By Cindy Shearer, faculty member and program director of the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry, and Brynn Saito, program coordinator
“Burn your boats, but not your bridges,” said director and writer, Ellen Sebastian Chang at last weekend’s panel discussion on sustaining a life as a working artist. Which we took as a reminder that being artist is a long-term assignment—not something you take on quickly or easily or lightly. You must “burn your boats” and drift towards the whorl of risk, inspiration, and dreaming, while simultaneously keeping your connections in tact. Take care of what bridges you to friends, networks, and fellow artists. Tend to the things that will sustain you. Or, as another panelist, writer Thaisa Frank, put it: “Every artist needs someone in the world who wishes them well.”
The MFA in Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts and the MFA in Writing and Consciousness at CIIS provide an opportunity for emerging and working artists to burn their boats and nurture their bridges—and even build new ones. That is, the two-year Master of Fine Arts programs provide students with protected time, which tethers them to artmaking, and allows them to develop a professional-level body of work, and a vision for thriving as an artist in the world. Finding or sustaining a job, looking for venues to support art projects, and juggling family or financial responsibilities often fully occupy artists. Many rarely have a place where they can concentrate on their own creative work, talk deeply with other artists or find new mentors and ways of engaging their art. The MFAs at CIIS create these opportunities.
An artists’ life is a hybrid life: more often than not, the artist assumes multiple roles as she builds a life for herself. During their two years of study, MFA students at CIIS identify possible careers and develop an MFA project and portfolio that act as companion pieces—illustrating how they will map and engage the world both during their time at CIIS, and beyond. Students also develop the frameworks for articulating the values that guide their art, the heritages that influence it and the purposes they have for it. We believe artists who are aware of all the contexts that inform their work—and can articulate them well—not only create authentic and deeply-felt work; they are also able to use these frameworks to establish or enhance their professional practices (such as teaching, grant-writing, leading workshops, or consulting).
When you graduate from CIIS, you and your cohort members will exit together as a community of artists with valuable connections to our MFA faculty—all of whom are working artists—and local Bay Area guest artists and mentors. Drawing on these connections will help your art to become vital—and you’ll become more fully aware of the bridges that will lead to creating and sustaining an artists’ life.