What I've Always Been Chasing: Makenna Glessner's Evolution from PreCollege to MFA Candidate

Makenna Glessner (MFA ’23) is currently at work on her master’s thesis, but has been a constant presence at PAFA since 2016 as a high school summer attendee and an undergraduate student, earning her BFA in 2021. Makenna’s self-awareness immediately emerges in her thesis work, which focuses on the “shadow self” and other inward-looking philosophies. As she thinks back on her time at the school, she describes her significant personal growth:

“I was at the tip of the iceberg and now I’m under the surface.”

A Hometown Connection

As she drives to her home in Lancaster from PAFA’s Center City campus each day, the interdisciplinary artist relishes the time for self-reflection. “It’s my time to come down from the day. The choice to commute has helped me grow as a person,” she says of the 80-mile trip. Makenna maintains a special fondness for her hometown. “I had a home at my high school, and I’m glad I found a home at PAFA as well,” says the artist. Her influential high school art teacher, Scott Cantrell, welcomed representatives from a number of schools into the classroom to speak about their programs and offer portfolio reviews. He encouraged Makenna that PAFA, specifically, could be a good fit. “Just the way he talked about it, something clicked,” she remembers.

PAFA PreCollege Programs

She attended PAFA’s Summer Academy for high schoolers in 2016. “That was such an eye-opening experience to what college life would be like there, and I think that’s really what signed the deal,” says Makenna. “That was the start of my college journey and thinking...

‘My art is worth something. I can do this.’”

Undergraduate to Graduate

Makenna appreciated the PAFA BFA’s emphasis on foundational work, which pushed her and her classmates out of their comfort zone, including commercial training in her illustration courses: “In the end I think it only strengthened my work.” She credits this well-rounded education with opening many artistic doors, and now she endeavors to share this knowledge with others. “When I was leaving my bachelor’s, I wanted to jump right into the teaching world, so I knew I needed my master’s,” says Makenna. Wanting to learn by example, she was eager to spend more time with the teachers who had influenced her undergraduate experience, notably Michael Gallagher, Renée Foulks, and Al Gury

“The teachers are why I stayed.”

Gallagher and Foulks have continued to be a source of support for Makenna’s MFA journey, and offer a unique perspective as they witness her development as an artist. “It’s so special to know, when they walk into my studio, they already know my body of work. And they maintain that relationship as much as I do. They’ve stayed with me on this journey,” says Makenna. She has especially enjoyed the natural changes in her relationships to the faculty, realizing that, as a mature artist, her thoughts and feedback can now impact faculty work in the same way faculty influenced her own. “It’s almost like a changing of the guard.”

As she nears the end of her master’s degree, Makenna’s practice has changed with her. “I used to work on one piece at a time. I was very systematic and afraid to make mistakes.” She was challenged in her BFA senior year by the independent studio experience, which allowed her to create more art than ever before. Now, she is enjoying the freedom the MFA program encourages to be more thoughtful about each work she produces. “Something unlocked in my master’s. I’m aware that everything is connected. I have to stop constantly to reflect, especially with the thesis,” she says, sometimes catching herself as she compares herself to student colleagues. In her experience, though, PAFA values precisely this spectrum of output from its artists. “We’re all on a different journey. For me, I don’t produce like I used to, but the work is doing something different for me that it never has before.

I didn’t realize it, but it’s actually portraying what I have always been chasing.”

-Diana Wensley, content writer

Charcoal still life with nude figure and vase
Makenna's first creation during the 2016 PAFA Summer Academy as a high school student
abstract figure sits on chair, partially obscured by lamp
Mixed media on canvas
34” x 48”
Nude figure holds purple stuffed rabbit on dark background
“Purple Rabbit”
Oil/Thread/Ink on canvas
30” x 48”
ink drawings of nude figures taped to window with large building in the background
Detail of Makenna's studio window

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the United States’ first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers a world-class collection of American art, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and educational opportunities in the fine arts. The PAFA Museum aims to tell America's diverse story through art, expanding who has been included in the canon of art history through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, while classes educate artists and appreciators with a deep understanding of traditions and the ability to challenge conventions. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.