A Little Consideration

This will be just off the top of my head. The best I can do. The only thing I can do.

I set out this past March to make my own MFA program out of my studio, and I made so much progress this year.

You know… Considering.

Like, I’ve made good progress, considering that I had that bike accident and brain injury thing in the Spring. The recovery was good. I made use of my downtime to read & think a lot.

And, I’ve made good progress, considering that the Summer brought my boys home from school just in time for my almost recovered self to handle the responsibility, then I had barely any left overs to work on my art & MFA as much as I’d hoped. My desire to work was not at all satisfied by the hours & energy available to me to work.

And, I’ve made good progress, considering that one of my sons had significant school issues again this Fall. He seemed to be handling it. We seemed to be handling it. I squeezed in art-making time at home, cut down on social media time, did a tiny bit of art reading but chose art making more often than reading.

There’s so much considering to do. I’m at that point again. And I feel like the biggest whiner when I think about the kinds of setbacks that I’ve posted about on this blog for several years. The continued effort to make art despite one thing or another. It gets to the point where I start doubting my seriousness. Do I really want to do this thing? Because I seem to do a lot of whining, I tell myself.

But the thing is, I’ve made a lot of progress, considering.

Still, I want to up the ante on this whole “considering” thing. I want to consider that maybe even if life intensifies to such a degree that I actually take a break from making artwork, if I actually take a break from my Studio MFA, it doesn’t mean I’m a quitter. I can decide to sit down and rest, and I can decide to get back up to work. I’ve been thinking if I sit down, I’ll never get up again. Or that if I want to keep working, I can never sit down. As if I’m a helpless actor in this thing, as if, if it appears like I’m quitting, then I am quitting. But I know what’s in me. I have to make this work. I have these things to say. I have curiosity and determination and frustration and a desire to clarify my artwork to the point that it accomplishes the something that I’m trying to figure out. If I’m honest (and I try to be), I’ll say I don’t doubt that there is something in my work that is significant. To the art world? To the world? I don’t know that it matters. Will I ever articulate that wordless thing I’m trying to say with my work? Will anyone ever hear me? I mostly think I’ll have done my job as an artist if I manage to really really say it one day. Although, it would be nice if it turned out that my work (that wordless thing, that visual language) rippled out into the world endlessly, moved by deep currents under the surface… does that even make sense… haha.

I want to consider what I need as a human. I want to consider that what I need allows me to serve this little person I brought into the world, so I can consider what he needs, so that he can make it through this time in his life. He needs me to be at peace. And I want to be at peace. So… win win.

So, here’s to peaceful living. Here’s to making the most out of what I have. Here’s to knowing I’m still an artist even if I am not going to find that big block of time to focus on my work, in fact I’m not even going to try, because looking for that block of time and not getting it, it’s been driving a wedge between me and my work. I will find it when the time comes. It will come. I will find it. I will get there.

I’m going to sit down.

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (from the Gospels.) 

(I knew there was a saying about considering and resting and this is the one that makes sense to me.)

Where I Belong

“Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change” is the title of a research subject I created for myself. I want focus in my artwork. To that end, I need to address the constant concern and distraction that comes from seeing terrible things happen in the world. Even if I think just about my country, I see us at a breaking point. I see an imminent rupture of stability nationwide, one that’s been building for decades. Do I address it through a solitary studio practice? Or participate in activism? Or make activist artwork? I want measurable and meaningful change in the world.

This inquiry about social practice art begs me to ask myself so many questions: what does this have to do with my work in the studio? Is it because I feel so responsible for helping people that I need to abandon my artwork for social work? Is it because I care about effecting real change? Or because I want to legitimize my artwork through a value that isn’t based in aesthetics or art dialog? Do I just want to tag along in a movement of art that is getting attention?

So, where do I belong in this dialogue? I’m an artist, and I can’t stop being an artist. It’s who I am, it’s what I must do. Still, I want to be a part of something greater than myself. And I don’t want to twist my artwork into something that’s confused or serves ego. I want to make effective artwork. I want truth in my work. And I want to do something about the terrible things I see happening.

I’m overwhelmed by the number of activist issues I could consider in my work. I almost don’t know where to start. Even if I put aside what’s spurred me on for years in my studio, or even the concerns of daily life that influence the narratives in my work, I would not be able to address the exhaustive list of human concerns that demand my attention. Everyone/Everything: hatefulness, bitterness, greed, fear of other, victimization, me-me-me-isms? Economics: homelessness, displacement, corporate greed, consumer greed, environmental abuse? Race: discrimination, profiling, devaluing, false accusations? Feminism: sexism, domestic violence, rape, government intrusion, inequality? Children: disparity in education, physical & sexual abuse, unequal opportunity? Mental health: the stigma, lack of resources, lack of empathy, fear of weakness? LGBT rights: hate crimes, incomplete freedoms, discrimination?

So, how can I use my voice as an artist to serve others?

1.) Evaluate the roots of my current studio practice:
So much of the art I make is deeply personal. I grapple with material, formal, and conceptual elements. I’ve seen things. I’ve experienced things. I need to speak. I articulate myself by using a visual language; I want my work to speak for me. I have a deep interest in how humans relate and respond to each other, what we reveal about ourselves, and how we treat each other. Through the combination of materials, the titles, and the layers of imagery I build into each piece, I create a passive expectation of communication between the work and the viewer. I work to create an experience that draws the viewer in, causing pause, reflection, and contemplation. These are things I do alone in my studio, with a possible goal of having it enter into a larger art dialog through art shows, etc. These are the vehicles I use to push my voice out into the conversation.

2.) Consider the desire to have direct social impact:
As far as I can tell, national issues AND the issues in my artwork are each such massive things to me that I’m personally unable to effectively join the two. While I deeply appreciate work (social work & artwork) that seeks to improve the lives of other people, I’m afraid that if I try to artificially impose an agenda on my studio work, it will deflate. I have years invested in my artwork that is not about having direct social impact. I cannot suddenly make something out of nothing. I can make artwork that gets watered down by the effort to combine the two (with the social impact being minimal), or I can continue the trajectory of my work and additionally, do activist work outside of my art practice.

3.) Pick one social issue & decide on a course of action:
In June, after the Charleston church shooting, I wondered aloud on Facebook what I could do or should do. I looked for a thread that runs through everything that frustrates me. What was one thing I could focus on? I’m already involved in one-on-one connections, I’m already vested in my local community. What impacts all communities, economics, minorities, women, children, mental health, and LGBT? I want big change. So what could that one thing be? Gun violence. I decided to work for gun safety. I have joined the movement for change in gun regulations. I will participate in the conversations that can bring change, as a human, as an artist. I must speak out in some way. For me, participation began with joining a collective organized campaign (Everytown for Gun Safety.) It continues by doing small things (FB posts, trying to have level headed conversations with people who oppose me). Later, it will likely mean participation in group activism.

4.) Leave room for using art to speak out for social impact:
I will keep working in the studio, and this activist work may or may not make it into my artwork. I will let whatever happens in the studio, happen organically. If and when that includes socially engaging work, that is what I’ll do. I can include the tools of activism in the set of materials that build my work, but I will not abandon the work that is coming from within. I will not stifle the voice that seeks to speak out through my work. Will my artwork combine it all? I don’t know. I’m busy in my studio practice, but I have room to use my skills on the side to support the issue (gun safety) that concerns me. I can screen print, I can write, I can be an artist whenever and whatever I do.


Candy Chang, I Wish This Was, 2010-ongoing, Vinyl stickers, civic input on sites, stickers each 3″ x 4.5″

By the way, the Public Works show (curated by Christian L. Frock and Tanya Zimbardo) at Mills College Art Museum (through Dec 13) showed me a myriad of ways that artists HAVE used their work for social issues, many of the ones that mean so much to me. It’s exactly the kind of work I want to have in mind, so that if & when I am compelled, the social issues on my mind WILL make their way into a creative means of communication to the masses. I’ve wanted to write more about the show in particular, but I’ve been so overwhelmed by how to approach the idea of social practice artwork in what I do, that I haven’t been able to zero in on the show itself. I can tell you, though, that I went into this show hopeful, and I left inspired. If you are here in the Bay Area, please please go see it. There are so many vehicles for activism on key issues, and they are within our grasp: public performance, video, collaborative projects with communities, public data analysis, websites & social media for showcasing elaborate projects, newspaper ads, business/social cards, stickers for community interaction on walls.. the list goes on. Go see the show! Or buy the book of essays + catalog that go with the show! 

