Autumn is always a nostalgic time for me, especially as I prepare to get back to school and teach my own class. Watching my students learn and grow is such a privilege, and I’m always struck by how tough things can be during this complicated time in a young artist’s life. For those of you who have chosen to go to art school, perhaps about to start your new semester, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on navigating this time in your life and getting the most out of your experience.
For me, art school was a transformative, life altering time. Part of an art career is about learning the culture and language that goes along with it, and in many ways that started for me in college. Building relationships with other artists, supporting each other while exploring our own work, managing relationships and family, all these things which are essential to my career today began many years ago while I was in school. Staying engaged and excited about what you are doing and the community you are in is really, in all honesty, the secret.
Don’t agonize over your school
I think, ultimately, it doesn’t actually matter that much where you go to college. What you do while you’re there is far more important. It is you that will make your art school experience a valuable one. Every school(and I mean EVERY school) has it’s trash pile of short comings. I’m not for a second suggesting you accept poor treatment or toxic behavior, but give some thought to the idea that you determine a lot about what you are getting out of this experience.
Be proactive about your classes and teachers
Find out who the good teachers are and switch into their classes. Learn about what opportunities are available and take advantage of them! You need to be proactive about how you spend your time. Find the teachers that inspire you and learn as much as you can from them. Take classes that interest and excite you. An art career is a lot about seizing opportunity and it should start here.
Make friends with senior students
I learned as much from wizened Juniors and Seniors as I did from my teachers. Who’s up in the painting studios late at night? Whose work is hanging in the hallways and student galleries? Who won the scholarships and awards this year? Whose work are teachers showing you? These are the people you should be going to for advice. In addition to inspiring and educating you themselves, they can provide a wealth of information about teachers, classes, etc. This sort of relationship building is so important in the professional world as well, I learned so much from older illustrators when I was first getting my career started. Finding role models is an essential part of being engaged with what is going on at your school.
Go to the library
Here’s a little secret: All the good students go to the library. There is still something magical about digging through books. Let the library take you to strange, unexpected places. Make friends with the library people. It’s a resource a lot of people seem to ignore which is reason enough to give it your attention.
Impress your teachers
All of my early career opportunities came from teachers. Try the things they suggest, read the books they talk about, look at the artists they love, show them that you care about what they think. There isn’t a metaphorical burning house I wouldn’t run through for the students I love, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard. Learning to decipher what someone is looking for out of you, and then figuring out an authentic, honest way to then do that is in many ways what an illustration practice is all about.
The worst students are the ones unwilling to try anything new. On some level I feel like they’re missing the entire point of going to art school, which is to discover something about yourself through the process of making. Try as many things as humanly possible, take advantage of the resources a large institution like this offers, unfold yourself, live like an artist. Don’t let fear, or your ego keep you from trying something you might be initially bad at. Take printmaking, learn to sculpt, blow glass, make videos, whatever. If all you want to do is level up your skills and get a job in the industry, there are so many better and more affordable ways to do that. Exploit art schools greatest advantage over other ways of learning: the ability to easily expose yourself to a lot of new people and things.
Keep a sketchbook
You need to be painting and drawing outside of your class assignments. So much of learning art is in the making, and a sketchbook is an invaluable tool in that endeavor. A sketchbook is a great place to trying new things in a safe, low stakes way. Some of my fondest college memories are of my friends and I drawing in our sketchbooks in a cafe at 2am instead of doing the work we knew we should all be doing. So many of my best creative leaps started in a sketchbook, where I was experimenting with different ways to use ink and paint.
Get rid of the toxic people in your life
I’m saying this a little carefully here, since I realize this is a very broad statement, but clearing your life of toxic, unsupportive people is really key to making this art life work. In fact, I think it’s one of the best parts about going away to college: You can put some literal distance between you and the negativity of your past. Not everyone has that luxury of course, and I realize life is incredibly complicated, but doing what you can to surround yourself with people who lift you up and make you feel safe and taken care of is so important. Dump your shitty partner, stop talking to the friends who resent you for pursuing your dreams, drop that class with the teacher who is making up for his failed art career by treating you like garbage. School is too fleeting to be ruined by bad people in your life. Treat your creativity like a precious object.
Make up for your school’s weaknesses
If you’ve spent a year or two in school, you probably already know what your school’s shortcomings are. I know how frustrating this can feel, especially given the huge amount of money these programs cost, but honestly it doesn’t really absolve you from having to do something about it. You need to take your education into your own hands. In Laura Owens’ recent monograph she talks about being dissatisfied with the painting faculty and it’s agenda, and how she and her friends formed a club so that they could use school resources to bring in guest speakers that they admired. I found that idea very inspiring and wished more students viewed their life as young artists in those terms. The internet has given us unparalleled access to all sorts of things, and in many ways this kind of self engineered type of learning is easier than ever.
For those who are about to return to school or start for the first time, I hope you’ll keep some of this in mind. Above all, your friends and community are the most important thing to be gained from school. I don’t know any successful artists who don’t also have a strong group of friends and mentors supporting them. Good luck!