Duets: student and artist-mentor exchanges

One of the two main components of a student’s course of study in the MFA-VA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts is a semester-long studio project in which the student develops and/or challenges specific aspects of their art practice under the guidance of an Artist-Mentor.

The VCFA Artist-Mentor network is comprised of prominent contemporary artists who mentor students individually, during the semester. With over 1500 Artist-Mentors across the United States and Canada, VCFA students are ensured mentorship with a different Artist-Mentor each semester.

Student: Maria Trujillo (S 21)

Artist-Mentor: Tariku Shiferaw

Studio Project title: “Oh, deer…”

My studio work revolves around the deer in my home state of New Jersey. New Jersey has a decent population of deer, and as a result, our state allows deer hunting every year. But this isn’t the only human interaction deers encounter. Every fall/ winter you will see deer corpses throughout New Jersey from driving collisions. In my studio project I am working with different media and different ways to approach my community and presenting my art about this matter. 

VC Project title: “Art Imitates Life”

My VC projects include extensive research into the different acts of cruelty which get integrated into different forms of  Land Artworks. I have done extensive research on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s studio work and performance pieces that included her community and her interests in how her art imitates the lives of these individuals that are impacted by the community around them. This research will be interconnected with my own experience of life and work balance, and how my art is connected to my life as I live it. It’s all about the connections I am, and am not making, and how I fit into the spectrum of the art world. 

Maria Trujillo

Tariku Shiferaw was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in Los Angeles, CA, and presently lives and works in New York City. Through his ongoing body of work titled, “One of These Black Boys,” Shiferaw explores mark-making in order to address the physical and metaphysical spaces of painting and societal structures. 

His current exhibitions include Abstraction in the Black Diaspora, False Flag Projects, co-curated by Ayanna Dozier and Tariku Shiferaw, Oct 24th – Dec 13th. Unbound, Zuckerman Museum of Art, curated by Nzinga Simmons, Commissioned project “A Boy is a Gun (Tyler, the Creator)” on view until Jan 2021. Men Of Change: traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian Institute, ongoing till 2022.

Recent publications include Wallpaper (2020), “Five African Artists Demonstrating Creative Resilience in Challenging Times.” Financial Times (2020), “Could the Art World’s Experiment with Online Fairs Force A Healthy Rethink?” Hyperallergic (2020). “What Does It Mean to Exhibit “Black Excellence.” Barron’s Penta Magazine (2020). “Contemporary Artists on Art and Society.” New York Times (2019) “An Ethiopian Gallery Enriches a Global Art Conversation.”

What is the structure of your exchanges?

M: I travel a lot for work, and this structure is helping me grow as an artist and as a student. I had a week of not talking or zooming with Tariku, so I had a little bit of leeway to get my ideas in order, and at the next meeting we talked about the research I had done. It’s beneficial for me to have that extra week, or few days, to get my stuff together.

It always comes back to the discipline and time management of how I go about making my art. Tariku talks about how he approaches art making and how he is always in the studio and that gives me the sense that it’s all about discipline. I have all the research, I have all the names of artists, the ideas, but when it comes down to it, it’s about putting in the time for the work. Sometimes it is hard to get into the studio and put in those hours. In our meetings, Tariku will say, “Don’t forget to put in those hours, don’t forget to get in the studio, maybe an hour or 30 minutes, but just do it, do it, do it”.

T: In the beginning when I met Maria, we talked about how it would be important to continue the dialogue as frequently as possible to see the progress of her work and her thought process around the work. I think some students want to have conversations more frequently and others less frequently – it really depends. What I like about the structure is, if Maria, or I, are unable to meet on that particular day, we are able to move it up to another day and that has been the case for two meetings.

Maria introduced me to her practice by showing me slides of her work from previous semesters. I asked a few questions about what her goals were for her practice and the semester, and which part of her practice she wanted to focus on and grow. From there we talked about other artists as reference to see what the possibilities were for her practice and what she wanted to achieve.

We discussed whether she wants her work to be more of an activist’s work or indirectly responding to things from her life, like the environment or animal rights. Maria has access to New York City, so we talked about shows and artists to see. We have been talking more about that through the perspective of an artist practitioner who needs to look at other works to understand where one’s own work is going.

Maria, how have the conversations with Tariku affected your process and thinking regarding your work?

M: You take something from every mentor you have in this program and grow. I feel like my time at VCFA, and having Tariku as my mentor, has affected how I think about making my art. Tariku had said in the beginning that I didn’t have to answer the questions he was asking – and now I am starting to. He is showing me all these different artists and to think about how to look at the different approaches and settings for their work: activist, scientific, museum or gallery, that could correspond to my art.  I am asking questions: Who am I making the work for? Who is my audience? How am I going to do this – with a small gesture, or something else? I am starting to think about it in a more sophisticated way – where do I want my artwork to fit in the art world?

Can you describe a pivotal exchange with Tariku that helped shift something for you?

M: I could tell Tariku was super excited to work with me and he’s super down for all these meetings and he knows my situation with my job, but I hadn’t sent him anything for a while. He said I need to see stuff. You need to get in the studio, and you’ve got to put the work in. At that moment, he was really looking out for me. This is a guy that’s super real with me and it wasn’t harsh. I thought, this dude really wants me to put in the work, he’s excited for me so I need to put that extra effort in as well. I felt I needed to put in that same energy.

That was pivotal for me because I needed to hear it. Our communication and connection was solidified right then because he told me not as a mentor, but as a friend: you gotta get your stuff done. It’s hard to interact with people over a webcam, but I felt his investment. It really meant a lot to me. This was an actual connection I was making over zoom.

T: I’m glad to hear that!

What I like about this program is the flexibility. You are able to work one on one with a student artist however you can. If the student hits a snag, if she’s working on something and needs to be seen to talk in order to progress, that’s easily achievable.

Rather than meeting once a week, or even more, like in a regular residency MFA program, here there is breathing room between meetings for student artists to continue producing and thinking without having any works or critiques or ideas coming to them too prematurely. I think that is an important part of this program.

M: I totally agree. I really enjoy the one on ones. At VCFA everyone is in your corner, but your Artist-Mentor is in your corner through it all. You have a semester to figure things out with this one person who is going to be there for you. That’s one thing I really, really, enjoy about these Artist-Mentor exchanges.

How have you been challenged this semester?

M: Honestly, it’s the questions. They are helpful, but also challenging for me. I feel like those questions at the start of our meetings linger in the back of my head and any time I sketch or do any research – it’s like that thing that keeps whispering:

Who is it for? Is it for your community or you? Why are you doing this? Why are you making this? Why is it important?

Questions that I don’t think I can answer after this semester, but questions I need to think about. All things that I hadn’t thought about before. It’s great to have someone show me how to look at my art in a whole different way.

What advice would you give a new student who is thinking about selecting an Artist-Mentor?

M: Artist-Mentors are there to help you on your journey, so don’t feel like you have to fit into a certain category to find a specific mentor. It’s okay to look at different candidates to work with. If you’re a sculptor, you can learn a thing or two from a painter.

A few things to consider would be what you’d want to achieve or pursue in that semester, and what qualities these mentors have that could help with your practice. Consider who can help you achieve your goals. One more thing, always have a backup choice for a person to work with just in case your first pick doesn’t work out!