(Here are quotes I’ve collected so far on this subject, a work in progress. I have way more underlined in my books than this, so I’ll update when I can.)

Fall Semester

The nitty gritty. The Fall Semester of the Studio MFA.

Now, I actually started this in the Spring, as I recovered from my bike accident. I had plenty of time to explore things, set up parameters, goals, and ingredients of the process. I’ve not only posted a lot as I figured out how to organize my education, I also made quite a bit of progress on my areas of study. A complete list of those posts is here.

I haven’t been in an art school based MFA, so I only know what I’ve heard from others or what I decide are things I want from a graduate fine arts degree.

I want: focused studio time, in-depth study/research, feedback from peers and peers+, mentorship from artists further along in their practice & careers, getting plugged into my local arts community and the networking that comes with that.

I set up a plan.

I’ve now changed the name from Ex-MFA to Studio MFA. More to the point, I think.

Summing it up below, it is four loose semesters

(= set; ✎ = in progress; ☛ = adjustments TBD).

I’m also adding in hours I think I’ll dedicate each week. Last night I asked an MFA grad from California College of the Arts how much time she spent on her MFA while in that program. She basically said: all the time. Below I’ve included my best guess on hours I’ll shoot for. I’ve added in some additional schedule items (#6 & #7) that feed into my studio practice and are a part of my life, so that I can keep these in mind & schedule accordingly. (This morning, I’m applying for a show at a respected Bay Area space, and I’m also in the process of setting up a studio shop so that I can sell art & fund my work. -mrk, edited 9/18/2015.)

  1. research/writing: ✓ I made 3 areas of focused study ☛ leave room for 1 additional subject. 15 hrs/week
  2. critique: ✓ I set up a monthly crit group with peer artists ☛ schedule bi-weekly studio visits. 2 hrs/week.
  3. mentorship: ✎ meet with an established artist 3 times in semester with weekly phone/email communication, compensate for time. 4 hrs/month (←???)
  4. events: ✓ Determine local free lectures, shows, and also online classes as needed. 3 hrs/week
  5. in-studio art practice: ✎ Maintain art practice, increase dedicated hours. 25 hrs/week
  6. activities: ✎ life activities that relate to the content of my work. 10 hrs/week (ed. 9/18)
  7. studio maintenance: applications, updating website, social media posts (other than blog), managing studio shop. 7 hrs/week. (ed.9/18)

Total: about 60 hours per week.

I’m totally guessing on that. I’ll keep track next week then revise.

So, it’s coming along! In a post or two, I’ll list the events I’m attending this Fall. There are so many resources in the Bay Area! Thank you, SFAI, CCA, Mills, UC Berkeley, and Stanford for amazing free lectures!!!


a little something from studio work yesterday. ~maritza ruiz-kim, collage, 2015

Side Notes

Next will be the promised notes, the updates on the Studio MFA. I promise. But I started this and had to get it out:

I hate mediocrity. I feel it when I evaluate my work in artificial ways: where it is vs. where I want it to be. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I hate it.

The thing is, I’m pretty happy. When I take a narrow view and look at my artwork alone, I’m happy. I see meaning. I keep asking and answering questions with my studio practice, and I enjoy the process. When I ignore the rest of the world, I’m satisfied. I see a provenance for the lines and images I use. I see connections and development. The larger conversations in the art world are important to me, and I feel a part of them, even if there aren’t many audiences that hear me (see my work in larger shows, etc.) I feel connected.

It’s when I step back, look up, turn around, that I see markers of art career success that I’m not meeting. I see where I’m not, or rather, where my work is not. What it’s not doing. What it’s not accomplishing. What I’m not doing. What I’m not accomplishing. I feel mediocre. Impatient. Frustrated. Unfocused. I start to imagine my work (myself) through the eyes of a critical Other, and I don’t fare well. I am mediocre. Says the Imagined Other, says The Self I Should Ignore.

Dear Self,

I am not mediocre. Stop it.

With love,



I’m reminded of a piece of text by Susan O’Malley that I wrote about recently. I needed to hear it then and I need the reminder now.

I saw this piece of hers last night, too, at the Mills College Art Museum: Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now. (More notes on the show coming soon! It fits right in to my Studio MFA studies, the subject I call “Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change”.)


Susan O’Malley, You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be, 2012-2015, temporary site specific mural, dimensions variable.

I Was Up Above It…

…now I’m down in it. ;) …a sort-of NIN reference.


15164244994_1683842273_b(I started writing this at 34012 feet flying eastward, flying towards five days of New York City, Sept 4th.)


September. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, the time when I’d have days in a row available for me to go to the studio, to make, to read. Days for thinking, days for closing my eyes and breathing. It’s late summer, school days are up and running, and as a default parent artist, my days are mine again, to use or waste. (Well, I don’t do much wasting… but if I wanted to, I could!) I started my self-directed MFA work in the spring. I set up a plan for myself, selected subjects, started reading, writing, thinking. But then my two little boys stayed with me almost the entire summer and, combined with my still recovering energy (from post-cycling-accident), I really didn’t have it in me to self-direct anything, much less my MFA work. And yet…. some wheels kept turning nonetheless. And I dug deeper in my work when I felt I was doing barely anything (studio-wise) at all.


Early in the summer, I came across previews for a PBS Documentary on First Peoples. About the first modern humans, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Or tens of thousands. Something like that. A long time ago. So, because I love that kind of stuff, I watched each episode as soon as it came out. I hunger to know more, not only about where I come from (my parents’ and grandparents’ stories) but also about the long story that’s in my genes, the places I come from, the historical people (Natives of Mexico? Spain? Other parts of Europe? Where? Who?). Adding to that, I’m interested in the history of humanity as a whole (last year I took Coursera’s A Brief History of Humankind, and I loved it so much I ordered the book from the UK since it would be months before it was published here in the US. It’s arrived now, though, here.) I’m interested in the things I have in common with everyone, what we have in common with each other. What sets us humans apart? What is elemental within us?


When I watched those shows, I had just finished reading Leonardo’s Brain and had written several posts about the book as part of my Studio MFA. Some of what the reading had prompted in me was an understanding of my unique viewpoint as an artist. Since the book addressed some of the neurology behind creative looking, showing, and telling, I started to consider more about what was prompting the shapes I’ve been drawn to in my work the past couple years. What was I seeing in my world that kept me interested in the odd egg/stone shape that sometimes took on the appearance of a holding space, a type of natural safe place? I recently revisited my sketches from the 90s and I got myself intrigued by the shape again. (I did a largish oil painting of that shape in the 00s also, one that I’ve kept all this time, so the shape has sort of been hanging around for many years.)


First Peoples caught me at this point in time where I was thinking about this in the back of my mind. I watched these stories about the oldest bones on the continents, and I started to hear about early human patterns, places they traveled, things they did. And the cave started to figure in the story of human history as a place of retreat, a place to be protected from the weather, a destination place, and a stopping place from one part of the country to another. All of a sudden, this shape I’ve had living with me all this time, it found a home in this history of humankind, the subject matter that has been deep within me. The cave! Mother earth! Protection! Darkness! So many disparate pieces of inspiration came together.


In my next post, I will describe how these discoveries have led to a modification in my Fall semester plan for my Studio MFA (aka #StudioMFA, renamed from #exMFA.) Not a big change! Just a slight adjustment to allow time for subjects I discover as I go along. I’ll also jot a list of how I’ve discovered all the events (lectures, art openings, webinars, etc) that I located and added to my calendar. Oh! And I have a crit group ready to go, AND all I have left is nailing down a mentor for this semester. Hmm. How to do that? I have some ideas.


