Career in visual arts possible

Western alumni discuss experiences

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Ed Pien artwork

Gazette File Photo

ART'S ALTERNATE UNIVERSE. Western visual arts alumnus Ed Pien creates massive art installations all over the world. His exhibit “Earthly Delights” took place in Mexico. Masters of fine arts graduate Brendan Fernandes displayed his piece “Neo Primitivism 2” (below) in 2007.

Ed Pien was out of breath over the phone after just finishing a three-hour critique with his students for a visual studies course at the University of Toronto.

When he’s not teaching, however, he’s creating art, showcased in exhibitions all over the world.

“I wasn’t committed to becoming an artist when I finished high school [but] I’ve always loved art,” Pien explains.

After being disillusioned by the large size of the science and math classes in his first year at Western, Pien went into the visual arts program the following year.

“I really liked the smallness of the program, the approachability and the closeness of the community that was evolving throughout the four years I was there.”

Since then, Pien has exhibited his artwork and installations in New York, Montreal, Amsterdam, Mexico and Berlin. His upcoming shows include an exhibit at Le Salon du Dessin Contemporain in Paris, a piece in Manchester, England and a group show in Barcelona in May.

“Travelling has allowed me to see how other artists work ... to look at different cultures, think about constructions and feel more connected to the world.”

Despite Pien’s many successes, still one question always comes to mind for most visual arts students and aspiring artists: what are you going to do with a degree in fine arts?

“You know some people just say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to be an artist’ and that’s the end of it,” Pien explains. “But being an artist [I thought], ‘Right, but how am I going to make a living, how am I going to survive?’”

After Western, Pien continued his art education by completing his masters of fine arts degree at York University. He found a job in the print and colour separation industry soon after that helped paid the bills.

“I think the reality for most artists is that you have to have some kind of other job to supplement your income so you could actually do the art ... I never thought that my art would actually pay me a salary so people have to think about art as something that you do not because it’s going to save you or make you money, but it’s just something you want to do.”

Early Delights exhibit

For Brendan Fernandes, a 2005 masters of fine arts graduate from Western, a career as a full-time artist is not always easy, as it involves constantly writing grants, applying for residencies, holding exhibitions and meeting with curators.

Splitting his time working between New York and Toronto, Fernandes admits the art world is not for everybody.

“New York is a very competitive art world and ... your business life becomes your social life because it’s all mixed together. You sacrifice a lot of things [but] at the end of the day, this is what I do, this is what I love to do; I have a passion for it and I remember that. I wouldn’t want to do be doing anything else but this,” Fernandes says.

Born in Kenya, but raised in Canada, many of Fernandes’ works deal with questioning cultural identity and the misconceptions of African images from a Western perspective.

Fernandes says the MFA program at Western really pushed him to think conceptually about his work. Using theory as a backdrop for developing the visual aspects of an exhibit, he says, is key in creating meaning and opening dialogue about an art piece.

“I think it’s also a very progressive program, too. I studied in Toronto beforehand and I think my education at Western was one that gave me the sort of language to articulate what I do now.”

One of his supervisors for his MFA thesis and final exhibition was Christine Sprengler, whom he considered to be “of the highest levels of academia.”

“It is really the students who put a lot of work into the process of developing their artistic practice creatively and conceptually,” Sprengler says. “I do my best to understand what it is they want to explore and achieve by asking a lot of questions.”

Neo Primitivism 2

Sprengler was also second reader for Kathleen Ritter " another MFA graduate who is currently an assistant curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery for a contemporary art exhibit entitled “How Soon Is Now.”

“I don’t think I went to Western with the intent of working at the Vancouver Art Gallery,” Ritter explains.

“My interest is in being an artist first and foremost. I think the opportunity to curate is a really interesting opportunity and it’s part of an ongoing conversation that I’ll have throughout my career in the visual arts.”

For students looking to have a career in visual arts, instead of trying to apply to get into shows, Pien suggests the best thing to do is form your own groups and organize your own shows.

“[They’ll] feel empowered and soon, people will come to them and ask them for shows and engage in other activities,” he adds.

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