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Student Perspective: Catherine Bickford (CERT 2024)
August 31, 2023 · Student Perspectives
The Transformative Power of an Education from NYSS
As I reach the two-year mark in my studies at New York Studio School I am flooded with appreciation for the lessons I have received here. Each part of this journey has been a metamorphosis; but together the experiences are layered one upon another creating a dense foundation of scholarship. I will feel the reverberation of this deep learning forever as I incorporate my new insights into my art practice.
It’s now July 2023 and I am preparing to attend the School in person for my final year of the Certificate Program. My classroom experience began 24 months ago when I took my first online course at NYSS. It was also my first Marathon and my first inkling that this school was going to make an important impression on me as an artist. “Why Paint the Figure ” with Elisa Jensen was just the instruction I had been craving. Two weeks of 10 hour days filled with live models, drawing, painting and intense looking. Elisa taught us about the role of the figure in art with extraordinary and divergent resources. As we darted about through time and space from Ancient Greek vases and Persian Miniatures to Bill Traylor and Bonnard, I began to feel a liberation in my figurative goals. We made transcriptions, drew from live models, and created our own imaginative dreamscapes. Marathons are an incredible format for learning. They are the brainchild of Dean Graham Nickson who first started the practice in 1988. It is often said that you learn as much in one two-week Marathon as you would attending a full semester of weekly classes. I can attest to the truth of that statement and sometimes I think the learning affects me even more acutely because of the intense schedule. It is the “fire hose” approach to learning where the instructors overwhelm us with the volume and variety of assignments. In each of the six Marathons I have completed I have pushed past self imposed limitations and other temporary obstacles to emerge on the other side positively altered by the experience.
In September of 2021 I took my first in person class at West 8th Street. I felt an immediate affinity for the building as most people do. It is an atelier that harkens back to the way painting was taught centuries ago, handed from one artist to the next through personal interaction and guidance. There is a presence, a knowing, of all the artists who have climbed these stairs with their paints and canvas, striving and committed, carrying not only their art materials but also their own unique story of beauty and anguish. The impact of the School itself is an expansive one. It is a connection to the lineage of painters through the ages, a fellowship of like-minded souls, connected through the painstaking yet joyful pursuit of art. The School was founded in 1963 by artists in an effort to center direct observation as the foundation of its teaching philosophy. That goal is very much intact today. Both online and in-person classes feature hours and hours of access to live models, often two or more at the same time. There is a fundamental investigation that takes place when we draw the human body every day, every hour. It is through this consistent practice that a path emerges to help us discover a new direction in our work.
In the months before I started attending NYSS I was painting at a community garden in Maine. I had fallen in love with the contorted postures the human body assumes while gardening… crouching, bending, pulling, leaning. Seeing these postures reminds me of artwork by van Gogh where he painted field workers tending the crops. I became engrossed with the act of digging in the dirt, planting seeds, watering, nurturing, weeding, and then witnessing the glorious harvest when the produce has come in. It has an aspect of pure magic that captivates me. I was making these paintings about gardening, but I was totally unsure how to use them to communicate my vision. I was stuck. I have continued with this body of work while at school and because of what I am learning the work has now come to fruition. I am creating synthetic paintings that allow me to combine memory and sensation; that exist both as real events but also as the sensory moments that touch upon our common experience as human beings. I have replaced my goal of “painting a great visual feat” with a goal of “creating works that transport me to a sensory place.” In a very concrete way, the Certificate Program has helped me come to a resolution with this body of the work, not only in the character of the work but also in the compositional choices, the color explored, and even in the paint handling. Finding my way through this body of work has helped me professionally as well. Last year I received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission to support my development of these works. This past February I had my first solo show featuring 17 paintings from this body of work, and just this month I had 3 of the paintings selected for a juried show at Maine Art Gallery called “Working Maine.” It has been a significant journey and one that has been greatly influenced by the feedback I have received at NYSS.
