In the lead up to the Undergraduate and MFA Summer Show, opening on Thursday 15 June, we spoke to Edwina Fitzpatrick, the course leader for the MFA Fine Art about the benefits of gaining a postgraduate qualification in fine art and what her students have gone on to achieve after graduation.
What do you think makes the MFA at Wimbledon different to other MA courses available at other institutions?
Firstly, there are very few MFA courses around and it’s often a more recognised qualification for a lot of international students than an MA. An MFA traditionally doesn’t involve an essay, and although we don’t do an essay on the course we still want students to be able to contextualise their work.
One of the things that’s really unusual about our course is the fact that we use a website as that contextualisation element, so that students can actually make sense of and reflect on their practice. The bonus is that when they graduate they end up with a very good looking and very in depth website. A lot of artists’ websites end up looking a bit like coffee table books, they don’t give you much information. My experience is that curators will stalk you online for quite a long time before they will approach you, so they want to see what you’re doing.
Two questions that I think are central to the MFA are ‘what is a sustainable and resilient artist?’ and ‘what is a professional artist?’ We are exploring this through the idea that ‘context is everything’. Context links everything together, which is simple, but not! Context is what helps you claim your practice, which is what our aim is on the course. We want students to be able to not only identify the territory they wish to occupy but also how it’s different from other people working in this field.
What do you think the benefits of studying an MFA are?
The benefits are many fold. With the MFA, you end up with an international peer community that will last you for life. Students on the course work together all the time. We also have a private Facebook page for students and graduates that is centred on sharing opportunities that encourages alumni and current students to work together. On the MFA, you’ve got this group of people with diverse practices that are your support network.
The course itself is transformative, and that’s a very good reason to do it. It’s not a finishing school, but it is time to thoroughly interrogate your practice, and I think that it runs over two years is particularly important for that.
For some people it also means they can teach, because you need an MFA to teach in America; an MA won’t cut it. For other people, they fall in love with the idea of the research driven by their practice so it opens up the idea of a PhD for the first time in their life and gives them the confidence and the toolkit to do that. We support our students to pursue a PhD and it probably helps because I’ve been through that myself fairly recently, so I know the hoops you have to jump through. I am really happy to support students, after they graduate in particular, and not just with writing references but I’ll mentor them through that process as well.
In what ways does the course help students further develop their practice?
I think again it’s a focus on the idea of the sustainable artist I’ll give you an example: we have a student on the course who is going to graduate this year, who came onto the course with quite a well-established public art practice. She had a business in it that basically dried up due to lack of funding. What the course has done for her is expand the strings to her bow, if you will, so now she can now also work in the white cube situation and she knows what will transfer into the public environment and what won’t. She’s also gained a group of connections as well because we work a lot with curators. She’s graduating with a much clearer idea about how she can navigate and negotiate different parts of the art world while still staying true to her own practice.
There isn’t any one particular way in which students develop their practice on the course. Another student, Frederic Anderson, has come from working in language translation between Italian and English. His drawings are actually transliterations, they’re of things that look like slippages when things don’t quite connect. He’s brought that personal experience into the course and transformed it visually and really enhanced his art career. I don’t think he would’ve ever thought when he started the course that he’d be using those prior skills in a very different territory entirely and bringing them into his art practice.
One of the things we talk about a lot on the course is that is that there’s nothing you do in your life that’s wasted, it all comes back.
What have some of the students gone on to do after graduating from the MFA?
Our graduates go into really diverse areas of work. There’s several groups of graduates who have actually set up collectives. Marion Phillini, a group comprised of four MFA Fine Art graduates, actually held an exhibition on campus in Wimbledon Space last year. That was wonderful because I got to work with them again.
There’s another collective that met on the MFA that still work together and they opened a studio in Clapham Junction which is now in their fourth or fifth year of lease. It works as an artist’s studio and also as a kind of forum for Pecha Kuchas and debates and occasionally it’s an exhibition space. They started working together on the MFA and they eventually started working with other students from around London. They’ve created a network and a hub through that.
In terms of individual practice, graduate Ann-Marie James was awarded a British School at Rome Fellowship just six months after graduating and now she’s represented by Karsten Schubert gallery. I’ve been keeping an eye on her website and it’s really great to see how much her work is growing and developing.
Each year we do this thing called Art Parlour which is about connecting with the London art ecology. We deliberately invite people along to speak who graduated a few years ago, so they can speak about what it’s like to basically graduate in a recession! Frances Scott, who is an MFA graduate from about seven or eight years ago, spoke at the most recent Art Parlour event. Her practice has been slowly building. She has been working as an artist assistant in Matt’s Gallery and she was a studio assistant and project manager for Mike Nelson. She’s slowly cut down on doing the kind of project management things and is building her art career but has chosen to do it slowly.
We talk a lot about collaboration and how no artist works as an island, and it’s important. One of our learning outcomes is asking the question “how do you collaborate with somebody?” while maintaining your own artistic integrity and also respecting the other person’s integrity. It’s not easy but if you can crack that, it’s great!
I say to the students when they start the course that this is like a stick of rock, you’ll have Wimbledon MFA written in you if we were to slice through you! I know what our graduates are doing, they keep in touch with us and that’s really important. They’re so proud of this course and they’re so proud of the college and I’m so proud of them!
What do you love most about Wimbledon?
I love the students and I love the fact that they help grow the course. The course grows in response to them and they’re very different, year on year. I think it’s a very positive environment because the students come in and stay in all day. Even when they hit a wall psychologically, they actually tend to stay and work through it. Having previously taught at other colleges in more central locations for many years, I’ve realised it’s very easy to just wander off and say “I’ll deal with that later” but never actually deal with it. I think Wimbledon’s location is good in that sense, we are a little bit more isolated in a way. There’s also a lot of cutting edge stuff going on here, really amazing stuff, actually.
Can you talk about your own practice?
I’m a many-headed artist these days and I still don’t really know how to negotiate how I think about myself as an artist. I’m still not sure really what an artist is after all these years, and it’s something I like to keep on redefining and questioning. I’m doing several things at the moment; I always keep up my own art practice. I had a pop-up show in connection with Frieze featuring giant origami and that was great, and I also curated a show here at Wimbledon Space called Larsen’s Lost Water quite recently.
At the moment, I’m writing a very large Arts Council bid and hopefully I’ll be working with a marine and river biologist and a gains developer on a project. It’s going to be centred on a boat relay and if we do get the funding that will start in November this year. I’ve been writing too much at the moment and I am actually really looking forward to making things again.
Learn more about studying the MFA Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Arts.