Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Open Call: Pursuing an MFA at Midlife

By Winston Lee Mascarenhas

Winston Lee Mascarenhas in his studio at the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, Scotland

Entering the Masters of Letters in Fine Art program at the Glasgow School of Art, I planned to integrate my passions for both the performing arts, especially classical music, and the visual arts. My intent and thesis for the program was to research and develop my own unique way of visualizing sound and the rhythms of music and life into alive, emotive abstract works.  

During the course of the program I also came to realize the underlying current of influences of my previous professional life as an MD specialist in anesthesiology with a subspecialty of trauma/critical care. The management and monitoring of people’s lives and vital signs in the operating room was my daily professional practice, with an ever-present and constant vigilance of the human heartbeat—the rhythm of life.  

From Doctor to Artist
I did not all of a sudden tell myself in 2011, after retiring from my medical career, that now I’m going to be an artist. I had already thought of myself as an artist and had already started my professional pursuits in 2010. I've been in the arts since the age of six when I started piano studies. This continued for 12 years until college when I chose not to continue a musical education and switched to a premed and science concentration. I went on to medical school, specialty training, and an involved and satisfying medical career. I started pursuing my art practice and interest in 1993 by taking night classes. Much of my art experience and education has been paced and self directed, so my art journey prior to my Masters program was about 22 years. The change was that in retirement I had an opportunity for a full-time commitment to art. My resume slowly grew with particular note: winner of the 2014 Hunting Art Prize, inclusion in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and inclusion in a museum show at the MFAH show, Line: Making the Mark.  At that point in my art practice I had a strong desire to return to academia to pursue a graduate degree in art.  

Going to Glasgow
A real but undercurrent obstacle faced me. I was concerned about ageism in my pursuit and possible acceptance regardless of merit. I was considering visual art-related masters programs besides the various MFAs, such as Low Residency MFA Art Practice, Curatorial Practice, Art Writing, and Critical Theory and the Arts. Networking over the years was of utmost importance in that one of my dear art friends from Finland, whom I had met several years earlier in New York City at the School of Visual Arts summer residency program, told me about the program at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art.  Having recently graduated from the program herself, she told me of the diversity of her class as to age and nationality. I immediately followed up and after submitting undergraduate and graduate credentials, portfolio, essay, and a Skype interview, I was accepted for the 2015-16 class. At the age of 62.

Left: The Glasgow School of Art
Below: Winston
back row, third from rightwith some of his classmates 

It pleases me to be an example of how one’s interests, passions, and education pursuits should never be dictated by age if the desire, health, and support is there. I loved the interaction with all my classmates who ranged from age 24 to . . . me. However, I did find it interesting that there were two other retired medical doctors who were also in the program. Of course all had previous undergraduate and/or postgraduate degrees, but there were a few without BFA or art-related degree backgrounds. The commonality of all the students in the program was the passionate pursuit of the arts and our individual unique contribution to the contemporary art discourse.  

The course of study
The course of study was a 12-month Masters of Letters in Fine Art Practice with a selection of specialty pathways including painting, drawing, print media, photography and the moving image, sculpture, and performance. I applied for painting but we were all encouraged to cross the lines in the development of our work and studies. The academic and studio-based program provided the opportunity for pursuit of in-depth, subject-specific study in Fine Art Practice at a postgraduate level. There were required academic classes in the first two four-month terms, with concentration on research and critical theory/thinking, all requiring essays and work projects. Throughout the year there were tutorials and critiques with multiple staff professors and specifically focused lectures and seminars dealing with conceptual and philosophical issues. All departments of the school and workshops were available. The last four-month term was the consolidation period, which was devoted to the development of a cohesive degree-show body of work with supporting thesis/essay.

A quiet (and neat!) corner of Winston's allotted studio space

Below: In the print room 

Progress on The Beat: Samba, oil and  cold wax

There were so many positive experiences: the adventures of living in another country and culture; the performing arts and museums of Scotland, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe; some traveling; new lifelong friends; and the honored experience of being a part of such an esteemed and history-laden art institution. As for the program, the main design and gain was developing confidence in conceptualizing an idea and body of work, doing the research, and defending my work in tutorials and critiques. I think the point of any graduate program is to be able to defend your thesis and or body of work. I listen and speak, but now I further trust my instincts.  

The ebb and flow of encaustic
The majority of my work over the course of 2010-2015 involved encaustic as my medium of choice. I purposely went to the program to work in all mediums other than encaustic to push myself. My developed work over the course of the year involved sketching and drawing, mixed media works, wood sculpture, screen printing, and painting with acrylic, watercolor, and oil with cold wax. 

After returning to my studio in Dallas I continued to pursue several works directly related to the Beat series. For the rest of this year I have concentrated on expanding and developing a series of dimensional wall paintings that incorporate corrugated and archival cardboards with encaustic, and one large wall sculptural work incorporating wire, burlap and encaustic for a solo show at the Texas Art House Gallery in Johnson City, Texas, titled Life ForcesKinetic Rhythms.  I continue with my smaller encaustic works on panel.

Assessing the benefits of the experience
I entered the program to be open and available, to participate, and to absorb as much as physically possible. I loved being in the academic milieu. I loved being in the library or in the cafeteria studying or discussing art with my colleagues. I loved the sense of belonging to history, with many Turner Prize recipients being graduates of Glasgow School of Art. And I loved the surrounding architectural masterpiece of the original art school, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (now under reconstruction to original plans after the 2014 fire).  

I am very happy to be back home with my husband (who deserves kudos for all his support and understanding of this opportunity and its importance to me) and back working away in my new studio. I continue to develop work that speaks directly to my recent degree show in addition to developing new ideas as I go forward. I continue to network with my GSA colleagues, and just recently returned from a granted residency from the Royal Drawing School at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, Scotland, and a pop-up show in Glasgow with one of my fellow classmates.  

Inset: Winston at his thesis show

To summarize the benefit of my post graduate experience would be to say it has further strengthened my development in learning to trust myself.  I returned home with a stronger resolve and confidence. We all carry within our brains those invisible frames of reference that filter our experience and shape the way we see the world around us. Those frames are the product of many things—our cultural experience, our education, our assumptions, our relationships, and our innate biology. My frames are centered by the senses, and paintings have become the physical manifestations or examinations of the senses; listening, sighting, in addition to my sense of the specific human condition weighing in on my mind at the time.  Multi-referenced and influenced, irrational at times, I have allowed the physicality of painting to manifest its gestures, its mark making, its scarring, its rhythms, its beats.
. . . . . .

Considering an MFA?
In comparison to the MFA in Art Practice that I was considering at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, it was much more affordable. For an International student, tuition was a bit over 13,000 pounds, the equivalent at the time of about $18,000.  Plus room and board and travel expenses for the year. I think you could do it for $30-35k for the 12 months but more comfortable around $35-40K. I had set aside my prize money from the Hunting Art Prize and used it to fund my masters education. Money well spent.  

As for advice for those over 40, what first comes to mind are the following: 
. Let your partner know about your interest early on because if you apply you might get accepted
. If it is important to you it will be important to those that support and love you, so do it
. Work within your finances and make wise choices that do not leave added stress or debt 
. There are many ways to expand your art practice, and a Masters program may not be the answer, however if being at educator at the university level is important to you, you are unlikely to get a job without one

Over to you, readers: Do you have an MFA? Do you consider the time and money well spent? Or did you participate in a program that paid you to teach at the institution where you were matriculating? Have you explored alternatives to degree programs, such as self-directed residencies or specifically allotted time for grad-style research and pursuits?

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