On Art Education
Nearly three years ago I graduated from a small private fine-art college, Oregon College of Art and Craft, with a BFA in Craft with a Concentration in Fiber Art, a degree I obviously pursued because of the straight-forward, lucrative career path that it promised. It seems perplexing that someone who had, in fifth grade, chosen her middle-school based on the chances of getting into the magnet high school that would be most likely to get her into an Ivy League College, who maintained a nearly perfect GPA, was a member of 9 clubs, vice-president of her senior class, and editor in chief of Yearbook would end up in graduating with 38 peers from a small, little-known art college with a degree that to most eyes seems remarkably impractical.
An art education does not provide a straight and narrow path, rather it teaches you how to make your own machete.
Despite popular opinion, I feel that I acquired the most valuable degree that I could have. Not because I am now raking in cash (I am not) or because I have impressive gallery representation (I do not). Rather it is because I was given a community of people who believed, and helped me believe, that my ideas had value. I was given the time and space to get to know myself and the practical tools to know how to share myself in a meaningful way. It is a wicked shame to underestimate the value of self-actualization. Not only for the sake of our mental and emotional health, but also for the sake of our professional well-being.
A thorough understanding of who one is, how they fit into the context of humanity, and what they have to bring to the proverbial table is perhaps the most valuable thing that an education can provide. An art education does not provide a straight and narrow path, rather it teaches you how to make your own machete.
Art institutions of all shapes and sizes share a small library of buzz words and phrases that they use to describe the way an art degree prepares you to enter into the work force and makes you a valuable employee. “Creative problem-solving skills,” “critical thinking capabilities,” and of course the ability to be “innovative” are all thrown around in every speech given about how an art degree will serve its graduate. There are essays and even entire books dedicated to the idea that it is thoughtful creativity that will remain the hottest commodity in an increasingly “post-work” society. While I perceive these things to be true, I am not a researcher or a journalist and do not claim to be an authority on the subject. The evidence I have for “success” in life post-art school is anecdotal and experiential.
Nothing else teaches you how to mend, transform, reimagine, or develop a tenacious will to continue trying quite like art school does.
A little over a week after graduating from art school, I had a full-time job with benefits working in sales and merchandizing for a local lighting and lifestyle brand. I used my degree when I arranged objects and furniture, interacted with customers, dressed myself for work, presented my ideas to my boss, or gift-wrapped a box. Because my education had shifted the way that I understood and, quite literally, saw the world, no portion of my work or personal life was not impacted. Art school requires you to understand patience, process, failure, and vulnerability to a different degree than most other forms of education. It requires you to understand how to invest fully in something, to give yourself over to a painting or a weaving or a sculpture or a piece of furniture, and then watch it turn out muddled or ugly or dysfunctional or broken. Sometimes it is your fault, sometimes the fault of some force beyond your control. The sensation is something utterly different than what it feels like to fail a test; it feels more intimate and devastating.
Nothing else teaches you how to mend, transform, reimagine, or develop a tenacious will to continue trying quite like art school does. Having a mind that has been molded by this kind of education has helped me cope with rejection, fear of the unknown, loneliness, body issues, obsessive perfectionism, and even the death of loved ones. It has made me more self-aware, more compassionate, more open-minded and more candid.
I am now a full-time Admissions Counselor for my alma mater, working with prospective students, traveling around the country representing the institution. In the last year, I have traveled to 22 cities in 15 states to talk to young artists about their portfolios, to share information about our school, and to advocate for art education. Again and again what I am asked about, especially by concerned parents, is career placement statistics, the chances of their children getting into the fields of animation or graphic design, internships that will turn into jobs right after graduation. These are important, valuable concerns, especially given the high and ever-rising tuition for all private fine-art schools. The question of how one is going to pay their bills, during school and after graduating, is an essential one.
I have friends who have graduated from fine art schools all over the country. Some of them, saddled with the reality of student debt and an undefined future, regret their decision. I do not pretend that all those who earn a BFA feel the way I do about its intrinsic value. Some of them have gone on to work in production, art direction, project management, operations management, curation, food service, retail. Some are painters and mothers, educators, designers, entrepreneurs, studio assistants, and florists. Some of them make good money and some of them do not. Some of them sell their art work and some of them, like myself, sustain a studio practice not as a method of making money but because it is a fundamental part of who they are and how they process the human experience. Even when it is not lucrative, it still feels like the most meaningful thing they can invest in.
If we can train our bodies and minds to do hard, deep work, if we learn from our mistakes, and if we gain humility and compassion, can we become better, stronger versions of ourselves?
In an interview with Patti Smith at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, she quotes the same advice William Burroughs gave her when she was young: “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work. And make the right choices and protect your work. And if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.” Something about that concept of identity as currency resonated with me. If we can train our bodies and minds to do hard, deep work, if we learn from our mistakes, and if we gain humility and compassion, can we become better, stronger versions of ourselves? And if we can master the ability to speak our truth without fear and to wear our own skin without self-consciousness, then might we find a way to make a sense of self the most valuable thing we could ever possess?
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