Tonight (Wednesday, Sept 16), I’m going to the opening for Public Works: Artist Interventions from the 1970s–Now, at Mills College in Oakland. It’s a perfect fit for my “Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change” class, yes?


photo credit: 2014_11_05_sfo-jfk_019z via photopin (license)

Summertime and Living (and more)

It’s Summertime. Over here, that’s when things get both more quiet (my creative life) and more noisy (my boys at home, at play, all-the-time.) It’s easy and not easy, but this is a pretty good life. It’s our most successful summer so far; it looks especially nice through the rose-colored glasses I wear. When I focus on what’s working well (home life) and ignore what’s not working (studio life), it looks like everything is peachy. Each spring for the past few years, I’ve been anxious about the long hours of the summer that lay ahead. How would I keep my studio practice alive? How would I keep my boys (now ages 9 & 12) from languishing on screens? I’d go back and forth between What about me? and What about them? Each summer, I try to figure it out. Three summers ago, I enrolled the boys in various camps. From the get-go they were frustrated and in bad spirits about being forced to spend half-days with people they didn’t know. No matter how fun the activities looked to me–these were the kinds of things I would have loved to do at their age!–they were not persuaded to enjoy themselves. The energy output of getting them to the camps wasn’t worth either the money spent or the few hours I’d supposedly get to devote to my work. The last two summers, the boys went to part-time day care (full days 2-3 times per week) with kids and a home they knew well. There was a pool! But they still preferred being home and complained about “having to go” to daycare. “We’re too old for this!” they said and “why why why???” every time I dropped them off. They generally prefer to be home instead of anywhere else. It’s quite a compliment to our family, but… what about my studio time? It’s not easy carving out time for my work as an artist. It took some convincing to get my sons to accept that I do, in fact, have a career. It was true that I didn’t “have to go” to the studio in the traditional sense… no one was marking my comings and goings, and my studio practice doesn’t bring much income to the family. Our family needs don’t depend on my work.  I had to articulate the importance of what I do, to convince them that I did “have to go to work” even if it didn’t fit the typical type of job mode, and they did “have to go to daycare” so that I’d be able to do what I’m meant to do with my life. Art is my life’s work, and that’s the end of that.

This summer started out slightly different; instead of being anxious about the never-ending summer hours with my boys home from school, and having no daycare so I could go to the studio freely, I had an influx of energy to wile away the days with my children. It might have something to do with surviving that bike accident/brain injury thing; I’m just happy to be here with them. Maybe also, being active with my children is one of those perks that have come from the accident. In any case, I no longer have the daycare option available anyway, so I figured I’d try out a less-structured summer and see what would happen.

The boys have this loose framework for each day; it’s my parenting framework, too. There are three things daily that I direct the boys to accomplish:

  • reading chapter books or learning things
  • housework or yardwork (I don’t call my work around the house “chores” so I don’t call theirs that either)
  • going outside (sadly I have to direct them outdoors, they aren’t the kind that seek it out on their own. I like it best when they are being goofy with made up weirdness while they’re outside, but basketball and other sports are good too)

As I wrote this, I realized that I didn’t create a daily framework for my studio practice. I had a general idea how I might get help with my boys, so that I could do my work during those times, but that plan didn’t materialize. So I stalled out. I’ve been drifting, unsure about how I’ll get back to shore. But here I am writing this, so I’m righting the course I’m taking. I’m making a plan. It’s a start!

Here’s what a day might look like. Yesterday, I took my time waking up completely. I’d stayed up late the night before reading, and I needed to recuperate the sleep I’d lost. Late in the morning, I got my coffee and breakfast, took time to read an article on Ta-Nehisi Coates, then worked at my spiritual practice (a daily thing I do.) By 11 o’clock, I started to dress for the day & told the boys we’d leave soon to take our dogs to the vet. After the appointment, we got a used volleyball at the sports thrift store, then we came home for lunch. I wrote for a while, and the boys “read books” in the backyard, aka reading that morphed into water games; which turned into an indoor ball game (it was literally exactly next to me as I typed this at my desktop computer); which came to tears when someone (not me) smashed a hand; which turned into pleading for more video game time (NO); which led to TV watching of an animal show on Netflix (at least that’s the summer favorite, and they are learning about animals from all over the world.) So. They read a little & played outside a little. Then we headed out for our afternoon of volleyball even though we’d never played it together before (some friends joined us). Our awfulness at it was so very fun. Lots of out-of-bounds plays and cries of “nailed it!” for completely missed balls. It wasn’t a perfect day, but we all felt pretty accomplished. We ended the night at Halmeoni and Hal-abeoji’s house (Korean grandma & grandpa’s) and they made us patbingsu (korean sweet bean shaved ice dessert). The day felt ideal.

Patbingsu: a Korean shaved ice dessert made with red bean paste, and fruits. (image via wikipedia commons)

Patbingsu: a Korean shaved ice dessert made with red bean paste, and fruits. (image via wikipedia commons)

My days recently have a sort of delightful summer free-wheeling feeling to them, but my free time (to work in the studio) is unpredictable and unreliable. I have this summer plan for my boys at the cost of having the active studio practice I crave. I could have forced them to go to camps, I could have given them a bummer of a summer. But I didn’t want to. I had higher hopes for productive working time this summer, especially as I started to fully recover and have less headaches and fatigue. When I was still resting and recovering, I was reading so much & writing almost all the time. I thought that more healing would bring more creative time, but No. It’s been three months since the bike accident/brain injury. I’m pretty much on the mend now, which is great! but I’m just not managing to keep the creative part of my brain humming along in the background as loudly as I used to. I’m so busy with life, and I guess I’m catching up with everything I couldn’t do for quite a long time. It used to be that when life got busy, I could still juggle a lot and have thoughts percolating as I went along. Instead, creative things seem to be running at a much lower volume as I go about living my life. It’s frustrating. I mean, I’m thrilled I’m pretty much healed and that my home life is functioning optimally. But I feel an acute sense that I’m not functioning the way I used to (as an artist, as a writer). I’m not sure if it’s due to the brain injury or the restless summer hours that my boys are keeping. Maybe both. I need to write a short article for ProWax Journal. Like, today. Since I’m the editor and we had a couple writers take a break this issue, I need to contribute a little something. My deadline to the copyeditor is tomorrow. This deadline is what got me writing yesterday. But I felt all dried up. So I wrote this collection of thoughts to hopefully prod out the writing I’m really supposed to be working on. That deadline is what got me to carve out time for my work today. That deadline is what got me articulating things I haven’t stopped to clarify for myself. Maybe since I fit working time successfully into my yesterday, I can see how to do it again in the coming days. For example, I’d like to determine what the next steps of my #exMFA are. I need to determine when I will add in the critique group, the work with a mentor, and the IRL events (the Fall is likely the time to make these happen.)

To conclude this post, I want to discuss the subjects I chose for the first semester of my #exMFA, so that I can shed some light (for myself) on my status with them. They are:

  • artists & object making in the art market,
  • social practice and art as activism, and
  • the artist as writer.

To get myself focused on these subjects, I made a reading list of ten books.

