MFA candidate learns for herself and her students

Usually Christine Belton (MFA ’21) is leading a class but this past summer she traded her regular role of teacher for a seat as a student.

“I want to become a better artist,” said the Low-Res MFA student. “This is a blast getting to really dig deep into my own artwork, to this dedicated time and crazy deadlines and days where I have 3 or 4 critiques in one day.

As a first-year student in PAFA’s Low-Residency MFA Program, Belton spent 8 weeks in studio at the Academy this summer.

The two-and-a-half-year program is ideal for students who desire the community, support and rigor of a traditional MFA, but with a more flexible structure to fit their lives and schedules. The core of the program is three summer terms completed on the PAFA campus.  For these intensive, eight-week sessions, students have their own private studio and are engaged in independent work.  

Devoting time to in-person learning during the summer was a perfect fit for Belton’s career as an art teacher in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“I love to teach. For me, my personal practice supports my teaching and my teaching supports my personal practice and it makes this fantastic circle,” she said. “It sounds corny, like you complete me, but it’s true.”

Part of the reason Belton is at PAFA is her students. She’s an accomplished ceramicist and has a deep body of work in sculpture but wanted to learn to oil paint for her students.

“A lot of my kids are asking how to use oil paint. My skill set is better than theirs but still thin,” she said. “My goal this summer was to learn how to oil paint.”

She not only learned but is incorporating the medium into her new work. Belton previously made a series of ceramic corsets. The 18-inch sculptures explored the concept of male gaze, disordered eating, and the rigid beauty views society has for women. She’s taken those concepts and her own personal experiences and brought them into oversized oil paintings.

“I was talking to visiting critic Naudline Pierre about the narrative of a painting and she asked what the story was. We had this ceramic cookie car that is from the 1940’s and it’s my moms and you couldn’t get a cookie out without it clicking. She would always hear it and ask what we were eating,” Belton said. “So my sisters and I would start fake fights in the kitchen, get some ruckus going so that she wouldn’t hear us opening the jar and getting cookies. It’s a funny story but at the same time it taught me shame, duplicity, it was also food policing my mother did, she would bake these amazing things and then tell you couldn’t have any so all of that went into this.”

Pierre encouraged Belton to increase the size of the cookie jar in the painting. Then critic Eileen Neff heard the story of the cookie jar and said the jar should get even larger. And the next day Kate Moran visited Belton’s studio and urged her to go even bigger with the jar.

“The amount of feedback is great. There is an army of people behind this, helping me,” she said. “The support is incredible, it really is, and I really appreciate the push. I mean this summer I did the largest oil paintings I’ve ever done and I had only ever done like two oil paintings before.”

As she heads back to her studio this fall, Belton is already planning her next year’s worth of projects and how the Low-Res program will fit into her life.

“I think over the next school year I’m going to see if I can create a corset with etched zinc plates,” she said. “For this program we have online critiques and I have people in town I critique with. We are expected to come in here next summer with a body of work, it’s expected we work, so I’ll be working.”

Christine Belton (MFA '21) paints a still-life
Christine Belton (MFA '21) paints a still-life

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.