Jess Aquino '19: Tough Critiques Lead to a Breakthrough

Critiques are integral to the learning and curricular experience at PAFA. Students in PAFA's programs have regular critiques with faculty during the semester and are given the opportunity to meet with visiting artists to discuss their work.

The critiques are meant to push students and make the most of their time at PAFA.

It’s been more than a year but Jessica Aquino (MFA ‘19) can quote word-for-word one of the critiques she had in her first year of PAFA’s MFA program.

“I am concerned about you. The work you showed today was the work you presented towards the end of last semester,” said departing MFA program chair Didier William to Aquino. “I don’t think you are spending enough time in your studio and it shows. You need to ask yourself, what are your priorities.”

Aquino came to PAFA after working on a farm in upstate New York as part of the Americorps program. She planned to focus on painting but found it wasn’t the right medium to have conversations about the things she wanted to talk about.

Her work now focuses on installations and fiber arts.

“The ideas around identity, culture, interlocking systems of oppression are such a big thing to get your arms around,” Aquino said. “I didn’t know how to maneuver those conversations with painting. Especially because it was very traditional and western and I was trying to explore the non-western.”

Aquino knew what she wanted to tackle, but that searing critique made her realize what she was doing wasn’t enough.

“The first hour I cried, then I got angry. I was working 3 part-time jobs while trying to balance school. But I knew this wasn't an excuse,” she said. “I went back to my studio and threw his words around: concerned, not spending enough time, priorities. He brought the hand of truth down and had no intention to sugarcoat it and he was right.”

Thinking back to her first days at PAFA, Aquino remembered a conversation she had at orientation.

“I don’t remember who said it, but the words that resonated were, ‘We're not critiquing you, we are critiquing your work’.”

Knowing she only had two years to at PAFA to get her MFA and build up her art practice, she doubled down on her commitment to her art. Spending more time in the studio led Aquino to opportunities and experiences she wouldn’t have otherwise had. While working for PAFA’s curatorial team, Aquino assisted in the installation of the exhibition, Rina Banerjee: Make Me A Summary of the World.

And through the Visiting Artist Program, she welcomed more critiques.

“I intentionally sought out hard critics who I felt could push me to explore the roots of my practice,” Aquino said. “I came here to figure out what is my place in the art world, and how to navigate it as a person of color.”

Her work honors her identity and breaking the traditions of painting and drawing.

“I came across fiber and paper and it was very meditative. For me, it’s about yearning to map out my own past and experience and cultural identity,” she said. “My practice in a sense is paying homage to communities, the communities that I grew up with, and leaving that history, leaving identity.”

Two years after coming to Philadelphia, Aquino is leaving PAFA and moving on to the next phase of her career. But she is taking with her the experiences she had at PAFA, even the difficult ones, with her.

“If there is anything I learned from my fellow peers and from being at PAFA, it’s that the good, the bad and ugly moments are all valuable,” she said. “In those moments we provided each other the time and patience, as well as space to be tested and to acknowledge how we react to this little PAFA world in preparation for the larger art world.”

Jess Aquino '19 addresses graduating students and their families at PAFA's commencement exercises.
Jess Aquino '19 addresses graduating students and their families at PAFA's commencement exercises.

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.