Giving Young Artists the Confidence to Explore

Nicole Parker (BFA ’17) has always been confident in her technical ability to paint, but it took coming to PAFA to build up her confidence about talking about her work.

“Our professors tell us all the time that you should never feel nervous talking about your work to someone because you’re the expert on your work,” she said. “And nobody knows more work about your work then you do so you shouldn’t be self-conscious talking to people about this thing.”

Parker went into the 2017 Annual Student Exhibition a ball of nerves.


The Annual Student Exhibition (ASE) has been a tradition at PAFA for more than 100 years and is the culminating event in a student's journey at PAFA. Each spring 3rd and 4th year BFA and certificate program students, and MFA students have the opportunity to curate, install and sell their own works in the PAFA museum galleries.

“It’s a great experience and it’s amazing that students get to do that here because you get to exhibit in this real gallery and talk to all of these people and sell your work. I feel like it’s a really great professional experience that’s kind of unique to PAFA,” Parker said. “I know other schools have student exhibitions but I feel like ours is different because its more public, it’s more prominent.”

PAFA students create more than 1,000 paintings, sculpture, works on paper and installations. It is one of the most celebrated student group shows in the country. More than 100,000 visitors will attend the ASE, and sales of student's works are expected to be nearly $300,000. Students retain the majority of the purchase price of works sold.

“I know the first ASE was intensely stressful for me. You go to the preview party and there are all of these fancy people, and everyone looks so beautiful,” she said. “But I was very stressed out about it and every time I talked to someone I was shaking.”

Nerves aside, Parker’s ASE wall and travel scholarship application was strong enough that she was awarded the Richard C. Von Hess Memorial Scholarship and Travel Award. The prize meant she could study at PAFA for a 5th year after and travel abroad after completing her studies.

Parker said she didn’t expect to receive the scholarship prize so she had finished up all of her BFA requirements in her fourth year. She is spending her fifth year in studio and working with PAFA’s critics.

“It’s a good opportunity to talk about your work with someone else and bounce ideas back and forth with someone more experienced than you in a casual setting,” she said. “The first year I was in my private studio, I thought it would be very stressful but it’s actually really helpful and pretty low-key.”

Working with several critics at PAFA gives Parker different experiences and viewpoints. With critic Stuart Shils, Parker said he does most of the talking. She appreciates getting a lot of feedback from him at once.

Other critics, like Dean Clint Jukkala, challenge Parker.

“It’s not even I disagree with everything he says but he has a little bit different outlook than I do and he brings things to the table that I might have considered previously,” she said. “Clint challenges me to think about what I’m doing in a way that I’m not just stuck in my own head.”

Parker also enjoys working with critic Michael Gallagher. She says they are very similar people and she appreciates how hard he works to understand all of his students.

All of the critic voices in Parker’s head are contributing to not clouding her work.

“I think the general consensus is that critics always tell you is: Take all of this with a grain of salt and don’t let this completely turnaround your practice but if it does then don’t worry about that either.”

As she prepares for her travel scholarship trip to Germany, the United Kingdom and Iceland, Parker said she is trying to appreciate the talks with her critics during her last semester at PAFA.

“I try to enjoy the conversation while it’s happening and afterwards I do some digesting about what I actually want to keep from them,” she said. “I kind of pick and choose and it’s good to hear different viewpoints.”

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