It’s the time of year when, as the frost giants finally abdicate their annual reign over Chicago, applicants the world over are getting their responses from Master of Fine Arts graduate programs. Since mid-February they’ve been braving the slings and arrows of “We are sorry to inform you,” “It is with regret,” and “We wish you every success,” occasionally tempered with the cold comfort of some statistic or mention of the unexpected number of applicants and their impressive collective quality. Some are still dangling, hanging to the desperate hope of a waiting list. Many, though, have been receiving their notifications of acceptance, and with those come choices, sometimes difficult. At least three people I know personally are in this situation this year, and it got me to reminiscing, second-guessing, and Monday-morning quarterbacking the choices I made in my education, and also thinking about the choices facing my friends.
Some applicants are accepted only into a single program, at which point the decision pretty much makes itself, especially if that program was one of the applicant’s top choices. In other cases, if accepted by a “safety,” the choice is between accepting admission into a program that wasn’t one’s first, second, or even third choice, or licking one’s wounds, getting back to work, and applying again the next year, in hopes of getting into a more competitive program.
I actually found myself in this situation ten years ago, in 2003, just after graduating from my undergraduate program at Humboldt State University (my degree was conferred in December 2002). I had applied, rather casually, to a few graduate schools, not really taking the process particularly seriously. Mass Art, Pratt, RISD, and Tulane University all wisely concluded that I wasn’t quite ready, while SAIC informed me that yes, their application deadline was a firm one, and that I’d have to apply again next year.
After receiving all this bad news, I finally received an offer of admission from the University of New Orleans. I had applied to UNO, along with Tulane, primarily out of an interest in its role in the Gothic subculture; even as late as 2003, I was thinking it’d be a good place to meet girls in black lipstick. I had visited New Orleans on a road trip with a friend in summer 2001, and it seemed like an interesting place: I found a porcelain doll’s arm and some fragments of what I’m pretty sure were human bone in the topsoil of a cemetery, and at the New Orleans Art Museum I saw Odd Nerdrum’s “Five Persons Around A Waterhole,” which let me tell you, when I was 21, seemed to me to be the paragon of contemporary art. I know, I know.
So I had applied out of a sort of schoolboy’s crush on the city, and I’d been accepted. By that time, though, the end of March, I’d had a sort of awakening, and had realized that despite having just received my degree, I still had a lot to learn about the actual techniques of painting. My interest was in figurative representation, but I had been pushed away from it by my instructors and classmates, probably in large part because I wasn’t very good at it. Instead, I had been making paintings that were a sort of workaround, essentially drawings on toned canvas, and these were pretty well received. My classmates and faculty were supportive, I showed some in local coffee shops and restaurants, even sold a few (albeit at undergrad-in-a-small-town-coffee-shop prices). But ultimately I knew the work was shit. Or, at least, I thought I did; in hindsight, it might have actually been an interesting direction to go in, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. At any rate, by the time the schools I’d heard were good had all rejected me, and UNO had accepted me, I had decided that the work I’d applied with was terrible, and concluded that I “wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The point of all this masturbatory, navel-gazing, canker sore-licking reminiscence is that whatever choice you make, you’ll have the rest of your life to second-guess it. And, if you’re anything like me, you will. If I’d accepted that offer of admission, I would have moved to New Orleans in summer of 2003, having just started a series of large self-portraits dressed up as other people (friends, famous artists, and artist stereotypes), which was kind of clever and funny in an undergrad sort of way. A military saying is “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and how this body of work would have gone over at UNO’s grad program will remain forever unknown. Would I have been pushed in a more interesting direction with it? Encouraged? Sidetracked? Challenged? Coddled? There’s no way to know, but thus relocated, my influences and peers all rearranged, it’s impossible to imagine that I would have gone on to make the same work as I ended up making after deciding to decline their offer and spend another year working on my portfolio to reapply.
As it turned out, I didn’t accept the offer, instead electing to spend another year working on what I thought of at the time as my first real body of work, that dozen or so self portraits. I felt pretty good about them at the time, thought I had a decent shot at getting into a more competitive graduate program the following year. I busted my ass, pulled some crazy all-nighters. I was an animal. I was a machine. All summer, I worked. Some friends and I, all in the same boat, spent Thanksgiving break in the painting studio; we knew how to shimmy across a roof and in through a window so we could paint even when campus was closed. On Thanksgiving, three of us had a little potluck dinner, using the model stand as a table. And then we got back to work. I bought Rock Star (or was in Monster?) at Costco by the case. December came, and with it, the deadlines. I applied to nineteen schools. I was rejected from every single one.
