Crafting your successful MFA portfolio and creating meaning beyond the paint

Installation detail, Mary and Joseph, dimensions variable. © Jean Wilkey

Most of us want to take our work to the next level, a level which will be different for everyone. It can be difficult to figure out how to do that.

Recently, someone I know online asked for feedback on her portfolio and how to answer questions on her graduate school MFA application. I thought I’d repeat some of my answers here in case any of you might find it helpful in this process of developing your work beyond the paint.

Hey __________, I just wanted to share some general thoughts on the application process that might help you in thinking about your work and what they are looking for. (Sorry it’s really long.)

1. I think most programs prefer to see a portfolio that reflects a single pursuit in terms of subject and technique. They want to see that there is thought behind the work as a whole rather than just discrete pieces or only skill without a purpose. So, a body of work that deals with ideas or themes such as the environment (Alexis Rockman), or race/gender/slavery (Kara Walker), or “indulgence” (Will Cotton, esp earlier work), illusion of glamour (Marilyn Mintner – illusion of glamour is how it’s often described but I think it’s more about “Allure”, especially sexual allure), or our relationship to the space we inhabit, etc. Your work might also be an investigation of the aesthetics of painting or principles of art, or you could explore those things within the context of a larger theme. It doesn’t have to be solely an investigation of some idea or subject, but it should show more than random pieces. In other words, they should be able to identify a thread running through the body of work as a whole. To help you, call the admissions office or the art department to ask if they prefer to see a cohesive body of work in the portfolio or a wide range of media and approaches. What are they looking for?

2. Some programs will look at skill level, but many if not most will look at whether or not you are engaged with ideas and where you fit within an art historical context. It’s not so much about who you are as a person they are looking for (although they often look for evidence of stamina and commitment), and why or how you do the work (whether we get cranky if we can’t paint every day), but what is the art contributing to our collective understanding; how is it furthering or changing the dialogue?

3. If you can speak about your subject/themes or where your work fits within an art historical context, that is a plus, especially for competitive schools. So, as an example, “I paint nudes and semi-nudes. My work is an evolution in the portrayal of women as objects and as such it develops out of the role of men objectifying women and focuses on how women objectify themselves. This comes from my reading of John Berger’s work and looking at artists from Titian to Joan Semel to Judy Chicago to Marilyn Mintner. I am extending this dialogue on how women are objectified in art by my approach to how women are portraying themselves in social media.” [Just made this up, actually. If you want to paint a lot of women showing off their big bare butts on Instagram, this idea is for you!!]

4. While you don’t need to couch what you write in “art speak”, it’s good to be able to show how you are connecting the dots both within the motivation for your work and its relationship to what has gone before. That means you need to ask why you are painting what you paint. It is hard. It can be really hard. There’s really no way around it. I suggest art journaling every day and asking yourself questions in the journal like: What motivated me to paint this particular subject? What am I trying to say beyond the paint? How does this piece relate to the other pieces I’ve done? How is it alike or different? Does it derive from a particular artist’s influence and is it too derivative? You can also line up all the work you’ve done and look at it as a whole, then ask yourself similar questions about the body of work. What is an overarching theme or set of problems I’m thinking about that runs through the work? What aesthetic or stylistic approaches do the pieces have in common that I want to explore further? Etc. [I still do this. It helps.]

5. What may not seem fair is that this way of preparing a portfolio application is what you are supposed to learn in the MFA program! But many schools don’t want to do the heavy lifting and want to admit students into their program who are already farther along in this process and therefore already have this competitive advantage. This is especially true of 2-year MFA programs. 3-year programs tend not to be in such a hurry and impress me as being more willing to admit people not already schooled in this way of thinking.

6. Lastly, applying to an MFA program is a bit like the lottery. Just because you buy a ticket doesn’t mean you’ll win. Often, whether or not you are accepted into the program has very little or absolutely nothing to do with your work, it’s subjects and themes, or quality. It has everything to do with how many applicants they get vs how many slots they have open for new students. It is not uncommon for someone to have to apply 2 or 3 times before getting in. Again, you can call the programs you want to apply to and ask them how many openings they have for new students and roughly how many applicants they get each year. There is an advantage to studying the programs and applying to 5 or 6 to ensure that you will get in at least one the first year. Alternately, if you only want to get into a specific program, just know it might take a few tries. If you want to know about different schools, check the online directory of programs at the College Art website. It is searchable by area of study, locations and even whether they offer insurance. The service is free but it requires that you create an account to save your searches.

7. If you apply to a school and don’t get in, ask why you weren’t accepted. This will give you a better chance next time to craft your application to what they want (within the context of what you want, of course).

8. I hope you find these remarks helpful, and good luck with your search. If you want to skype about this sometime, just let me know.

If you have questions about applying to a program or taking your body of work to another level, just get in touch.