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Meanwhile in Lowell


It has been over two months since I wrote this piece about art school in Ireland. I’m back in the States now, and returning to a teaching semester, but I am still thinking about the community over at Burren College of Art, and about how we can do better on this side of the pond, so it seemed like a good time to write a follow up.

Lately I’ve been thinking hard about the kind of community I want my students to have. It is an issue very much on everyone’s mind because of one looming fact: graduation.

I’m working with advanced painting students this semester, most of whom I have worked with for over a year. They are getting close to graduation, and soon they are not going to have faculty mentors and a shared space to structure their community. They are going to have to learn to do that on their own, and I think that is what makes an artist’s early twenties the most terrifying years of her career. I wish to hell I had a magic bullet to give them.

I’ve been thinking about it so much that I was curious about my students’ perspective. So I gave them a quick exercise: write one sentence about the artistic community at UMass Lowell and one about the artistic community in Boston. Here is some of what I got back:

Lowell :

"A hive. A Family."

"…often has its hidden treasures."

"…is getting stronger every year…(there is) a healthy competitive edge between individuals."

"Being a student at the university is exposure to other people’s work."

"We inspire each other. I wonder how to emulate such a positive creative environment."


"It doesn’t seem so close like the relationships at the university."

"Vast but scattered."

"gives me the impression that it is an up and coming community."

"I was raised to admire the history of Boston and I wish the contemporary art in the city reflected that lust for freedom more."

"I feel like the Boston art community is unseen, underground."

I don’t pretend to have reached any conclusions based on a small unscientific survey. Not by a long shot. But I do think it is something we all ought to be thinking about, because if we can’t make these kids feel welcome in our wider world we have a long-term problem, and no right to use the word community to refer to ourselves. So this post is for my students more than anyone else, and I’ll address them directly, because I believe that good art is nearly always composed for a narrow audience.

Make your own community. What makes the things we build matter is the need to speak to someone, and the conviction that something important is won or lost by succeeding or failing to do so. For the art you make to matter to people, people have to matter to you. That is the best advice I can give you, and I am as guilty as anyone of forgetting to apply it. Make art because you want to show something to a few people, not because you want to impress everyone. There is no magic bullet for art, life, and money. But making work because you and the people you care about need to see it is a good place to start.

And take care of each other while you are at it, because you are about to start down a tough road and the rest of us need your energy help us move forward. I’ll see you all back in the hive next week, and you better have new paintings. There’s no time to waste!


About Author

Michael Zachary earned a B.A. from Bowdoin College in 2002 and M.F.A. in painting from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2008. Highlights from his past year have included participation in group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Ireland; a solo show in Charlottesville, VA; a residency in Ballyvaughn, Ireland; and visiting artist lectures in Virginia, Boston, and Ireland. He teaches drawing and painting at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Michael lives and makes work in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood in a house full of light and plants.

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