SMFA Graduate Round Table Discussion
We sat down with Graduate Program Director Jeannie Simms and MFA students Jamie Kay and Kimberly Barnes, for a discussion on contemporary art practice through the lens of their experiences at SMFA. Here they touch on the role of mediums as tools, personal questions they explore in their work, and provide first-hand insights and advice for artists interested in exploring SMFA.
What role does the artist play in contemporary society?
Kimberly: Artists focus on what is relevant in people's lives. I think the term relevant is an interesting one, because it implies cognition. When something's not relevant, you edit it out. But when it is, it sticks in your mind, changes the way you think. Trying to find the relevance of how your work relates is one of the tricks of our trade.
Jamie: Causing a change in thinking. Oscar Wilde said that artists have a way of selling a fantasy to the world. And seeing is such a big part of our culture that it is often a stand-in for thinking. So one of the roles of the artist is to help people see, or think about the world, from new vantage points, or perspectives.
Jeannie: I think artists can help us imagine a different political future, a different economic future, and a different spiritual future. We can do that in ways that are very abstract, much like science, and kind of on the edges of our ability to understand or know them.
How does SMFA prepare students to think conceptually?
Jamie: SMFA helps develop the conceptual thinking behind a student’s art. You're not just throwing stuff together and saying it's art, but rather you have an intention and a plan to support an idea. This happens through one-on-one studio visits with amazing faculty. You end up finding the right chemistry with the right faculty members, and they become your thinking-partners. Together you test out your ideas and experiment. And then you create a piece of artwork, viewing it from as many perspectives as possible.
Jeannie: Seminars are definitely where students learn this. It’s a space to have conversation about the politics of the internet, to talk about colonialism, to talk about reframed history, to look at critical race theory, look at law, and even economics, or economic theory. I think that's one of the things that is the most powerful, and one of the most informative aspects of the program.
Do mediums play a role? How do you view the term “interdisciplinary”?
Kimberly: It's more about how we use mediums. For example, using mediums to tackle certain challenges and ideas within certain concepts or within our society. For me, interdisciplinary means there are no limits to what we make, how we make, how we talk about our work, and what we talk about through that work. I wanted to go to a school like SMFA that was about everyone coming together and learning from each other.
Jamie: Really, it's not so much about the medium as it is about the idea, and then finding the right mediums to support that idea. For me, mediums include practically anything — solar panels, wind generators. I have a piece with a copper pipe! Anything can be medium to me. It also refers to the cross pollination of academic disciplines — psychology, sociology, anthropology, ecology. These are the things I want to study and bring together in an interdisciplinary way. It gives you a different perspective, a different way of navigating and communicating.
Jeannie: I consider myself an artist, and I use certain tools. I use a lot of photography and moving image. But my subjects are migration, language, labor, etc. I encourage students to locate their subject matter. I think we have so many tools at our disposal now, and so many ways of learning. Artists can use any tools in order to embolden and give power to their subject matter.
Jamie: One of my favorite things to witness is a painter picking up video for the first time. The paintings bleed into the video. The video has a painting aesthetic to it. You could see what they did before in their new medium. The same is true across academic disciplines. If someone was an engineer before, and then they pick up art, the two blend together. I always enjoy seeing that pattern.
What questions does your practice explore?
Kimberly: Through my practice I discuss black identity. I often explore hair, because I realize people outside of the black community don’t understand. I explain the anxiety I get when I don't have hair extensions. That anxiety and that fear are real for me, and it's real for women of other minorities. It's not imaginary just because someone else doesn't experience it. So I think that's how my work evolved from starting SMFA to now graduating.
I had the idea of making a video piece as a black woman. The aim of which is to call attention to what people perceive me to look like with my hair, first with extensions, and then when I take the extensions out. When I have an afro it's perceived as negative, masculine; people don't approach me or people are afraid to talk to me. When I have the hair extensions, they're longer and they're feminine, and perceived as appealing. The way I'm being perceived isn't who I actually am. It's just based off how I have my hairstyle. I wanted to show that battle with myself, with how I present myself.
Jamie: My themes are civic duties and rights, ecology, media, and literacy theory. I work with water, wind, and piping. Copper is a material theme that I'm trying to incorporate through all of my work because copper connects the entire world. Copper is the electricity; it is the communications. And I'm trying to incorporate plumbing because I think plumbing is a metaphor for the flowing of information and media and the art itself. It's communication.
How have your studies at SMFA surprised you, or opened you up to new ideas and explorations in your work?
Kimberly: The Montague Travel Grant was the best way to open up my perspective. That was my first time traveling internationally, too. I wanted to go somewhere that was primarily Black, and see how they look at hair, and see how it relates to America, and vice versa. I would have never been able to afford to travel internationally.
Jeannie: Your proposal was strong because it was expanding vastly, looking at hair in an American context to looking at it as an international or diasporic conversation. That enabled you to do and see something you might not have dared yourself to do prior.
Kimberly: I wanted to go to Nairobi. I was interested because I use hair in my work, and I read an article recently that said people in the community would collect hair extensions. They would wash them, and recycle them, and sell them, or use them for their own beauty salons. I was wondering what was it about hair? Also, at that moment, I learned that the natural hair movement in Nairobi and at large, Kenya, was sort of mirroring America. Everyone was starting to wear their natural hair again. I just thought what about that is relevant? Why is it that important to live in a slum, and then still recycle hair, and what is it about, not just beauty, but what is it about appearance and keeping up that personal self?
What insights or advice would you give potential SMFA grad students? Why choose SMFA over another program?
Jamie: The resources are great at SMFA. The classes are diverse and cover many mediums. The population is diverse and very international. And there is a lot of diversity in the way people work and think. It’s highly encouraged to be interdisciplinary and leverage the synergy and creative possibilities that come from that type of practice. Furthermore, the school has some of the best teachers I've ever come across in my entire life. Every student finds a faculty member that is a mentor who helps guide their practice.
It also requires that you be self-motivated. The program gives you only so much structure, so you learn to develop your own structure as you move on into the real world, which is a big, scary place and you won't have assignments guiding your practice. You will be creating your own questions.
Kimberly: I would say it's okay to not know what you're doing. Give yourself a break. Don't be afraid to challenge professors, peers, or yourself. Make friends. The best thing about grad school is the community you build with your cohort. Talk to people.