But the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to focus my attention on my chosen subjects when the terrible shooting in Charleston demanded my attention. I watched commentary on PBS Newshour, I considered the symbols of the confederacy, and I put together a future reading list that was suggested by a friend, to further wrap my mind around the black experience. AND ALSO: I stumbled upon a five hour series on PBS that happened to be exactly the kind of material I needed to feed into my work, so I had to watch the whole thing. While watching it, a lightbulb went off about the provenance of the imagery I’ve used in my artwork for so much of my life; I checked out seven books about it (not on my #exMFA reading list!) from the library. I fully credit my #exMFA program with showing me how to consider the visual language I use in my paintings, so that I can place it in a larger context. I’m thrilled with this new inspiration source but I need to pace myself. AND THEN: On a whim, I read two other books this past week, (also not on my #exMFA reading list!). They were: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and her biography: The Mockingbird Next Door. (Harper Lee disavowed the bio after she cooperated with its compilation.) I read those because it’s the eve of the controversial publication of a second book by Harper Lee; it’s possible it’s being printed against her will. Hmm. So much to think about. I’m really not keeping up with how all of this works with my three chosen subjects, but I suspect each of these “distractions” are actually quite in line with the original subjects I set aside for myself. I have to trust that. I sort of see how things relate, but my brain feels too busy to spell it out. My understanding of the connections between these subjects seem to be lying beneath the surface of my conscious thought. This process isn’t happening in a linear way, so I’m trying to let it happen organically. I’m happy I set my #exMFA so that my first semester would be April through December. Originally it was because I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to recover, but this nine month semester (as opposed to possible four or six month ones) is really working since this entire summer seems to be pretty tricky with my boys out of school. Maybe another way to look at it is that my graduate studies are starting in the Fall, I’ve just gotten a jumpstart on them. There, now I don’t feel so behind. ;) I plan to complete my #exMFA by Summer 2017. 

This is life as the primary caregiver/parent. This is life as a persistent artist. This is my circus-y life.

This is Why I Do It (the Studio MFA)

This is a different kind of post. I don’t have the energy to craft this into something more. I have new limitations (and new advantages). My life the last few years has been full of all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, not the least of which was that brain injury thing in April. I embrace the passionate pursuits of life (faith, hope, love, family, friends, art) with all the strength I can muster; that strength waxes and wanes. I keep up with life. I keep learning new things. I keep writing. I keep making art. And to that end, I keep my graduate studies going, my #exMFA plan. It’s the structure I can rely on, it’s the path to goals I have and the goals that I’m still figuring out.

How could I do this if I was paying for a degree, how could I manage the pressure that comes with knowing that the more I get back to life, the harder it is for my brain to articulate complex information? That kind of thinking isn’t happening on the surface of my brain and it’s not easily retrievable. I can’t easily process and express it the way I want to.  If I was in a traditional MFA program, knowing that I’d have to keep up with a pre-determined schedule, and that I’d have to do it all despite my deficits, that would really stress me out.


untitled painting, 20″ x 16″
finished June 19, 2015

I started to doubt myself in this #exMFA thing ever since I got more active with life. Back when I had zero life responsibilties, when I rested/rehabilitated all day, I had enough surplus energy to read, learn, and write as I pleased. Now that I’ve resumed my former home-life jobs, and also now that my children are home for the summer, I’m not only mentally fatigued, I’m physically drained. I have to nap. Take breaks. If I don’t, I want to cry, that’s how worn out I get. OK, truthfully, I cry more easily than I did before, about anything, so don’t feel too sorry for me :). There have been lots of plus sides to this thing, anyway. For one, I care a whole lot less what people think about me than I used to. Extreme sensitivities and empathetic skills aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be! The result is that I can enjoy being myself so much more. I’ve always valued and continue to value being a considerate sympathatic person, but I’m super glad I’m making more room for my voice to join the conversations I have. (Sounds weird but it’s true?) There are a whole host of other fun changes in my brain, too, more than I’ll get into here. Woot!

So the thing is, despite lots of slow downs, this #exMFA plan, aka my graduate studies, aka my plan to take my studio practice up a notch– it’s still happening! I haven’t read my materials as quickly as I was at first, nor have I written/posted as many notes. (I spent a month or so on working through certain concepts; I keep the notes that are specific to the classes & subjects here). But the last few weeks, I’ve taken the subjects I’ve considered and applied it to my visual work. It’s happening slower than I want it to, but it’s still happening. This is the art life. This is what it looks like to keep an art practice going, come hell or high water. This can’t be taught, it has to be lived.

ArtLifeNow I’m looking at the gestures that stick with me, the ones that make up my drawings and paintings, and I’m asking myself, what am I looking at? As an artist, what is it that I’ve been seeing that is making me paint or draw these particular images? I want my work to resonate with the non-art educated, I want to find the shapes and lines that are a part of a visual language that any human would know (whether or not they know that they know.) I’ve learned that I see things in a particular way, and I’m sharing what I see in these particular ways. I have more answers for my work than I had before. I’m not going into those details here (they are concepts half articulated by imagery and half by worded language anyway) so it’s not something I can elaborate on now. But it’s happening. My studio practice might move at a glacial place, but glaciers are pretty big, so big that they can change whole landscapes, so big that there’s more of them than is visible. So you know what? Maybe I’m okay with this glacial pace. Maybe that’s what I’ve wanted all along.

Two Months Later: An Update

Okay, here’s a blog post update on how I’m recovering since my bike accident! I’m sparing my FB feed from what would be a horribly long status update. Two months ago, April 9th, I was in the ICU after crashing my bike, losing consciousness, and having a tiny bit of bleeding in the brain (final diagnosis: minor traumatic brain injury). And here I am, June 9th, at the computer and heading to the studio this afternoon. I’m almost back to normal! Well, sort of. :)

Last week, my family lost my Aunt Eleanor. She battled intense asthma all her life. My heart hurts for my Uncle George and my cousins Rachel & Ruthie. They’ve already gone through so much as a family. Also in the past two months, my cousin Frankie has been in serious hospitalizations fighting his diabetes. I’m watching my cousins fight their battles courageously and I strive to do the same. I have a big amazing family. 

So, I’m not sure what normal is anymore. It’s not all bad, just different. Life can change so suddenly, instantaneously. It hasn’t been easy figuring out how to comport myself, between managing my limitations and understanding my capabilities. I was afraid I’d miss out on signs that I could do more and that I’d end up staying in bed for months on end when I didn’t need to. Turns out, I wasn’t too bad at estimating my limitations/ability status each day. As I get better, I can look back at how I was feeling before and confirm, yeah, it felt pretty bad. Some days, I am reminded exactly how it felt; I regress sometimes into dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Also, some things seem to have really changed neurologically. While I hope some of these changes are permanent (cool stuff!), I hope others heal up quick (less cool stuff).