If I’d accepted that offer from UNO, I would have been finishing up my first year, instead of collecting a massive stack of rejection letters. As it was, I started a new body of work, better than the last (I actually still like a few of those paintings), and tried again, and that third year was accepted into three of my top choices: Mass Art, Cranbrook, and MICA. They were all basically good programs, and I had to choose between them. None had offered me a full fellowship, the proverbial “free ride” that MFA students sometimes get, which would have made the choice easier. (Some programs are free for anyone who’s accepted, but none of these three were.) I had a friend at Cranbrook, which was tempting, but ultimately I decided that the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA was the best fit for me, due to its director Grace Hartigan’s emphasis on figurative representation. I started at MICA in August of 2005. A month later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving me to wonder what would have happened to me if I’d gone to UNO. Would I have found a teaching position in the area and been hit by the hurricane, or would I have found work elsewhere and dodged the bullet? If I’d been affected, how? Would I have stubbornly refused to evacuate? Might I even have been killed? More likely, I would have survived, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that I wouldn’t have made work about it, but would it have been any good?
Like Maximus said in Gladiator: “The choices we make in life echo in eternity.” The problem is that we can’t always know how our choices will echo. Whether or not the wingbeat of a butterfly can really effect weather systems a continent away, unexpected outcomes are certainly the rule rather than the exception. So maybe, as you’re mulling over your options for MFA programs, you should picture Jeff Goldbloom playing with droplets of water on the back of your hand, explaining that there is no way you can know what consequences your choice will have.
I never could have known that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the city I would have moved to if I’d accepted UNO’s offer, nor could I have known that by staying in Humboldt for another two years, I would meet the woman who would become my wife. There’s a certain hippie, New Age kind of mindset that may be more prevalent on the West Coast than in Chicago, that the universe has some sort of plan, that everything happens for a reason, and looking in hindsight at some of these consequences leads some to say, “Well, see? There you go! It all worked out.” But of course, if it hadn’t , something else would have worked out. If I’d never met my wife, I would probably have met somebody else. (Tim Minchin’s got a great song about this.) If I can draw any lesson from my experience, it’s that the most important outcomes of any decision tend to be the ones you can’t predict, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.
In the interests of concluding with something a little more actionable, I’ll share two pieces of advice I received while looking at graduate programs. The first was “Follow the money,” that is, go to the school that will result in the least student loan debt. This is great if you are offered a full scholarship to your top choice, or even one of your top choices. But it’s difficult if you’re facing the choice between taking on a major debt load to attend a program that really feels right for you, versus getting a free ride at a school that feels slightly less right to you. Add to this the fact that some programs (Northwestern, for example, and also UIUC I believe) are free for anyone accepted, and at others you can teach in exchange for a tuition waver and sometimes a stipend to live on. It’s a tough choice, not one I ever had to face, but one that some of my friends are facing right now. One mitigating factor in favor of getting to the school that’s best for you, debt be damned, is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This says that, in effect, if you work full time for a non-profit public service institution for ten years, while making your scheduled student loan payments on time, at the end of that period they’ll forgive the rest of your loan debt. Considering that a.) a primary reason a lot of people pursue an MFA degree is in order to teach, and b.) that most colleges count, and that c.) you can make fairly low student loan payments on the income-based repayment plan, this means that you can go to the fancy MFA program, teach for ten years (if you can find the work, and that’s a big “if”), make modest loan payments of as little as eighty bucks a month, and then you’re free and clear. This takes some of the hurt and fear out of going to a more costly school that might offer the kind of program you’re looking for.
The other piece of advice I got, though, was that the most important aspect of graduate program was the city you’d be living in while attending. It makes some sense; certainly we see players in Chicago’s art scene who represent students and alumni from not just SAIC but also Columbia, UIUC, UIC, and more; attending graduate school in Chicago can be an entry point into Chicago’s art scene regardless of which school one attends. On the other hand, Yale’s MFA program pretty obviously has influence outside New Haven, Connecticut. Cranbrook is located in an almost monastic retreat in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, not particularly close to Detroit or anywhere else, and yet its graduates show up, doing well, all over.
I only ended up in Chicago out of sheer, dumb luck. I stuck around Humboldt for another year because I wanted to go to a school that was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, and then another because none of them would have me. On a whim, I went to crash Freshman Orientation to pick up on freshman girls and scam free pizza. Three years later, I married one of those girls, Stephanie Burke. She’s quick to point out that she was a transfer student, not a freshman, and also there for the free pizza. After she spent a year with me in Baltimore while I finished up at MICA, she applied to her own round of MFA programs. It was her first year applying, and she got into three excellent programs: Virginia Commonwealth, MICA, and SAIC. SAIC had been her top choice, and Baltimore hadn’t really set any hooks into either of us compelling us to say, so we pulled up our stakes and headed for Chicago. Five and a half years later, we’re rocking and rolling in an incredibly vibrant art scene, and while it’s hard for me to imagine doing so well anywhere else, the road that led here is one I couldn’t see at all from where it started.