Brent Cleveland's Paintings in the group show Ignition 14. Photo by Paul Litherland/Studio Lux. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery.

Getting art school right

We spoke to three Montrealers in the art-ed milieu about the importance of exploring social bonds between classes.

Entering or returning to a university-level art program can be a daunting experience, in particular because of how much more personal an art class is, than, say, an economics seminar. Of course, where one’s moral compass lands them vis-à-vis the vagaries of Adam Smith, Keynes, Engles and gang is personal, but not in the same way that a studio course can just get really personal, can take a turn at 9 a.m. to become a discussion of someone’s personal trauma and whether or not they’re effectively communicating their trauma to viewers (for now, their 20 fellow students, the professor and the TA, all twitchily drinking coffee).

With this in mind, Cult MTL spoke with three people involved in Concordia University’s Fine Arts milieu: Patrick Traer, a professor in the Painting and Drawing program, Marie-Christine Simard, a technician and professor in the Photography department and Brent Cleveland, a painting student in the final year of his MFA. While a select few students will become career artists, it’s highly telling that these artists and teachers all place heavy importance on the social bonds of art school — the people you meet whose insight and candour can mark you for years to come.

Traer observes that “successful students make an effort to speak to everyone in their classes; they get to know their names.” In other words, don’t dart off the second class is over to mingle with the buddies you already know. Loiter a little. Sometimes these connections may happen by happenstance, sure, but sometimes, as Traer also points out, “you have to actively look for these friendships and alliances.” Cleveland’s advice follows a similar vein: “find your people. There will be artists around you that for some reason or another you just naturally gravitate towards. Often these people leave you feeling inspired and motivated. Recognize the people who do that for you and talk about art with them. Show each other your work, discuss readings together, go to openings together. It really makes art school so rich and exciting to keep that energy up.” 

Now, this may seem obvious, but you also have to want to take part in the art world. Traer reflects that “successful students go to all the galleries and openings regularly. They look at art in real time as much as possible.” A vernissage is a schmoozy event, sure, but you can also take a moment to look at what’s on the walls, to bond over what you love and what you loathe. 

Likewise, take a real interest in who your professors are. If you aren’t captivated in some way by what the faculty are doing, it might be worth considering why it is that you want these people to teach you. Simard points out that “the best way for students to prepare is to do some research about the school and faculty before school starts.” She “find[s] that students know very little about the professors, their work and the school they are in.” Passively choosing your course of studies is pretty dire regardless of what program you’re in, but the subjectivities baked into art school curricula in particular demand that students actively engage with peers and professors alike.These aren’t words of warning, but a reminder that art school should be exhilarating and hard work. Simard puts it simply: “Be open, curious, embrace new ideas, make friends. Say what’s on your mind, don’t take yourself too seriously, be candid and most of all have fun.” In other words, between all the Baudrillard and Adorno you’ll be reading, you can allow yourself a little corny glee at the sheer privilege of making art and meeting others who do the same. ■