  • I used to go to the studio several times a week, but I’ve only been back once since April, and that was just to pick up a few supplies. I haven’t used those supplies much, either. Oh well. I’m going back to the studio this afternoon, though! Who knows what I’ll make today. I don’t expect much, I only expect to play with my materials. I hope to at least have a check-in on what it’s like to have an art practice. I hope.
  • I can definitely say I’m more verbal than I used to be. I feel a little sorry for my old self; it wasn’t easy to have so many filters/inhibitions when attempting to say what I wanted to say! Even though some people might not know I was inhibited quite a bit, I credit how far I’d come as an adult to the ample amount of conversations & high level of engagement I’ve had with my best friends through the years (my friends have a tendency to insist on expressiveness.) Yet today, I can look back at my conversations from a few months ago, and know that I feel very different now. I just do. My former reservations really seem to have had a biological component to them, because ever since I got my head whacked, I’m quicker to say exactly what I intend to say. And I care less about if there are implications, especially if I mean what I say. I’m still empathetic and all that, but it feels less like I’m constrained by empathy, and more like I’m freed by it. Free to see others’ points of views, but not stifled in my own. If I got to age forty and still had those inhibitions before the head whacking accident, I can now have more compassion for the ingrained biological component to what makes us all the way we are, whether we are made of the stuff of mice or of lions.
  • This overflows into my Spanish speaking. I can speak Spanish more freely now! I can access the language and use it too. Maybe there was some barrier dislodged in my brain during that head trauma? ;) I’ve yet to fully explore this, but initial observations are pointing to this being true. I definitely was more afraid in the past to make mistakes while speaking Spanish. Which is kind of a problem when working at improving language skills. See, I primarily spoke Spanish until age 5, so I’ve known the español was in there somewhere. Finally, I can use what I have. I think I’m well enough to start up my Spanish audio lessons again, that’s something I was doing a lot during commutes to/from the studio before the accident. Before now, I haven’t been able to do audio-only things (music, audio-books) so the lessons were out of the question. I still can’t listen to things while driving, but I look forward to working some spanish audio-lessons into my at-home life.
  • OK, another weird thing… anyone who knows me well would say this is a huge change: I like going on walks now, I might even like exercising. This began this past week as I’ve started being well enough to be active for over half an hour. Like, super active. I strap on my running shoes (when was the last time I wore those things?! I didn’t even used to like how they looked and didn’t want to wear them!). I head out the door for a determined walk. I see a hill, and I’m like: bring it! This is NOT like me, I repeat, NOT like me. If I have enjoyed a walk before now, it was because I was meandering slowly through a pretty place, taking in the view around me. It was a serene experience. I have several friends who walk together regularly, and it’s known that I only join them on rare occasions. And it’s not because I want to do the walk, it’s just more so that I can hang with them. I like sitting in nature. Not exercising in it! I’ve been known to occasionally get motivated for a one-off thing (like training for a metric century ride) (I still proudly wear the badge of having completed a 100K bike ride even though that was several years ago, only one time!), or a (very very!) brief boot-camp craze because I was trying to get healthy after having babies. Even the day I got into the bike accident in April, I wasn’t biking for exercise, I was getting images of bike riding on a beautiful day (!). I guess I whacked the part of my brain that involves motivation for exercise. So, me & exercising… we are apparently buddies now. We’ll see if this friendship lasts. I hope so!
  • The more I’ve been able to be physically active without many symptoms (the past two weeks), the less reflective I’ve become. I feel like I’m drying up. I’m reading less, I’m writing less, and I’ve barely touched the materials I brought home from the studio. Which is why I’m headed back to the studio today. I seemed to stay creative after my accident at first. I definitely felt that I stayed creative writing-wise after my accident. Beginning a week after being home from hospital, I blogged a lot AND I worked with my team to publish Issue #9 of ProWax Journal, AND I started up the self-directed #exMFA grad experience thing!– but now I feel like that part of me is emptied out, flat. And May 21 to June 2, I did write five entries (one, two, three, four, five!) as notes for the  #exMFA. But since June 2, since I’ve been up & moving & out + about, I’ve been less able to engage the part of my brain that thinks in abstract terms and creates visual or conceptual connections. Even as I write this, I feel that my language is plain and less reflective. I care enough about this to work at it, to not let this slip away from me… but, gladly, I also don’t care that I have a deficit that might be obvious to others. It’s kind of like the way that I’m not ashamed about the scar on the left side of my head. I’ll proudly own this state-of-being that I’m in today. It’s where I’m at. It’s me.
  • The more active I’ve gotten, the more words I’ve said wrong without even noticing. Like, I saw a pair of numbers (73) (a tied score during the first Warriors game in the championships) and I told my son, look it’s 33 to 33! I didn’t realize my mistake until my son pointed it out to me. It’s not just numbers related, either. I just say things wrong. As far as I know, this is a new thing as of the last two weeks, since I’ve been “getting better.” So, I’m not happy about this part, but it’s OK, it doesn’t seem to have serious implications.
  • Also as I return to normal, I’m realizing that it’s a new kind of normal. I still have limitations. I can begin my day forgetting the feelings of disability I’ve had, and I can go along with my life that day (i.e. I’ve been driving again for 2 weeks now!) and then it hits me: headache & nausea. So I return home. My day comes to a halt. My wellbeing each day depends on quality sleep; without it, I’m likely to hit a wall… Which is where I will leave this, since last night was a horrible night of sleep (we lost power in our neighborhood in out one day 100+ heatwave, the electric company was outside our house at midnight, my dogs were barking, and my youngest son came into my bed at maybe 4am, then a couple hours later I gave up and got up and here I am.) I still went on my walk coz I really wanted to (!!!). And I attended a middle-school awards ceremony (my kid got a peer nominated award for being Kind & Helpful!– how cool is that!– And also a teacher nominated award for excellence in Reading: analyzing literature, comprehending non-fiction texts, and contributing to an active learning environment! Love it!) And now after my boys’ school pickup, I’m headed to the studio, so help me God. My biggest accomplishment today may just be that I drive the 30 min (no traffic) there & then drive the 1 hour (commute traffic) back.

Wish me luck!

That’s What I Was Trying to Say!

As an artist: When you see someone else’s art that really resonates with you, when you say Yes! That’s it! That’s what I was trying to say! And you doubt yourself, and you tell yourself, See, you can’t do it. Someone else got there first. It’s a losing battle. But then you know you have to dig back in and find your own words (visuals) to say that thing you can’t quite articulate verbally, and you kind of have to forget what you saw. You hope that you find a way to make those images that you need to make, doing it in a different way, to say what you need to say, in a way that is not like what you saw, in a way that does not repeat what has been done, in a way that is your own. Because what you have to say cannot be said by anyone else. Which means if you haven’t made it yet, then no one has. Which means your work isn’t finished. What you saw is not what you were about to say. So, you decide only you can say what you need to say. And you resolve to get back to work.

Cheryl McClure, Gray Day, April, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches

Ruiz-Kim, “Broken Repetition”,
encaustic on panel with photo pigment print,
12 inches x 9 inches, 2013

It would be nice if every day as an artist, I could embrace the path I’m on, you know, the “journey” and all that. But in that regard, some days are hard. I can see another artist’s work and simultaneously admire it and get irritated that I’m not there yet in my own work. As I’ve already talked about in these #exMFA posts, part of my intention with this self-directed work is not only to push myself to face the frustrations that inhibit my studio practice, but to defy them. I’m frustrated by the constant questioning; I have to decide on answers. I’m doing this to clarify things for myself, not to prove anything to anyone else.

Writing out my inquisitive process in a way that (I hope!) makes sense allows me to push myself towards answers for my studio practice. This week I will be posting notes from one of the books I read for my self-directed class Artists and Object-Making in the Art Market. I came across the book Leonardo’s Brain as I sought to learn what makes visual artists make visual art. I want to describe the value of making artwork outside of the market context. Art vs. the Market has been an sore subject for a while now: the commodification of everything, raging consumerism, the pirating of small-time artists’ work for big-business profit, the corporatization of education including art schools, the pressure of careerism for art school graduates… . I have to consciously uncouple :) from all that. Maybe it’s sort of sad and basic that I have to put myself through this process. But I have to trust my process, that following through on these nagging questions will get me to the real crux of what I need in the studio.

These are the topics I’ll be posting on for the next few days; all of them started with the parts I underlined in L. Shlain’s Leonardo’s Brain. I focused those parts into these topics. I’ll post my notes one subject at a time.*
I swear, the posts will be a lot easier to understand than these topic titles!

  • Bilateral Constructions & the Paradox of the Holon
  • I See: Sfumato, Anamorphism, Suchness, & Explosions
  • Puzzle-Making: Ambiguity as Invitation
  • The Survival of Aesthetics

UPDATE: Instead of new posts for each topic as I expand on what I’ve learned for a Subject/Book, I will be adding to static Pages, once for each of three classes per semester. That way I won’t get too crazy with the number of emailed post notifications that end up in inboxes. Email notifications don’t go out for Pages. 

Here’s how I went about reading a book & applying it to my studio practice. (This is labor-intensive! I’m so glad I’m self-directing this inquiry through the #exMFA, because I can’t imagine putting this much effort into ideas that don’t apply to the current questions I have in my studio!)

  1. Read the book. :)
  2. Underline & take notes on the pages as I go.
  3. Finish the book.
  4. Get irritable about it for a couple days.
  5. Make a vague list of topics in the book that excite me.
  6. Start writing off the top of my head, reflecting on what I read.
  7. Collect quotes on the topics.
  8. Focus the topics into titles that I like, that address questions I’m resolving in my work.
  9. Corral my writing to stick with the topics I chose. Am I asking the right questions? Am I answering them? Is the purpose of the post clear?
  10. Make separate posts on each topic.
  11. Post them to the internet.
  12. Start reading another book.

