Art Therapy: Advice for Recent Art School Graduates by Cara Ober

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It’s that time of year again! I can think of nothing more anticlimactic than a graduation ceremony, even at MICA where graduates tromp across the stage in various stages of (un)dress and in costume, rather than the traditional robe and mortar board. It doesn’t matter where you graduate from – there will always be herds of lost parents milling around, garbled graduation speeches with insipid anecdotes and cliches, and an endless list of mispronounced names in alphabetical order. God, it’s boring, even when you’re waiting for your own name to be mispronounced.

Just when it seemed like school would never be over, it’s over. Really over. And the transition this mind-numbing ceremony represents is a real roller coaster, one of the most intense and disconcerting of your life. In a flick of a hat, you’ve gone from student to ‘real’ artist, and you’re out there in the world and that world can be pretty vicious.

To soften the blow, one of the research projects I require of my professional development students at MICA is a studio or gallery visit with an artist or arts professional situated off campus, out of the art school bubble, out in the real world. Part of the problem solving is logistical, part of it is scheduling, some is social empathy, and a great majority of it is putting ones fears aside and asking lots of nosy questions to a complete stranger under the auspices of a class assignment. As you might expect, some of my students come out of this project with new friendships, art world contacts, studio and exhibition opportunities, internships, and even jobs.

Other students have less successful encounters with the larger art world, sometimes because of a lack of effort on their part and sometimes because their subject doesn’t want to share anything but the usual cliches: stick to your guns, believe in yourself, be passionate about your work, etc. Although these suggestions are all true, they are not helpful to a clueless young artist, fresh out of school. For this reason, I have compiled some of the best practical advice given to me and my students: all are specific actions that motivated artists can undertake, tasks anyone can do to feel proactive when that exsistential crisis hits. And it will.

1. No matter what city or town you live in, there is a municipal non-profit art center. It may be the local arts council, similar to School 33 or Maryland Art Place, in Baltimore. Find this place and get involved – as a volunteer, member, teacher, and/or artist. Sometimes this includes paying dues and other times it may require you to donate a work of art or your time. Either way, this is a great starting point and anchor for you. These types of art spaces often have open calls for entry, so you can apply to have a show there, and this often leads to your first exhibition as well as the artist friends you need to keep yourself going.

2. If you can afford it, rent a studio space outside of your home. Do not paint in your parents’ basement, no matter poor you are. Find an affordable space, less than 300 bucks a month. If it is more expensive share the space with another artist. Rent your studio in a building with other young artists. I know this might come off as exorbitant, especially when you are dealing with your first student loan payments, but this is a necessity if you want to keep making art. Especially if it seems expensive to you, this is a good thing – the guilt will make you work harder to justify it. And the artist friends and opportunities that will come from it are valuable beyond any price.

3. Get a job. All artists have day jobs. Don’t worry if yours is miserable and horrible. But don’t pick one that is physically and mentally exhausting, because you still have to make your work. Just find something that has benefits. Or something that pays your bills and allows you a decent amount of free time. If you move to NY, be an art handler. If you live in Baltimore, make cakes, walk dogs, design websites, or build architectural models. Whatever it is, pay your bills. Pay your student loans. It’s empowering. And pay for your studio.

4. Research free stuff for artists. Where do I start? Duh. Start with MICA’s Career Services – either in person or online – or some other online resource for artists – NYFA is great, and, in Baltimore, MAP‘s Artist Opportunities page often has them. Do you want a free studio? Find it. Do you want to attend a residency for free? Apply. Do you need equipment or special training? Do you want to travel to distant lands? Figure out how to do it for free. It might be competitive to apply for these opportunities and you might not get them the first time you apply, but apply and apply again. It’s worth it.

5. Start an informal critique group with your new artist friends. Get together once a month, or however often you can, to share your latest works in the studio. Knowing you have people coming to look at your work is good incentive to make more work.

6. Invite curators, critics, and other artists to your studio for a professional studio visit. It may take months to line up, but keep at it in a friendly yet persistent way. Studio visits cost you nothing besides time, some light snacks, and a reorganizing of your studio space. This is great practice for talking about your work and often leads to exhibits.

7. Galleries. Pay attention to what’s going on – in your town, in other places, too – for free by signing up for a gallery’s e-mailing list. This is research with pictures that is sent to you every month. It’s a great way to educate yourself about what’s going on and who is making what, and to see what kind of work certain galleries like to show. There’s no rush to show in a gallery or work with one, but knowledge is power. This takes very little time or effort on your part.

8. After you have a sense of the artists in your area, find out more about the ones who interest you. You can invite them to your studio, or invite yourself to theirs. If this seems too intimidating, just read their resume and see who shows their work, especially their early work, and what grants and opportunities they have gotten. Add these to your list of things to apply for.

9. Stay in touch with your friends from college. In ten years you’re all going to be thirty and you will be shocked at the great accomplishments of the colleagues who might seem like lovable weirdo losers today. Send emails. Visit. Ask about each other’s work. Stay interested in what they’re doing. The ones who continue to make their work will become more interesting over time.

10. Last word: Assignments. Now that you are no longer a student, no one will be giving you assignments and deadlines to get your work done. As much as possible, set weekly and monthly deadlines for yourself. If you still have a hard time creating new work, set external deadlines: applications, shows, and studio visits where you ask your visitors to give you new assignments. When you know the work is going to be seen and evaluated, the pressure, even fear of failure, will help you to make new work. Don’t wait to start a regular schedule of studio assignments for yourself.

Congratulations on finishing school! Now, welcome to the rest of your life as an artist or non-artist.

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