How to Find Your Voice

Alex Hanson shares his experiences at the University of Iowa as well as how to find the program that’s right for you.

1. What is one sentence you would use to describe who you are and what you do?

I am an artist and educator from the upper midwest, currently living in Fayetteville Arkansas where I teach art at the University of Arkansas. 

2. Did you take the GRE? If so, what was your experience studying for the GRE like?

I did not take the GRE. It wasn’t required for the programs I was applying to.

3. Why did you decide to go to grad school? What program did you attend? How did you choose your specific program? 

I attended graduate school at the University of Iowa where I received a Masters of Fine Arts in studio art. It was important for me to have a large group of peers and faculty whose personal artwork I was interested in. The MFA program in Art and Art History was something like 100+ students; most of which were in the same building, taking the same classes! It was an overwhelming amount of creativity in once place and I loved it – somebody was always doing something interesting! You could walk around the halls at all hours of the day or night and stumble into someone’s studio doing absurdly amazing things!

Additionally, with art, a common question about grad programs is whether you wanted a two year program or a three year program. I only applied to three year programs. Since an MFA is (currently) a terminal degree within studio art, I knew I wanted as much time in school as possible. From my experience, art school is truly what you make it. If you’re interested in getting through as quickly as possible, there are programs out there that can make that happen for you. I wanted a three year program because it allowed me the literal time and space to develop my work and become confident entering into such a strange, and often scary field. 

On top of that, I wanted to find a program where I could teach as a graduate student. Once I heard that teaching a subject is the best way to learn that subject. I was offered the opportunity to teach all 6 semesters at IOWA – something that is fairly rare. My professor Isabel Barbuzza (who is an amazing artist) was keen on allowing us to have a great deal of freedom with the curriculum of our sculpture classes. Because of this latitude, I was able to find my voice as a teacher while in school. It was the best job I’ve ever had! 

Lastly, many state institutions are cheap, free, or even pay you to be at their graduate program. This is something that is wildly under-discussed in academia. Many of the schools that offer funding or the opportunity to teach to grads are large research institutions – this is to say they seek to employ faculty that are scholars at the top of their game. It is also worth mentioning that any mentality of cutthroat competitiveness amongst students was largely unwelcome – my experience is that research institutions are largely much more collaborative than competitive. It was not uncommon for your peers to assist you with the completion of a project, something I have not seen at institutions that do not follow this model. Additionally the University of Iowa had this long history of strange and provocative artwork that came out of it! Coastal-types want to turn their nose up at state schools in the center of the country, but there is some pretty groundbreaking stuff happening in pockets all over the country. The most profound, radical artworks I’ve ever encountered happened in a strip mall in the center of Iowa. 

4. How do you feel your graduate degree has impacted your career?

I would say that it has mainly been positive. I am grateful for my experience at Iowa, even the parts that were challenging. Many of the upper admin and program directors at Iowa were very difficult people to deal with. While being a student, I was certainly shielded from a lot of the inter-departmental drama, but I think there is possibly something I have learned from being part of a program that was, at least some of the time, rather dysfunctional. 

5. Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing an MFA?

Take your time and be honest with yourself about what you want out of it. Go for free if you can. Find a program with a lot of people in it.

Keep up with Alex on his website.

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