* Since I’m still homebound and recovering from my bike accident, I’m only working on the Subjects/Books part of my #exMFA. Still to come: Critiques via a group I organize, Mentorship via somehow, and Events via lectures & gallery + museum shows.


What We Aren’t Supposed to Mention

I’m taking a brief break from discussing studio practices to talk about the thing I wish didn’t matter in art-making but certainly does: Money. Because it matters, and because I value my art practice very much, I’m breaking up with the MFA. I bring this up because grad school is obviously crazy expensive. My hope is that post-college artists from any background—people with studio/life experience that stands in as a BFA, people with limited resources, anyone!—can make their own MFA experience if that’s their thing. I believe it’s possible to access the components that make a quality visual arts graduate education, and it can be had for free. This MFA won’t exactly duplicate an art school or art department MFA, but I’m working from the assumption that it can be approximated, depending on what I want out of it. There are all sorts of pressures, broadly cultural ones & specific conversational ones, that keep people from talking about money. But the MFA conversation can’t happen without addressing it.

Ruiz-Kim, “Redacted”, 2010 
gold leaf on redacted text from
New York Times art market column
Sep 2010

Artists’ stories like the ones in Living and Sustaining a Creative Life remind me how artists all over are really just piecing together the art + life experience, day after day, year after year. It’s a book I first read last year and I’m coming back to it again. I met the editor, Sharon Louden, last summer at the International Encaustic Conference. I’ve also met several of the artists featured, via social media and/or in-real-life. The more I listen to artists as they talk plainly about how they actually live, sharing generously about the ups and downs of this thing, the less alone I feel. I am committed to blogging this self-directed program of mine, being as clear as I can about my resources so that there aren’t unknowns, so other people are enabled to construct their experience out of whatever resources are available to them. I’m sharing my free graduate art school education experience here. This is my Studio MFA.

– • –
MFAs range in cost from $30K to $70K. I don’t have that kind of money. My household income is too high to qualify for need-based grants. Even if I had grants, I wouldn’t have enough to pay the balance of what’s left of the tuition, along with the associated costs (supplies, after-school childcare x two) without taking loans. Student loans would permanently change my creative life; it would take me years to pay back the money. When artists don’t have money to spare it doesn’t just dry up options about what to make because of lack of access or supplies; it takes up actual psychic energy that would otherwise be invested in art-making.
exMFA.StrattonThe Studio MFA expenses won’t be much more than what I already spend on my practice. By taking into account all I like about an MFA program, I can craft an education that’s perfectly fitted to my needs, while avoiding more debt. The only new MFA cost would be possible fees paid to committed tutors/mentors, if I choose to consult via contract with an established artist. The costs I pay already are: studio rent, supplies, books, some travel, and occasional non-college artist classes. Now that I’m working at this MFA, my current “take it a day at a time” plan, I seek to dig deeper and really plug into the art community where I live here in the San Francisco Bay Area– that’s definitely a piece that’s been missing.
I don’t expect to waste energy worrying about money on this Studio MFA experience since I already have enough money to support my art practice. I have middle-class financial resources with money, time, and the extra help that comes with that. (I really don’t like being this specific but it’s worth telling for full disclosure’s sake.) My spouse works a full-time, flexible, stable job; it covers all our expenses. My day-job is being the at-home parent to two children. We have good health insurance, without which both my youngest son and I would struggle. We have some funds for travel and we have the financial freedom to make choices.
I’d be a very different artist if I had different circumstances. Without the resources I have, my art life would be slower. I know I’d feel small compared with what I’d wish I could be doing (because I remember what it felt like to work less at my studio practice when I had less resources). But it wouldn’t be any less important to me. It would take more grit to keep it going, but I’d work at it anyway. Still, I’d invest time, effort, energy, and desire into my art practice, no matter what resources I had, despite the slowness, despite the smallness.
Choosing to remove an accredited MFA from my plans as an artist acknowledges my reality. When I spoke last year to grad school administrators, both of them questioned my commitment to my practice if I didn’t consider myself worth the investment of an MFA degree. Obviously, I know I’m worth it. Choosing my own path isn’t devaluing my art practice. It’s a practical understanding that: education is getting more and more expensive, an MFA doesn’t lead to a higher career income (but gives me debt), and I have two children that will need undergraduate education funds in 10-15 years. I don’t live in a bubble. I know money funds are finite.
I don’t need an accredited MFA, because I don’t plan to be a college level art teacher. There are not enough of those positions to go around anyway. And I don’t have the internal energy to teach, be an artist, a parent, and a human. I’m not that kind of artist. Besides, colleges are paying less and less for professors, hiring adjuncts, keeping them poor, so why would I make myself poor (going into debt to get an MFA) in order to be poorer? There are a set number of available art teaching positions at the graduate level. Most current professors aren’t in a rush to retire. The existing art professors will still have plenty of students even if more artists rebel and hack their own education. So I’m not worried about art teachers losing enrolled college students; I just don’t plan on being one of them.
exMFA.MooreAs an artist, I think about creative output vs wage compensation because the jobs I have experience with wouldn’t pay enough to make the costs worth it. It would either be very little money for moderate time/energy output (part-time art teacher or part-time office assistant), or slightly more money for intense time/energy output (full-time art teacher or full-time office administrator). Working a job isn’t worth it in my case. I’m not trying to get rich as an artist by any means. I’m letting my life be rich. As I consider how to think about my art practice vs income, I think about the art practices of teaching artists. I believe there are more options for income streams as we each seek to find financial models that support our creative work.
Are college artist-teachers fairly compensated? Private art schools charge, say, $1,859 per graduate class unit; if it’s a three-unit class, and there are ten students (I admit I don’t know average units & numbers of students)… that’s $55,770 in tuition going to that class. How much is going to that artist teacher? For how much of their time––3 hrs a week for 20ish weeks–not including out of class time–for attention/energy spread out to ten people? I know the school has overhead. Is it possible, instead, for one “student” artist (not enrolled in any program, but, say, doing a Studio MFA like my plan here) to independently pay this artist teacher more per hour via a better model? While it wouldn’t provide health insurance or job security :(, maybe for some working artists out there, it could help ends meet without a large time commitment, leaving more time for the studio.
This Studio MFA is my two-year plan to supercharge the energy I already devote to my work. I make the most of all my available time. I don’t need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get myself to learn how to be an artist, have a studio practice, get quality studio time or make connections with artists in my community. There are so many resources (especially now online but many books, too) to learn the professional aspects of being an artist. Any radically committed artist can do this without life-sucking debt. I already do this, and to whatever extent I need to do it better, I will do it for free.
Being an artist is who I am. I will do what I do as an artist whether or not it gets seen, whether or not anyone notices. I’m not doing this Studio MFA for proof of anything to anyone. I’m doing it for me, to answer questions, to push myself. It’s what I want.
– • –
exMFA.SyjucoI hope that as I go along, I start finding more artists who are also working to approximate an MFA experience, be it by following this Studio MFA or in whatever form works for them. Already, one of my best friends/colleagues, Laura Isaac, has seen the Studio MFA as a way towards more accountability and community in her practice. She has an ongoing 10,000 Hours project that explores the ways we pursue mastery both in institutionalized/charted paths as well as more hacker-style methods (like this Studio MFA!), so this seems to fit right in with her work. As more people join us, I hope the sense of community supports us all. We’re gonna use the hashtag #StudioMFA (originally the hashtag was #exMFA but I changed the name) when we tweet about it… although… well, I’ve been lame on twitter for a while, but maybe that will change.
I’d be thrilled if this little thing I’m doing enables more artists to figure out a working path for their art life. I want more artists to get their best work seen and get their voices into the art conversation. I want people who can’t afford an MFA to hack their own graduate degree, finishing debt-free after two years of self-directed Studio MFA work. I want to create a path to bypass the MFA, enabling a broad spectrum of diverse voices to join and change the art conversation. If any of this happened and if my documented Studio MFA here had anything to do with it… well, I’d be a very happy artist indeed. :)


Getting Some Perspective

When exactly did I start my Studio MFA? Depends how you look at it. Maybe I’ve been doing it ever since I plugged into my studio work and tried to extract more from what was happening there, or when I tried to direct my showing-art path into something that made sense, or maybe it’s been every time I’ve opened a book and asked questions about how it applied to my work. Or maybe… maybe it’s been happening every day I’ve done anything at all, because no matter what I do, I come back to being an artist. Every day I think nothing’s happening, I’m still an artist. Now I’m making a concerted two-year effort to resolve the questions that bother me the most. With this post, and perhaps with future ones, before I can get to the meat of what I’m learning, I have to place it in the context of this ex-MFA experience; maybe that gives this information a cubby hole to hang out in, so that I can keep sorting this experience out. Here, I’m going to write what’s on my mind as I read for the class subject I created, “Artists and Art-Making in the Art Market.” My intention in this is to ground myself in why artists make work–why I make work– emphasis on the MAKE. Because I constantly question the purpose of what I’m doing, I’d like to figure out the answer, if possible, once and for all.


