I entered graduate school at the University of Delaware in the fall of 1996. I had packed up, left Arizona, and headed to graduate school for an MFA degree in painting and I was stoked. The UD has an amazing campus and the art department is located right in the heart of the old section of the school. Stately red brick buildings stand in the middle of a grassy and tree lined park, and the graduate students have beautiful studios overlooking the whole area. One cannot find a more inspiring or romantic place to make paintings.
The beginning days were amazing. At the time, there were three full time painting instructors and only eight painting MFA candidates. The instructors were friendly and highly skilled painters, who I immediately felt a connection with. I can remember moving into my studio on the second floor and enthusiastically laying out my brushes and canvas, finding furniture, and getting ready to paint. I was thankful for it all. I had worked hard to get there, and I knew that being able to paint for two years under the guidance of professionals, was a gift not to be squandered. I quickly got to work.
For about two weeks, the graduate students worked feverishly on our paintings. We mixed our colors and gessoed canvas. We scraped color on with palette knives and blended hard edges into soft edges. Then, we stood back and stared at our work for long moments before pouncing back into action. The smell of linseed oil and turpentine permeated the building and our walls were soon filled with drawings and paintings. It was a frenzy of excitement and everything that I thought graduate school would be; right up until we had our first critique.
We began the critique by gathering in one of the classroom studios and putting our work up on the walls. The instructors were there and we began to discuss. It quickly became apparent that the students were trying hard to prove how much they knew about art as well as to show off their art-speak words. The art-speak was laid on thick, and it made my head swim. What's more, I could tell that I was behind. Most of the artists the students referred to were completely unknown to me. I had no idea who Julian Schnabel was at the time, not to mention whether I was pro Schnabel or anti-Schnabel. I didn't know whether I was trying to be campy or postmodern, or whatever.
More striking was the way the students tried to one-up each other. They demanded that you answer for your work and know every reason why you had chosen to paint something. If you painted a tree, it had to stand for something. This is called, being responsible for your images. The idea being that in an image saturated world, the image makers need to assume responsibility for creating profound images that move the culture forward, rather than just creating more visual noise. This is an idea, by the way, that I totally agree with. The difficulty comes in the implementation.
As I sat through more and more critiques, I gradually shut down. It was just too much pressure to create an image that was totally unique and that I understood on a deep level and could discuss. Images are not books after all, they are images. They call to us in unexpected ways and draw us to them. One cannot necessarily dissect a painting in a way that is really truthful. Sometimes the painting has to be enough. I got to the point where I sat in my studio thinking of all the criticism my work would soon receive and how I would defend it. My art-speak improved greatly and I learned to spin a pretty story, but I felt my work was no longer my own. I was just trying to make something that was approved and defensible.
Here I should stop and assure you, my reader, that the professors at the University of Delaware were much more forgiving than my fellow graduate students and really just wanted to encourage painting. In hindsight, I wish I had more conversations with them and less with my fellow students.
Unfortunately, I put myself under so much pressure that I ended up in the school's infirmary. I had developed irritable bowel syndrome and became extremely week with it. In hindsight it seems foolish to have put myself under that much pressure just for an MFA, but there you have it. I lay in bed for four days until I finally managed to get my energy back and resume my studies. It was only then that I was able to put it all into some perspective.
For my final project and thesis show, I painted over two hundred paintings on small seven inch panels. I began to lay the panels out five or six at a time on a table in my studio. Then, I allowed myself to just paint. Whatever I wanted, whatever came to mind, I just painted. My only condition, was that it be entirely abstract. After I had about twenty paintings or so, I would group them into a grid shape with about an inch between each panel. In this way, the paintings were simultaneously one large painting and several smaller ones. They were striking.
But what had changed? While in the infirmary I had come to a realization. This realization carries with me today and continues to shape my work and painting philosophy. You see, I realized that creativity does not come solely from the mind, but also from the body. The mind only gives you a place to start; maybe a color, or a shape, a basic image, etc. However, it is the action of the body that really moves creativity forward. You must simply begin and allow yourself the space and freedom to create. Only then will your creativity really explode.
Imagine trying to write a book with everything that happens all planned out beforehand. I would hazard a guess that the book would be terrible, bland, flat. An author begins with an outline and an idea, but then just writes and sees what the characters will do. In other words, you have to type on the keys to write a book. The same must be done in painting. The artist begins, and as soon as one stroke is placed on the canvas, it informs the artist of what the next stroke must be. The eye must always be thinking, but sometimes the brain needs to be shut off to allow the creative project to move forward. You can't worry about justifying your creativity or your creativity will be shut off, just as mine was.
For my MFA show, I gave myself the freedom to just create. I didn't stop to explain it to anyone, I just worked. It was very freeing and lead to a great series of paintings. Creativity can't always be explained. It isn't meant to be logical. It is by its very nature, illogical, emotional, and unpredictable. If you are a creative individual, guard against too much logic. Let your eye or your ear be your guide far more than your brain. Allow yourself the space to just create and see where it all leads. Later, much later, you can try to sort it out and see what it signifies to you. And if you are an MFA student now, just make art. Lots of it. As much as you can. Don't worry about style or what is popular. Don't try to keep up with the zeitgeist, it is already passing you. Just make tons of art and to hell with your critical fellow students. They don't know. Make art. Make art. Make art.
Author: Bruce Black
Welcome to Life Reimagined! I am a professional artist and long time art teacher, over twenty-two years teaching and still going! I have painted all my life and love to inspire others to reach their creative potential. I hope this blog brings you inspiration!