NYSS is an institution run by artists and it offers an authentic look into contemporary art methods and practices. There is a radical commitment to us as students and to our development. I have attended many private events, held just for students, at artists’ studios and in museum collections. Critiques are held frequently and often guest faculty are asked to participate to broaden the perspective. All full-time students are required to join an atelier which meets several times a week. In my first two years I studied closely with Dean Graham Nickson and Fran O’Neill. Dean Nickson is a steadfast voice in our Virtual Certificate Program, meeting with us weekly and reviewing our work personally. His assignments are among the most feared and celebrated by the students. His knowledge of artists and art movements is unmatched. He reminds us to research “those artists who influenced the artists we are influenced by” as we gather our list of kindred spirits. Fran O’Neill instructions are refreshingly direct. She expects results and for that reason she gets them. In addition to her weekly one-to-one check-ins I have also attended many semesters of Fran’s virtual drawing classes. My skills have grown steadily over time as I have adhered to her patient insistence on a variety of marks and her attention to an integrated composition that relies on shapes that support one another. She has also introduced me to a variety of drawing materials and methods. Collage is a favorite exercise of Fran’s and one that I have learned to use in my preparation process for painting. Graham and Fran often team teach Marathons and the result is electrifying. I recently completed a Painting Marathon they taught on “The Enigma of Color and the Shock of Sensation.” Our assignments included canvases varying in scale from 4 inches by 4 inches to 6 feet by 8 feet. We completed ten transcriptions (six of them full size) and worked with 18 limited palettes as we developed 56 individual works of art. All in two weeks. It is understandable to see how this teaching format can transform one’s work and working processes.
There have been many other instructors along the way that have made a deep impact on my education at NYSS. Bruce Gagnier whose pearls of wisdom are as expansive as time itself. Kaitlin McDonough whose genius is uncovering the superpower hidden in each of us. Lourdes Bernard who helps us intricately attend to detail and nuance. One surprising opportunity I have had during my two years is the chance to study sculpture. I would not have expected that it would be possible on zoom but I have been proven wrong. I have taken many semesters of sculpture with Jilaine Jones and I am looking forward to working with her in person during this upcoming semester. I was also able to attend an In-Person Marathon with Brandt Junceau this past January and I found the experience thrilling. Creating sculpture has sharpened my attention to touch, pressure, and gravity and that has directly influenced my drawing and painting.
In addition to the teaching faculty there is also an impressive level of talent in the student body. NYSS is a cauldron of higher learning that moves us through our own experiences but also in the witnessing of other’s experiences. The combination of Zoom and Padlet is surprisingly supportive of group learning. Zoom often feels like a “real” classroom that we enter and exit. One of my favorite times is when we have a virtual live model session and everyone is working hard and no one is talking. It is a shared moment, much like it would be like in person. Padlet is a technology that I believe improves the in-person experience because it gives us access to a detailed view of the work of our peers. It is like having a “wiki-art” program loaded with all the references of our instructors and the studio work of our fellow classmates. I often return to the padlet throughout the semester to see how my peers are handling the assignments and I quickly learn from their solutions.
The larger art community, as fostered by the alumni and staff at NYSS, offers an invaluable resource as well. Classes are taught by guest lecturers such as art historians and art curators. Professional relationships are fostered and deep friendships are formed working alongside one another. The Evening Lecture Series is a distinguished deep dive into historical relationships and current trends. One exciting addition to the schedule this past year was the private-access moments arranged by Exhibitions & Public Programs Officer Kara Carmack. Each Friday we would meet on zoom to have off-the-cuff discussions with the speakers from that week’s lecture. These intimate conversations with current artists and curators proved to be very lively and have shaped my understanding of the art world today. I believe I have been deeply transformed by my NYSS education. I have also seen the impact it has had on those around me. It is a school run by artists for artists. One that celebrates the creative endeavors of the individual artist as it simultaneously illuminates the important imprint that art has made on humankind.