Ruiz-Kim, “Here”, 2013

I decided I’d be an artist when I was just a toddler; this is the report I have from my mother. While I don’t remember being two to three years old and saying that, I do remember being in elementary school and saying I’d be an artist, and telling people I’d known my intentions since I was two to three years old (there was always a range: not two, not three, but two to three). How did I know this? I liked to draw on walls and I couldn’t stop. (I began with the walls of my crib, but I will not go into detail on my material of choice at that point.) I worked independently on my drawing skills. I competed with a boy (Timmy?) to become THE artist of the second grade (I won). At some point in early elementary school, I took a class that had us kids making prints off of meat packing styrofoam. I etched with a blunt pencil, I rolled the ink, I pressed it upside down onto paper. Magical. Someone, for some reason, took our art and put it up on white walls in a building we’d never been to before. Then they took us kids to see it. On a bus, or in shuttled cars, I don’t remember. I do remember the winding road, the tall building at the top of the hill, the opening of the door into a tiled, white walled round lobby, and our art, my art, on those walls. A place of importance. A place where the images we’d made were the central focus. They were why we were there. I could see into the future: I’d be making art all my life. The primacy of visual language. Visual artists, we make things for the eye to communicate to the brain (to or own and to others’). I’m sure that’s not the only way to put it, but that’s what I’m using as a starting point as I figure out why I do this thing. Do I do it only because it’s fun? Do I do it to make pretty things? No and no. How about to communicate? No, not just that. It’s faster to use words. I’m compelled to take in the world and its visuals; I’m compelled to respond visually. I have things to say that I can’t put words to (curse you, artist’s statement!!) and the only way I can process things without language, to articulate the anger, the frustration, the suffering, the desire for more… it’s with materials that I manipulate with my hands, in ways that are directed by my eyes, that connect (I hope) with the wordless things inside my mind. There are lots of ways to say things, but sometimes there’s a best way, and that way involves images. Ones made of paint and substrate. Or ones created with a mark-making instrument and a simple surface. Or ones made digitally, or captured ones, and the subsequent print. Or images that are moving, projected or played electronically. Or dimensional (or even ephemeral!) materials that combine to form a physical experience. I keep complicating this with questions about where these visual observations will go when I’m done with them (leaving my studio by gifting or selling?) or what will happen to them over time (treasured or trashed?). Instead of focusing on the physicality of what comes from this visually communicative impulse, I need to remember Why I’m compelled to make it in the first place. So I’ll have to figure out where to put it. Fine. I can’t say yet that I’ve decided how it will transfer ownership, where it will finish out its days. But I do know I don’t want its value to come from its second act. I want to focus on the first act. It is something worth making, it is something worth existing. I’m an artist. I make art. Done.

Quotes I’ve chewed on from books I’m reading: from Leonard Shlain in Leonardo’s Brain: (I’ve read 7 of 18 chapters)

“The dragonfly flies with four wings, and when the anterior are raised, the posterior are dropped. However, each pair of wings must be capable individually of supporting the entire weight of the animal.” – Leonardo da Vinci. On da Vinci: “There is no doubt that the nerves of his eye and brain, like those of certain famous athletes, were really supernormal, and in consequence, he was able to draw and describe movements of a bird which were not seen again until the invention of the slow-motion cinema…” – Kenneth Clark “When viewed from an extreme angle off to the side, however, the anamorphic object springs out of what is a markedly distorted main image to appear realistically drawn.” – Leonard Shlain “In seeking the function of the human eye and dissecting it with unerring accuracy, in noting how atmospheric conditions affect the view of distant objects, or drawing a mechanical device with great accuracy and detail, Leonardo illuminated his search for truth using his art.” – Leonard Shlain “The artist uses images and metaphors to interpret the relationships of reality… .” – Leonard Shlain

from Austin Kleon in Show Your Work!: (I’m only in the middle of chapter 1)

“… creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.” – Austin Kleon

And that’s where I leave off, as I keep reading books and working on simple visual exercises via drawing on my iPad. Hopefully soon, making some monoprints since I brought supplies home from the studio today. Sigh. Seeing my studio after being gone one month wasn’t easy, especially not knowing exactly when I’ll be back. Sigh. xoxo ~marzkim

My Curriculum, My Way: Designing Classes

Going forward, the way I want to differentiate my ex-MFA program from the previous independent learning I’ve done is to address the aspects of my art-making that have tripped me up the most. There are recurring blocks to my practice. This whole ex-MFA idea comes from the knowledge that if I don’t work on these issues, I will keep spinning my wheels, only half-making things that don’t mean as much as I want them to. I might enjoy myself, but it wouldn’t be enough.

I know that I need to delve deeply to find answers to my most frustrating questions, I need to keep working creatively in whatever way I can, and I need to engage with the outside perspectives of other artists so that I can see how my work acts in the public art conversation. I also want to know how to verbally participate in that conversation as I discuss my work.

Each time I post on this subject, I’m just barely elaborating on the last one. I sort of feel like I’m repeating myself; maybe I am. I’m trying to get more and more detailed, thinking about what I need to plan next in some areas while fleshing out details in others. I’m making decisions about how I’m going to set up my ex-MFA program for myself as I write this, because writing this is the note-taking that clarifies the direction I want to take. Concurrently, I’m trying to think through the best way to present this information in case others want to have a starting point to to craft an ex-MFA for themselves. I even rearranged these paragraphs into a different order than how I originally wrote them, hoping it makes more sense. Documentation and presentation of this information is a slow process.

So I’m thinking about how I want to format my learning for Semester 1. This will be four to six months (per semester) of delving into three particular subjects, as well as working in the studio, figuring out how to find a mentor to work with me in a semi-formal way, and starting a rigorous critique group. I might track the amount of time I spend working on this, breaking it down between reading, writing, studio time, meeting with others & attending events. I honestly have no idea what the ratio is for the ways grad students in MFA programs spend their time. How many books are they assigned? Or is it more studio/critique based? I really don’t know; I’m totally making this up. I’ll be flexible as I move forward.

Crafting Classes: Choosing Subjects

I want to differentiate how this ex-MFA experience is more than just reading books. I’ve usually chosen subjects/books organically as I’ve followed my curiosities; I love non-fiction books. These have informed my studio work up until now. I’ve read at least a few books on each of the following subjects in the last couple years:

  • portraiture, self-portraiture, and spectator vs subject
  • history of humanity & world cultures
  • psychological classifications
  • fictional portrayal of relationships
  • impact of technology & social media on society

The past few days, my focus has been identifying the subjects I need to study as well as the books I want to read. So today, I’ll explain how I went about the process choosing my Semester 1 subjects and books. First, I articulate (again) what problems I’m trying to solve at this point in my studio practice.  I want to push myself to come to some sort of closure, if possible. Instead of being in a grad program, choosing from pre-planned classes and reading books that introduce new issues to consider in my work, I can now zero in on the ones that trip me up the most.

