NSCAD offers prep for starving artist existence

Only five to 10 per cent of grads will find riches through their art: fine art chair

Jenna Faye Powell at work transcribing model cutouts to canvas for her Chesterfield series. Photo: David De Vries
Jenna Faye Powell at work transcribing model cutouts to canvas for her Chesterfield series. Photo: David De Vries

Despite provincial concern over NSCAD’s deficit, art professors strive to keep graduates in their field and prepared for success.

One graduate, Jenna Powell was awarded her master of fine art degree earlier this year and has since been nominated as RBC Canadian Painting Competition finalist for The Ideology of the Sublime Wilderness II. She will also be exhibiting paintings at Art Toronto, the Power Plant and the McMichael galleries later this year.

She speaks with pride and excitement about the nomination and the doors that opened after graduating from the school.

“I think it goes without saying, but these nominations are a direct reflection of the quality of (painting) education at NSCAD. NSCAD is represented well, as four of the 15 finalists are recent graduates..”

Her recent work led her to imagine, construct and represent a fictional city called Chesterfield that is in many ways the perfect example of NSCAD’s interdisciplinary ideals.

Though her expertise is in painting and miniature sculpture, Chesterfield boasts of her experiences in the wide range of NSCAD programs by combining craftwork, photography and art installation to build suburban scenes.

The art school gave her the tools to imagine such a place and complete the many projects that sprang from research and analysis of lifestyles in suburbia.

“Leaving the comforts of NSCAD was a scary thing for me,” said Powell. “Surrounded by such invested faculty, like-minded friends and inspiring peers, NSCAD became a home to me.”

“One of my advisers frequently spoke of ‘post-grad-school partum-depression’ and how to combat the woes of unemployed-ness, and more so, feelings of uncertainty of what’s next. I was lucky to move back to London as the position of director became open at Forest City Gallery, I got the job, and have happily been working there for the last three months.”

Mark Bovey, chair of fine art at NSCAD, knows first-hand the artist’s life is difficult.

“I would say — and this is conservative — only about five to 10 per cent (of graduates) go out into the world and become that artist where they just create fine art and somehow make money on their art.”

He adds that the number increases exponentially, as in the case of Powell, where an artist seeks out more education and becomes used to the chaotic culture.

“Arts are a special type of education. We can’t start being so pragmatic that we forget what this type of education brings to a civilization,” says Suzanne Funnell, professor of painting at NSCAD.

As Powell’s thesis mentor, Funnell helped her harness NSCAD ideals and succeed as an artist.

“The thinking is: I will have a commercial fallback plan. But you can’t compromise. Success in Canada means keeping focus, exploring, experimenting,” Funnell adds.

The belief at NSCAD is that this is what being an artist has meant through the ages: to interpret the world in a new way and then sculpt, paint, design and print until others can be given the gift of new perspective.

“We are a university and theoretical structures are critical to that. Some part of society must sit in relation to that world so it may be scrutinized critically,” Bovey explains.

“Much of the training in art school revolves around critical analysis, exploration and discovery. There are all these skill sets that artists have to have to survive in the landscape of Canadian art that includes learning how to write grants and navigate the world of the Canada Council. There are loads of jobs that artists do to survive. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes on! Tons of sacrifice! This is the kind of thing that society doesn’t understand is how much dedication there is and time given up.”

Mark Bovey frequently posted lists in studios and classrooms that detailed the jobs that coveted the skills taught in each of the many concentrations at NSCAD.

This is the atmosphere that graduates such as Powell remember fondly.

“I truly miss the experience at NSCAD, especially my studio mates and studio advisers, but I’m proud of my recent efforts and have felt overwhelming support from NSCAD alumni and faculty since I’ve left.”

“Success in the visual arts is a hard one to quantify but I know I am content with what I’ve recently accomplished and as my own hardest critic that really means something.”