A Closer Look at PAFA’s New Low-Residency MFA

PAFA’s new Low-Residency MFA program began last summer with an eight-week, on-site intensive semester that included classes, studio work, critiques, visiting artist lectures, technology and photography training, and even an off-site trip to New York. Now well into their first online semester, students continue to stay connected with one another in their online courses’ discussions and group work in Canvas (PAFA’s learning management system), and document and share their studio work with critics back at PAFA using the iPads they each received at the start of the program.

Between now and August 2017, students will take online classes and participate in off-site critiques during fall and spring semesters and return to campus for two more eight-week summer sessions. After completing the first summer session and settling into the first online semester, we were eager to check in with the students and see how things are going. Liz Ayerle was kind enough to take some time to share her experiences and studio work.

Lisel Wuest: How was your first summer semester at PAFA?

Liz Ayerle: It was a really wonderful and intense experience. The summer flew by in a flash. Sometimes it felt like I was in perpetual motion but I have never gotten so much out of so short a period of time. It’s hard to believe that it was just eight weeks because you meet so many mentors and friends, people you will probably know and work with for a long time to come.

LW: Was it different from what you expected?

LA: To be honest I am not really sure what I expected. It was the first year of a new program and I tried to come in with an open mind. I was happy with the level of commitment from faculty and staff but also from my classmates. They were such an interesting and supportive group of individuals. Their varied ages and life experiences brought something intangible to the classroom environment. Astrid [Bowlby], the program head, fostered a sense of community among the group, provided a solid vision for the program and proved a sound advisor through any bumpy transitions. I was also particularly impressed with the visiting artist lectures and critics, who each took the time to give thoughtful feedback on our work.

LW: How did your summer on campus prepare you for your online semester(s)?

LA: I love that PAFA is putting so much emphasis on staying connected during our time away from campus. One of the tricky things about our group was that we had really variable levels of comfort with technology. We had a series of technology training seminars to try and prepare us for the fall. These included introduction to social media, downloading applications, conferencing and even photography and photo editing.

There is always a learning curve with new programs but PAFA’s commitment to making the transition comfortable was evident. Even more encouraging was their openness to roll with feedback from students. I am confident that each summer on campus will be even better than the last. Plus Liesl was always available to students for additional support if they need it, which is great!

LW: What are the major differences between traditional, on-site critiques and your online critiques?

LA: The most obvious difference is the physical presence in your studio. Instructors can’t touch, smell or move freely around the space but I haven’t found that to be an insurmountable obstacle and it isn’t necessarily a drawback either. What it really means is that you have to give more consideration to preparation. I spend more time thinking about how to document my work with photography and video. It forces you to think through what is most important and what you’re trying to say. It pushes me to see my own work in unexpected ways and allows me to take control of the visit.

LW: What drew you to PAFA’s Low-Residency MFA program?

LA: First and foremost it was my initial meeting with Astrid. Sometimes you just feel that inexplicable “click” and you know it will be a good fit. I liked the flexibility of the schedule and the fact that you learn to build your studio practice into a “real world” life organically. I was also drawn to the mission and the fact that PAFA wasn’t only attracting what I thought of as traditional MFA applicants. These were people with varied life experiences from different parts of the country and world. I loved the idea of being part of the beginning of something with people like that. Lastly I have come to embrace that the program is a bit longer than the regular two year MFA. It gives you a chance to slow down your practice and work through your goals. The extra time feels like a luxury rather than a burden.

LW: What advice would you give other artists who are considering enrolling in a low-residency MFA program?

LA: Well I think it’s pretty obvious that I am a big fan of this program so my number one piece of advice is to apply! Other than that I would say let yourself dream big. If you decide to attend you will meet other people who will become a community of friends and mentors to support you even in your months away from campus.

Written by Liesl Wuest, Instructional Technologist

October 14, 2015

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