Eye Opening

Designed by two artists, Watkins’s MFA in Visual Arts is allowing working men and women to discover, or rediscover, their callings as creatives.

Watkins College of Art MFA Student working

By Ron Wagner

Heriberto Palacio signed up for Watkins’s new Masters of Fine Arts in Visual Arts program to learn. Good thing, because when classes started this past June, the Nashville resident found out some surprising things about what he had to learn as an artist.

“The first thing I said to myself when I came in was: ‘I’m going to dominate. I’m going to get straight A’s. I’m going to impress everybody. I’m going to do everything all the time.’ But when I got in there, it’s different,” he says. “It’s about cultivating who you are as an artist and what you want to practice and what you believe in as an artist. It’s not about trying to beat the competition. I had this expectation of what a master’s program would be for an artist, and it’s completely beyond what I thought it would be.”

Palacio (pictured above) is one of five students who make up the program’s inaugural class, and not being able to do everything all the time was one of the reasons the Nashville resident wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to reach his goal of earning an MFA. Thanks to a unique low-residency model, however, he can keep his full-time job while being a full-time student.

“I’d been debating trying to go back to school to get my master’s degree, and I wasn’t sure how to do it because I have a good problem in that I have a great job,” says Palacio, who works at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville. “As an artist who’s interested in working in a museum in the future and possibly being a gallery director, it seemed stupid of me to just pick up and move to a place that has an MFA program because there were none in Nashville. So, when this came around it was perfect.”

An MFA program is instrumental in assisting an art student in finding...what they hope to say and how they hope to engage with the world.

Program director Jodi Hays was well-aware Nashville had no MFA program—and that nobody was in a better position to fill the need than Watkins.

“Our arts community in the region has talked about needing an MFA program,” Hays says. “An MFA program can do several things for a community of artists. It can create a criticality for the work that’s being made. It attracts more artists to live in a place. But an MFA program is also about making work that is aware of history and contemporary practices, and our region is stronger for this awareness. Watkins being able to answer all these calls is exciting.”

Given Nashville’s ascendancy as a creative Mecca, establishing an incubator that can generate and refine the city’s artistic energy and reputation has become increasingly important to Watkins. An MFA in Visual Arts, along with its MFA program in film, is yet another way the college is guiding and fostering Nashville’s cultural boom.

The “low-residency” component helps: Students only have to be on campus some of the time. More than 40 percent of the required 60 credit hours will be completed off campus during fall and spring semesters, with the rest earned at Watkins during intense summer terms and four days in the winter focused on classroom and studio work.

Watkins associate professor Kristi Hargrove, chair of the visual arts program, had faith in the model when she began to design the MFA curriculum.

“Both Jodi and I went to Vermont College, which is the first established low-residency MFA model,” Hargrove says. “We both did our graduate work in this type of program, so we’re really familiar with what works and things that we could add to it that would enhance it.” Hargrove and others worked intensively for more than a year to create the structures that would underpin the degree program.

Designed to “to accommodate working professionals across a wide range of art-making,” the new MFA will take students three summers over two years to complete, during which time Palacio and his classmates can experience an immersion that is both intensive and flexible, self-guided but supported.

“The program allows for people to come in with all sorts of undergraduate or life experiences. While you’re here you take organized classes, like an art history or theory class, a seminar class, professional practices. Then we have workshops and guest lecturers,” Hargrove says. “It’s a model that allows you to scope what you want to study and build your bibliography the way you want and also pick and choose your artist mentors. The idea is that it’s more of a flexible, independent model of learning, so you self-direct a lot.”

That ability to control his own artistic destiny has ended up being as valuable to Palacio as the malleability that drew him to the program to begin with. “It’s about understanding what you want to do with your art. What do you want to say and how will that affect the community that you’re going to be around?” he says. “It was never ‘you need to do this, that’s what you’re doing.’ It was always ‘if that’s something you’re interested in and you think you should do it, here’s some advice.’”

Palacio compared the opening summer semester to “boot camp,” with work in classes or studios starting at 9 a.m. and running until 4 or 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. This level of rigor laid the groundwork for building a research thesis “that we have to defend as artists, written and of course visually.”

“I realize through my progression through the program so far that I’m attracted to the formless, misshapen things people wouldn’t find too attractive,” Palacio says with a laugh. “I’m very interested in abstract and affect theory and how people feel about seeing those things.”

Pretty much every interest of Palacio’s was explored over the summer, he says, with more than a dozen faculty tag-teaming with visiting artists and teachers to bring an eclectic mix of instruction and ideas to campus.

“(The students) come in and the first thing they want to do is open everything up. All the possibilities are here,” Hargrove says. “It’s not that we discourage you from taking the path that you think you want. This idea of graduate school in my mind is to challenge those things and see what are some of the other connections you can make to support your idea. Maybe painting isn’t always the best way to support a particular idea, but maybe it is. We want students to learn the processes that sustain a viable and effective studio practice, and this MFA program is designed to foster the importance of research, as well as critical reading and writing to bridge the conceptual ideas of a project to their most potent visual form.”

The low-residency model is not well-known, and that has resulted in some misconceptions like the Watkins program is somehow online (it isn’t). It’s also, Hargrove and Hays note, a challenging course of study, but with a strong retention rate so far the MFA in Visual Arts program is off to a great start.

“An MFA program is instrumental in assisting an art student in finding a path that makes most sense for what they hope to say and how they hope to engage with the world. It is not easy stuff that we are doing,” Hays says, “but our first cohort is committing to their research, their communities, and their artmaking. Those are three difficult but highly worthwhile pursuits for an artist and the world he/she will reach. It’s a pleasure to watch this, and them, unfold.”