Our topic this Summer Session is Back to School, and today we bring you an article from our arts-advice column Help Desk about that very thing. Here, Bean Gilsdorf outlines her best advice for getting the most out of an arts program, particularly as an undergraduate, and how to jumpstart personal development as an artist—whether you practice as a student, professionally, or independently. This article was originally published on August 20, 2012.
I am currently attending art school (RISD) on the east coast to receive a BFA in painting. I will be a junior this coming year and feel that things have really started to pick up. The first half of my undergraduate education has gone fairly well. Foundation year was rigorous and last year I explored a lot within my own work. I have multiple on campus jobs and am beginning to feel good about my contact and personal relationships with the faculty. Besides my own personal goals to read a lot and really hit the ground running in the studio, I was wondering if you had any advice on what I can do to make the most out of my remaining two years in undergrad? Specific class topics? Outside experiences? Maybe taking advantage of the close vicinity to Boston and New York? Any advice would be great.
I’m glad to hear that you feel good about how things are going in general. Art school can be tough and competitive, but it sounds like you’re on an even keel and ready to work on your next steps. It’s been a long time now since I was an undergrad, but in order to answer your question I spent some time thinking about the beneficial things I did—and the things I wish I had done—when I was in school. Below are some ideas for you to consider, divided into the three categories of career, artwork, and personal development.
Career: I like that you have on-campus jobs and are cultivating good relationships with faculty. When you graduate, you’re going to run into a lot of people who will say, “Oh, you went to RISD? Do you know Professor X?” and it may be helpful if you’re able to say, “Yes.” Make sure that you get at least a little face time with all of the people in your own department.
Also, spend some time talking to teachers in other departments, because it’s easy to become conceptually isolated in the echo chamber of a particular department. You can figure out which people you want to contact by listening carefully when your friends discuss their classes and instructors. Who is a good teacher? Who gives good feedback? Who is friendly and generous? You want these people in your life, if for no other reason than they will create good energy and positive vibes for your practice (and I can say that with a straight face, because I live in California). If you hear of someone really phenomenal, ask for a studio visit. Inviting people from other departments to your studio will expand your understanding and your practice, which will serve you well after graduation. After all, there are no media-specific departments in real life. When you’re done with school you’re going to have to contend with the entirety of contemporary art, not just contemporary painting.