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Meanwhile in Ireland: lateral drift & art school

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When someone you just met does something nice for you and you are shocked, it makes you reexamine the kind of jerks you usually hang around with. And that sentence is the roundabout way I picked to tell you that I am reporting from the west coast of Ireland.

I’m here on a month long residency at the Burren College of Art, and that line about reexamining things refers to how I got here. I applied for a one-year teaching fellowship. I wasn’t selected, but I got an email from the dean of the school. I had been a close runner up, and the college liked my work. They were interested in giving me a free month in residence as a gesture of goodwill. Would that be enough to get me across the pond? Short answer: yes. But the whole experience started me thinking about the role schools and universities play in nurturing artistic communities.

I’ve been here a week now, and I’m still thinking about it. It seems like the people here at the college are doing a good job building the kind of artistic community everyone back home likes to talk about. They go out of their way to find ways to bring in people whose work they believe in, even if they have to find creative ways to do it. (I am a case in point.) Residents also share studio space with students, and I’m really enjoying talking to them and having them around because they are pretty smart and pretty active. And that goes for everyone here, faculty and staff included. The facilities guy also runs the supply store, and drives the shuttle van, and cooks the turkeys at Thanksgiving. The Librarian also coordinates the residency program and just completed his own MFA. Everyone eats lunch together. Everyone talks about what everyone else is up to. The college has its own chickens. It is fun to make art here because it feels like we are all in it together. There is no magic formula for it, but I can’t help but notice how unstructured this place is compared to where I teach. Students have time to sit and think. They have time to sit and talk. Lateral drift is encouraged as part of the process, not discouraged as a lack of focus. Students are guided, but trusted to find a path that makes sense to them. Class doesn’t end at the door to the classroom.

In some ways it is easier to build that kind of community at a small rural college. And there are very good reasons why things couldn’t be run the same way at a college in Boston. But you can’t tell me that similar things couldn’t happen in other ways if a college made it a priority. We are social creatures. Just us together in a room with some unstructured time, and then watch us go. That seems to be the philosophy here and it work pretty darn well. The fact that the contemporary university system seems designed to prevent exactly that sort of unstructured dialog is immensely frustrating to me, and I didn’t realize how much it bothered me until I got here and saw a working alternative in action.

So, I have a respectful challenge for the art schools in Boston. Either:

Take a chance. Trust your students (and faculty and staff) and respect their curiosity enough to give them some communal space and free time. See what happens.

Or…

Stop using the following phrases: artistic community, relational aesthetics, and social practice. And while you are at it admit that those things scare you to death. At least I will respect you for finally being honest.

It’s certainly not perfect here. But this college seems to have a clear idea what kind of community they want to be, and they are trying quite hard to live up to that. The jury is still out in my mind as to whether most institutions in Boston can say the same. It’s funny how clear things become when you look at them from a continent away.

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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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