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Alumni Perspective: Cee Cee Belford (MFA 2023)

Painting has always been a direct route to my core of self-discovery and exploration, and yet for too long a time, I didn’t paint. When I finally did make it back to the easel several years ago, I couldn’t get enough. Continuing education classes quickly frustrated me in that by the time I had set up my palette and established a rhythm painting, it was time to pack up and go home. I craved more all the time – longer days, more rigor, and a cohert of equally motivated peers. I had always heard about the New York Studio School, it’s Marathons, the faculty, and the extensive, yet tight-knit community. Some of my teachers had attended the School and thought it would be a good fit for me so I decided to take the leap and apply for the MFA Program.

The following September, I showed up for the first day of classes and I knew my life would never be the same. As a full-time student I encountered exactly what I was looking for, such as varied limited palettes each day, dynamic model setups, exercises like 10 paintings in 10 days, and so much more. We participated in weekly crits, studio visits with visiting artists, regular feedback on evolving artist statements, and most importantly, a supportive community of like-minded motivated artists.  I was in over my head but the energetic environment at the Studio School supported and invigorated me to explore deeply and push my work in new directions. I couldn’t wait to get back to work every day.  Before I knew it my second year had begun with a thesis statement and exhibition looming ahead. What would I say?  What would I produce? Now I had my own private, sunlit studio and days upon days to think about how I wanted my work to progress. I planned to continue to work from life but started to incorporate the figure into an imagined environment and somehow it all came together. One thing I observed during my time in the MFA Program at the Studio School was that as long as I was involved in the act of painting, despite whether I liked where the work was heading or not, the solution always presented itself.

I wrote and submitted my thesis paper and the crit panel went well. Now onto the thesis exhibition, the large opening reception, and the graduation ceremony. The flurry came to a halt. I was done, yikes.  Finishing an MFA program is almost as daunting as the daily grind that it took to earn the degree. My uncertain future lay before me as another blank canvas, along with bittersweet goodbyes to peers and faculty whom I had had daily contact with. Regardless, I knew I needed a break to breathe and readjust.

I was also keenly aware that the transition from the intensity of school to being an independent artist would not be easy. I sought advice from those who had gone before me and many advised me to “just keep painting,” something so simple and yet so powerful. In the past when I was away from painting for long periods, I would doubt my ability as an artist and feel like an imposter. However, having the Studio School MFA gave me new footing. I had lived through many ebbs and flows of inspiration, from producing work, to the distraction of haters and lovers, and myriad anxieties that constitute being an artist. Most of all, I now have the confidence that these stages are temporary. And so it wasn’t long before I was sitting on the beach that the urge to create returned in a natural organic way as I observed the beauty of the vibrant landscape with its people enjoying it. As often happens, the urge to record my observations took over and I pulled out my sketchpad and watercolors and began to take visual notes of what I saw. Quickly the echoes of our Thursday afternoon crits with Graham Nickson and Elisa Jensen filled my mind. What made a painting work and what didn’t – how to use color, shapes, geometry, and space.  When I returned to my studio this fall, I brought the watercolors I had painted on the beach and taped them up on my wall and made a few paintings from them. As I continue to live with them and observe them in my studio, I find myself more interested in their spontaneity and how I can achieve this in my oil practice. I remember Graham saying, “when you don’t know what to do, put one color you love next to another color and something will happen.” And when I have painters block I do just that. And then, for example, I will turn and look out the window and begin to quickly mix what I see happening as the sun sets on a late January afternoon. And then I am hooked in the moment – putting a color next to another and loving it – the movement begins. This is how it has been happening for me lately in studio.

Ultimately, I’m always considering things I learned at the Studio School and I know that I always will. My journey as a painter has just begun. Painting is unquestionably something I have to do and the School, its community of devoted students and teachers, showed me that truth and, most importantly, they showed me how to make that happen.

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