Currents Offers Undergrads a Summer to Experiment

At the oldest art school and museum in the country, it can be ironic that young artists are given an opportunity to try something new.

“The Currents residency is a space where you can go away from the expectations of your home school or larger artistic community and do something really experimental with a group of artists and not have the pressure of that kind of gaze,” said Currents Program Director and artist Colleen Asper.

Currents, hosted by the Graduate School at PAFA, provides an intensive summer studio residency for rising undergraduate seniors. The six-week summer residency provides undergraduate students with a rigorous art-making experience that includes individual studio space and student housing, lectures and critiques, museum and gallery visits.

“It is often during the transition between the third and fourth year of their undergraduate tenure that many students demonstrate the most significant evolutions and reach new levels of maturity in their developing studio practices,” said Didier William, Chair of the MFA program. “Our program is committed to providing the safest, most challenging space where such profound material, conceptual, and emotional transformations can take shape.

Currents is one of the few residencies focused on studio work for undergraduate students.

“It’s really intensive in terms of critiques and the focus is on individual work, there’s lots of visiting artists, group crits, and individual crits,” she said. “The structure we have this summer is that the classes run for the first three weeks and then the last three weeks are entirely focused on independent studio work.”

In addition to working with Asper, and PAFA faculty members Alexis Granwell and Troy Michie, the summer Visiting Artist Program includes artist lectures and critiques with Paul Anthony Smith, Kara Rooney, and Emily Erb.

That’s what brought Daniel Thomas to Philadelphia for the summer.

“What really made me excited for this program was the faculty and their work,” he said. “While doing research I really liked the work I saw.”

The rising senior at the California College of the Arts considers himself an abstract painter but has been exploring printmaking in PAFA’s print shop. Working in a new city and environment has opened Thomas up to new ideas.

“I’m coming here now and getting more art historical information. The Bay area has a history of painting but it’s much shorter and it’s not super connected to the east coast,” he said. “I feel like the conceptual fertilizer is on the soil here. Talking about art history and concept has really been good.”

But it’s more than art history and theory that students from across the country are learning about as a part of Currents. Asper said what they learn from each other is just as important as the lessons from PAFA’s faculty.

“What makes this program really unique is you have students who are coming from major art schools, and then you have students who got here because their work is really strong but they’re coming from maybe larger universities or liberal arts programs that don’t have a BFA program,” she said. “You see students who are very used to the kind of discourse they have at their home institution and then they come here and are introduced to totally new concepts and ideas.”

Philadelphia itself has also become a breeding ground for discovery and ideas for Currents students.

“It’s very different. In San Francisco there’s almost a stereotype that people are very hazed out and mellow; but it's true. And Philly is very gruff. It’s a nice gruffness. People are really friendly in a gruff way,” he said. “The city is really interesting with all of the architecture, the neo gothic museums and then City Hall. I also really like all of the murals.”

For Asper, train ride from New York to Philadelphia has shown her a whole different art community.

“The gallery scene in New York City is very centered around commercial galleries but something that seems very unique about Philly that’s exciting to me is that there are a lot of artist-run spaces and nonprofits,” she said. “These are things that feel a little more accessible to artists who are just starting out.”


Currents student Daniel Thomas during a group critique
Currents student Daniel Thomas during a group critique
Currents critic Alexis Granwell at a group critique
Currents critic Alexis Granwell at a group critique
Students during a group critique
Students during a group critique

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Thomas Eakins, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.