On the weekend before classes resumed across the city, I was taken on a tour of MFA studios by Gillian Willans, an MFA painter in her last year. Although internal MFA tours are scheduled a few times a year, this was a rare public foray into the graduate facilities for painting, drawing and intermedia, sculpture and printmaking, which are evidently their own distinct and loosely connected worlds.
Each studio had its similarities: a well-used microwave and canisters of Coffee-Mate, a communal bulletin board, somebody’s boom box; most noticeably, each space carried the heavy atmosphere of processing-in-the-waiting. Half-construed thoughts, attempts and experimentations, moments of revelation and pieces in contemplation unfolded across the various disciplines in their respective lairs.
If viewing the campus as a city, the artist quarters are similarly scattered and hidden. The painting studios, for instance, fall below the bustle of HUB, where noise isn’t so much a factor as the occasional HUB smell (and for the record, each discipline studio had its own distinct scent from the different mixtures of chemicals respectively used). Sculpture takes up a good corner of FAB, filling an area the size of your average warehouse. A walk-in kiln the size of most industrial freezers sits in one room, while most of the heavy metal tools rest, for the time being, on the concrete floors.
The pristine lab of printmaking is behind one of the many anonymous doors along FAB’s music chamber, widening into a well-lit and clean hall slightly resembling a magnificent hull of a ship. Cubicles and beautifully sterile presses sit in several rooms on two floors, and only student Andrea Pinheiro, who exhibits her thesis in two months, was found working away on photogravures. The MFA drawing studios sit in the centre of campus above the Powerplant, partially squeezed since the closure of the South lab building.
MFA student Elaine Wannechko has new digital prints on the excess, or excrements, of the body lined up in her studio, which she uses as more a contemplative space than a creation space.
“Space is the biggest issue right now,” says Willans, who notes that, while there are four new buildings currently being erected for nanotechnology, the MFA painters are just finally getting a used communal computer for their studio—not words of bitterness, but a straight expression reflecting the reality of things. Studios spaces across the city as well as on campus are facing a crunch, and the value of studio spaces continues to skyrocket out of reach. In comparison, the quality of space on campus remainss luxurious to the holes in the outside world, and the MFA grads are aware of it.
“We are very lucky,” says Brenda Christiansen, who along with Scott Cumberland and Willans were onsite below HUB. “I don’t even want to think about what I’m going to do after I graduate,” Christiansen says with the others nodding in agreement in the space they have come to call home for the past three years.
Aside from the issue of physical space, it is also the community mentality that brews in these spaces. Informal drop-bys and critiques by staff, techs and other students are a major facet of the time spent growing in university. The concentration of ideas, the constant dialogue and the network of support are what constitute as the experience of an MFA, which in itself is a terminal degree and often the end of the line as far as official education goes for most artists. This is why studio space remains so important, as basement and garage studios can be sufficient, but it is about the creation of a network of support for individuals working in a common struggle to create. To incoming students and outgoing graduates, just note that your world is about to change.