 2012.

I am currently attending art school on the East Coast to receive a BFA in painting. I will be a junior this coming year and feel that things have really started to pick up. The first half of my undergraduate education has gone fairly well. Foundation year was rigorous, and last year I explored a lot within my own work. I have multiple on-campus jobs and am beginning to feel good about my contact and personal relationships with the faculty. Besides my own personal goals to read a lot and really hit the ground running in the studio, I was wondering if you had any advice on what I can do to make the most out of my remaining two years in undergrad? Specific class topics? Outside experiences? Maybe taking advantage of the close vicinity to Boston and New York? Any advice would be great.

I’m glad to hear that you feel good about how things are going in general. Art school can be tough and competitive, but it sounds like you’re on an even keel and ready to work on your next steps. It’s been a long time now since I was an undergrad, but in order to answer your question I spent some time thinking about the beneficial things I did—and the things I wish I had done—when I was in school. Below are some ideas for you to consider, divided into the three categories of career, artwork, and personal development.

Barry McGee, Untitled #29, 2002. Paint (mixed media) on wood panels, 96 x 144 in.

Career: I like that you have on-campus jobs and are cultivating good relationships with faculty. When you graduate, you’re going to run into a lot of people who will say, “Oh, you went to RISD? Do you know Professor X?” and it may be helpful if you’re able to say, “Yes.” Make sure that you get at least a little face time with all of the people in your own department.

Also, spend some time talking to teachers in other departments, because it’s easy to become conceptually isolated in the echo chamber of a particular department. You can figure out which people you want to contact by listening carefully when your friends discuss their classes and instructors. Who is a good teacher? Who gives good feedback? Who is friendly and generous? You want these people in your life, if for no other reason than they will create good energy and positive vibes for your practice (and I can say that with a straight face, because I live in California). If you hear of someone really phenomenal, ask for a studio visit. Inviting people from other departments to your studio will expand your understanding and your practice, which will serve you well after graduation. After all, there are no media-specific departments in real life. When you’re done with school, you’re going to have to contend with the entirety of contemporary art, not just contemporary painting.

Barry McGee, 2006 Installation at Gallery Paule Anglim

Artwork: Before school starts, take a day to look back through old sketchbooks or notebooks and find the ideas that you jotted down and then forgot. Do those notions still have merit? How could you develop them? You may find related ideas that can be explored along thematic lines. I assume you have some sort of thesis or culminating project to tackle at the end of your tenure at RISD (and if you don’t, it might be a good idea to act as if you do, if for no other reason than it will be good practice for producing a body of work). Some further thinking might lead you to an interesting thesis topic. But before you get locked into an idea, I sincerely recommend that you experiment your ass off this year. I don’t know exactly how RISD works, but if you can avoid committing yourself to a particular mode of working just yet, then do it. Experimentation leads to growth, and growth leads to wisdom, so make a pact with yourself to try as many things as you can think of this year and see where they take you. I’m not recommending that you fling yourself willy-nilly in all directions; instead, start with an idea for a painting and then come up with ten ways you could express that idea. Then paint three of them. Then evaluate those three and see what works and what doesn’t. To do this requires an enormous commitment to your practice (unless you’re the world’s fastest painter), but the payoff could be incredible. Trust yourself, trust the process, and work, work, work. By the time you do have to hand in your thesis proposal, you’ll have ideas dripping from your very fingers and a solid direction in which to take your work.

Barry McGee, Untitled, 2010. Ink and acrylic on paper, two elements, 15 x 23 1/2 in.

Personal Development: Somewhere in there, between your jobs, your studio visits, and your late-night sessions in the studio, consider taking a class in a subject that you know nothing about. If you want an intellectual challenge, sign up for a semiotics or film theory seminar. If you want something hands-on, take a class in sewing or woodworking. Follow your interests, because when you graduate you want to feel like you got the most out of your education. You could also discover something about yourself and the ways in which you prefer to work—and “know thyself” is a helpful tenet for a young artist. Take the time to look at lots of art in museums and galleries, too. You already mention taking trips to your nearest metropolitan areas, and I agree that it’s worthwhile to take advantage of your current proximity while you can.

I’d like to end on a note that applies to everyone, not just students who are heading back to school. A very long time ago, a kind and generous teacher taught me the phrase, “Ask for what you need,” and I’ve been trying to put it into practice in my life ever since (with varying degrees of success). We live in a culture of self-reliance and competition, so asking for help can be one of the hardest things to do. But the benefits can be enormous: not only do you often obtain the assistance you need just by asking, but you also expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of your life and artistic practice to others, which creates the potential for them to do the same. Often the questions we have and the issues with which we struggle are not unique, and when we express them we create an opportunity to connect. I encourage you, in the next two years and beyond, to identify your goals, map out a potential route for yourself, and then reach out to others who might be able to assist you. Offer to reciprocate as best you can—a cup of coffee, a few hours of babysitting, or homemade cookies may be all that you can offer right now, but eventually you’ll be in a position to help others and can pass along the good work.