What’s driving me crazy in the studio?

  • I value my work as an artist with visual language, and making art is an essential part of human culture… so, how do I keep physically making things (drawing, painting, sculpture, video), loving and enjoying the process, when I feel so ambivalent about how it gets out of my studio?
  • And yet I do want to get my work into the world. I want to be part of the recorded art conversation because I love that language. I want my work do something. Making work just so I can make it, just so I can look at it, or even to make a small income from it, that’s not enough for me (I wish it was).
  • I am inspired by ways that art can effect real change in the world and I’m trying to figure out how to take this into consideration in my studio.
  • I get disillusioned with making art for sale and am looking for a way to either come to terms with the construct so I can just make what I need to make, or I need to find an alternate way to get my work into the world.
  • Part of me wants to just stop being an apologist for what I’m doing as an artist and just get busy with making work. (Tho helping people still really inspires me, sometimes more than making things. How can my artwork do something that helps people? I want to find a way.)
  • There’s another part of me that can’t feel comfortable just making more & more things. Because: for what? Where will I put them? If I’m not selling them (and that’s a whole thing, like, who am I selling it to & why? and why are they buying it? what will they do with the things I make?), then when I die, what will my kids do with all of it? Will my art just be another thing do be sorted, dispersed, stored, or disposed of? How can my work take up less space? How can I be useful?
  • And WHY DO I HAVE THESE QUALMS in my own work when I have no problem with others making work, showing work, selling work: I love to look at works of art! I love the way art speaks to me! OMG I’m a little nutty. Oh well.

Identifying my anxiety got me identifying the subjects I want to focus on as I begin my ex-MFA. I decided on these books through knowing & owning some of them already (but now I can spend quality time with them). Others, I found them through through perusing course descriptions for courses online, or through Googling, or by clicking around Amazon using certain key words and the “customers also bought” feature. I’ll make comments on the books following the titles below.

So, here’s where I’m at as of today.

Semester 1


I’d like a group of 5-6 committed artists who can meet in person once per month. I can’t start this yet since I’m currently still recuperating at home from my bike accident*.


This is something where I need to

  • a.) make a list of who I’d like to work with who might be interested/able to do this
  • b.) consider an amount I can afford to pay, since this is a valuable service that deserves compensation
  • c.) outline what a mentor experience looks like (it would probably vary depending on the mentor)
  • d.) create a contract that spells it out clearly for both myself & the mentor.


I need to make a list of in-real-life art events I want to attend, from exhibition openings, to lectures, to artist talks. This is one thing I haven’t been active in doing before now (maybe one opening & one other event per quarter), but since one aspect of MFAs that I was drawn to was the way they place artists in their real-life community, I’m hoping this part of the ex-MFA will do that for me.


  • Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change
  • Artists and Object-Making in the Art Market
  • The Artist as Writer


These are the list of books I’ll work from for the classes I’m designing for myself. I’m open to suggestions. Several of the books can work for more than one of my subject areas, so I’m making one long list of books instead of assigning them to specific subjects. Building up my library like this all at once is a bit expensive, but it’s certainly cheaper than an MFA semester tuition. If I didn’t already own the book, I used Amazon Prime, because I’m currently pretty much homebound since that bike accident*. Otherwise, I would’ve tried my local used book store, the only independent book seller nearby. One more thing: I got real paper books so I could write notes in them.

  • Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming by Anthony Dunne & Fionna Raby (found thru Amazon clicking, fingers crossed that it’s good, seems to focus on product design that creates change vs. designing for the way things are. I’d like to think like this, finding out how art/art-making can create change.)
  • Evocative Objects: Things We Think With edited and introduced by Sherry Turkle (ditto to above as to how I found it thru Amazon clicking; it’s not directly art related but I like the essay’s focus on finding meaning in objects. I was unable to find a book that specifically looks at an artist’s relationship with process + working on things vs. planning events, interventions, having assistants, and sending things to market.)
  • Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life (a selection of essays by working artist educators from all over. Btw I didn’t get my blog title “art + life” from this book, because I named my blog before this book was published, but, it’s not that unique a title, right? Anyway, I’m sure there are selections from this volume that will speak to my subjects, but I don’t plan to read the whole thing this semester. It’s pretty huge. I can probably use a little for each of my four semesters.)
  • Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity & Get Discovered by Austin Kleon (I admit, this title makes me queasy but it seems a real counterpoint to the crazy amount of questioning I give myself as I make work; this title communicates to me that the author is totally at peace with making & selling work, and if you’ve read this far, you know I’m not. However, does buying/reading this book make me look like a shallow artist? Never mind, who cares.)
  • Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain (I discovered this book through key word searches that led me to a review of sorts on Huffington Post. It took me a while to decide to get it. Something about the reviews, although glowing, seemed like they were written by personal friends of the author. Still, the author, now deceased, was clearly an in-depth thinker & writer. The excerpt on Huff Post really addresses the “why artists make things” question I had; it being about the brain, and with the author being a vascular surgeon too, well that made me go ahead & purchase. So far the writing is a bit flowery new-agey, but the author ownes up to it, and even so, there’s plenty of neurology material that’s super interesting so it’s turning out alright.)
  • A Decade of Negative Thinking by Mira Schor (I already have this but want to spend more time with it. I admire her work and a bonus is that she just posted a lecture from RISD about art + writing on her blog A Year of Positive Thinking.)
  • Daybook by Anne Truitt (ditto above, a classic book written by an artist I admire)
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate (I discovered this book in some course description but I can’t remember which one! Not all colleges publish their reading lists; it might also have been from an online course that’s not currently active. I’ve already read the intro & wow, I loved it. It already felt like I took a class. Now I get to read historical precedent for what I realized is my preferred writing format: The Personal Essay. Maybe that’s why this informational type post is taking me so long? So many items to arrange so that it can be simply understood & replicated? OMG, is anyone even going to read this? Never mind, whatever the case, I’m doing this for me.)
  • The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design Creative Practice by Rosanne Somerson (I haven’t totally added this to the list. It’s a maybe. I need to figure out how much this focuses on RISD vs. the subject matter; I prefer the subject matter. Something about it makes it seem like an ad for RISD or is that just me?)

OK! Onwards! Time to immerse in reading these books, keeping my studio work going as much as I’m able (since I’m homebound for at least two more weeks), and writing about it… along with other life stuff. I hope this hacked MFA thing is basically just a super-charged way of figuring out what skin I want in the studio so I can get comfortable wearing it. Etcetera. :) -mrk

*About that bike accident, I have symptoms that haven’t resolved yet although it’s been three and a half weeks, but I’m definitely better than I was at first. I had something between a minor & a moderate traumatic brain injury. While my pain level is low and pretty tolerable, and functionally there are things I’m able to do (like read, write, watch TV, do stuff on my iPad), there are things that are still, let’s say, tricky. It’s tricky to talk to several people at once; organizing information (like this post!) is hard; I can’t listen to music or audio books (I can follow TV & movies because of the visuals, as long as there’s no jarring music); when I talk, it takes me a beat or two longer than it used to when I’m trying to recall words or explain things; sudden or high pitched noises go deep inside and make me feel yuck; and the scar where I hit my head still feels tender (duh). If I “do too much” (something I can only learn as I go, it’s not obvious), I get weak, nauseous, slightly dizzy, and strangely tearful without actually feeling sad. I promise, I’m resting. I can’t drive for another week or two, and when I do it will be simple routes. Other that that, I’m doing great. :) Now that I’ve written this post, I think for a little while I’ll just write about what I’m learning. This post with its lists, its specificity, its organization of information… it took me a couple days to write, and I’m tired now. I’ll keep it simple for a little while more. :) You’re welcome, Self.

The exact same encaustic on panel, with photograph 8.5″ x 11″ February 19, 2013

Ruiz-Kim, “The exact same”, 2013, encaustic on panel with photograph, 8.5″ x 11″