Going through the motions of school feels like being in a clip from a National Geographic documentary. Maybe one of baby sea turtles hatching on land, then waddling frantically through the sand while birds of prey swoop down and snatch them up into the sky. If one in a hundred make it to the ocean it’s considered worthwhile. And I do feel like someone’s breakfast most days of the week.
Studying a fine art form is finicky.
Arguably, it relies more on a student’s ability to see beyond the classroom than on monitoring a looming GPA. It’s the seemingly symbiotic relationship between the term ‘student’ and ‘artist’ that gets me wondering if post-secondary is necessary for success. If you’re a driven artist, is sweating through an undergraduate degree anything more than an expensive expansion of your social network?
It’s not uncommon for students to drop out in the middle of a program or finish their degree only to scrap it completely to pursue new directions. I want to know what it takes to make the most of university, so I interviewed recent U of T Fine Arts graduate Alex Nursall. While a student, her list of extracurricular activities was remarkable: she worked as an associate photo editor for both The Varsity and the newspaper, hosted The Beaver Lodge on CIUT, played the bassoon for the Hart House orchestra and the HH symphonic band, volunteered as a sexual health counsellor at SEC, worked as a residence don at UC, announced volleyball games for the Varsity Blues, ran Varsity track, and played in a punk band called Too Far North.
the newsmagazine: What are you currently studying? What year are you in?
Alex Nursall: Currently I’m studying the terrors of the real world. I just finished my 5th year at U of T and now I need a break from school. I do have a degree though, in English and Visual Studies, which makes me qualified for jobs such as stand-up comedy, apple picker, or a writer for Two and a Half Men (rimshot).
tn: Did you have any expectations about the program initially that have been fulfilled or disappointed? How have your perceptions of the program changed?
AN: When you enter into an art program fresh out of high school, you expect it to be this sort of highly detailed instruction process where your profs are constantly swooping around you, trying to create the next Vermeers or Banksys or whatever.
What I got was kind of that, but there were times where it felt like they just sort of hucked you into the fray and hoped you could swim through the mess of paints. Tortured metaphors aside, I found it to be a relatively interesting program, but it was limited. Lots of fun classes were cancelled or filled up in a nanosecond, meaning that lots of the time you just got placed in something just because you needed the credit, which is bullshit. No wonder people didn’t care in some of the classes; if you’re only there for that lovely 80%, why the fuck would you care about building yourself as an artist, especially if it’s not your medium?
I’m a photographer, and if you put me in a performance art class, you’d probably just find me hiding in a corner, giggling and cowering. It’s not that I don’t think performance art is important, it’s because I myself am not a performer, and would be utter shit at it, and am way too self-conscious.
Did that even answer the question? Fuck.
tn: Do you feel that there are specific limitations to art school?
AN: Well, they’re trying to instruct you in a program that (aside from the knowledge of past artists and techniques) really focuses on your personal expression.
And it’s hard when people seriously suck at it.
I know I’ve made some pathetically shitty work in my time there, and so has everyone else. You’re limited because you’re trying to express yourself while trying to conform to the likes and dislikes of the prof, which fucks with your head after awhile. I once did this detailed photo project for a class, and after hours of editing, realized that it wasn’t going to work. So instead, I fired up Word, typed in three words in a nice, simple font, printed it out, and handed that in. I got an ‘A’. An ‘A’! What the fuck is that?
tn: How would you rate your overall undergraduate experience so far? If you could, would you change anything?
AN: It was interesting, and I learned a lot, blah blah etc, but by the end I was pretty tired of it. Partly, it’s because I’m kind of cranky and figured out later on that while I love photography, what I really love is photojournalism, and you don’t go into VIS to become a photographer for the New York Times.
Maybe if you had spoken to me the moment I got out of the program, I might have been a bit crankier about it all, but since I’m a year out, it sort of makes everything seem a little nicer with hindsight. I’m starting to lose my teeth in my old age.