What the hell is an MFA?

    The second floor of the PSU Art Building is normally papered with charcoal sketches awaiting critique and signs concerning “art events.” But in early October, undergraduates are still reading the introductions to their “Basic Design” textbooks, and the hall is barren.

    I wound past the MK gallery, the art history lecture hall (ignoring the quiet snoring), and a seemingly impromptu mural, finally arriving at a door. Which, for once, was not locked. Must be my lucky day.

    What lies beyond is only accessible to those known as MFA students. Fortunately for me, a slower moving species of graduate student can generally be found later rather than earlier in the day. I managed to corner several MFA-ers, and brutally quizzed them about their purpose, their d    esires, their beer preference and what exactly is behind that locked door.

    Shelby Davis was quietly working when I pounced without warning. Shining bright lights in his eyes and playing KISS backwards, I forced him to confess his deepest, darkest MFA secrets. He admitted that MFA means Master of Fine Arts, and that it’s a two-year graduate program designed to foment artistic terrorism. Or something like that. He also confessed to an interest in – teaching. Although I did not know it at the time, this was an indicator of things to come.

     Davis was lured to Portland from the depths of South Carolina, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Portland State offers the best (and only) MFA program in the city.

    ”Every artist you ever talk to describes just how precious some of their MFA time was as far as developing ideas,” he said, dribbling blood-red paint into a small container. I took the hint, and took my leave.

    Kevin Nagleth was hard at work unpacking large suitcases just down the hall, and as he was suitably distracted, I realized my opportunity and quickly blocked his exit. Acknowledging that resistance was futile, Kevin warily sat and proceeded to tell his story of not believing that he needed an MFA. Until recently, when he realized that he wanted artistic friends with whom he could discuss his work.

    Working in drawing and video mediums, Nagleth confided that he searched for a program that incorporated artists in all mediums, and one that offered a teaching aspect. I saw that this was becoming a theme. Nagleth also commented on the importance of the “community,” which I could only take to mean the other members of the renegade MFA group, and how valuable their presence and input was to his experience.

    I lured Kamaya Lindquist from the depths of the art building with the promise of coffee. But she immediately saw through my plot, showing up with her own beverage and a protective sculpture that she tentatively referred to as an anonymous “creepycute.” Its presence was slightly unnerving as we chatted, intimidating yet huggable simultaneously. Lindquist began with a nutritional science focus at the Evergreen State College (Olympia, Wash.), but was eventually called by the Portland State MFA sirens, and is currently completing her second year of the program.

    Whereas the first year of the MFA program encourages students to try many different things, the second year finishes with a thesis show of a coherent body of work. This is Lindquist’s second year.

    ”It’s about focusing, there’s still some exploring, but you are narrowing in on what’s important to you, and what a work does for your show.” All this, in addition to teaching an alternative drawing class, is keeping Lindquist rather busy.

    All of the MFA students that I managed to corner spoke of the possibility of teaching after graduation, in addition to pursuing their own body of work. They also mentioned the strong ties of the studio – the strange realm behind that gray door. As for social life, Lindquist put it best when she casually dropped the hint that, “Artists throw the best parties!” No doubt she was trying to draw me into their secret world.