Illustration MFAs Show Medium’s Potential for Social Impact
Inaugural Illustration MFA cohort
How can professional illustrators use their artistic voices to expand their chosen field into a more equitable profession? Is it possible to use illustration to contribute to conversations around social justice and accessibility?
This fall, 15 graduate students are exploring such questions as RISD’s first cohort of Illustration MFA candidates. In the newly launched two-year advanced studio program, the students are working with Department Head Eric Telfort 05 IL, Graduate Program Director Calef Brown and other faculty members to hone their critical perspectives and visual literacy en route to becoming agents of social change.
“At the core of the discussion,” says Telfort, “is the revelatory notion that illustrators, as global citizens, have a shared responsibility with other critical professionals to make work that seeks to change society for the better.” In designing the program, Telfort and his colleagues aimed to help graduate students use contextual and historical research to develop an ethically conscious visual voice. “The curriculum,” he says, “allows grads to consider deeply the often-overlooked impact illustration has had on society, enabling them to become thoughtful practitioners with a sense of agency.”
“The MFA program offers a deep examination of critical theory and the field itself,” Brown adds. “Students are required to do a lot of research throughout the program. Soon they’re going to visit various special collections all over Providence with [Dean of Libraries] Margot Nishimura.” In their second year, students will participate in Social Engagement and Agency, a course in which they’ll work with local nonprofit organizations to address social, political and environmental challenges through critical making and community engagement.
In the just-completed studio Perception and the Art of Communication, co-taught by Professors Susan Doyle 81 IL/MFA 98 PT/PR and Robert Brinkerhoff, students investigated the intersection of art and visual psychology through a five-part narrative project. “Illustration isn’t a form; it’s an act,” says Doyle. “We’re trying to have students focus on self-authorship, which can look like a lot of different things. The gift of working with graduate students is that they are all fully aware of the sacrifices they’ve made to get here and they have every desire to get the most out of the program.”
Students approached their final projects from a variety of unique angles. After Courtney McCracken MFA 24 IL presented 100 Ways to Draw
an Apple Your Own Consciousness, a five-minute film about internalized shame around art and identity, Jenine Bressner 01 GL/MFA 24 IL spoke about her sculpted, interactive figures and how they represent Providence’s vibrant community. Visiting critics were then invited to step into an interactive tent made by Ji Zhou MFA 24 IL, which was filled with oil paintings that speak to her Hmong and Shaman heritage.
“This really resonates with a kind of self-assuredness, even though the expression in the film is a kind of doubt,” said Brinkerhoff about McCracken’s film. “There is a lot of confidence in everything you did.” After stepping into Zhou’s interactive tent, one critic remarked, “you’ve effectively created an experience where for a moment you are transported away. In crit so often the ‘ask’ is solely on the artist, but this asked something of us as well. I appreciated that.”
To finish up the day of critiques, Nina Martinez MFA 24 IL flipped through her comic book made with acetate paper and read aloud the story about two sisters in the Philippines and the relationship between nature and the city. “You’ve taken away the opaqueness of the book, and as you turn the pages, we are surrounded by the past, present and future of the story,” fellow grad student Nellie Geraghty MFA 24 IL pointed out. “It becomes much more encompassing for the reader and adds to the magic of the narrative.”
Though Martinez has been working as an illustrator for several years, the program offers her a new lens on illustration. “Working in the industry, everything is very client-focused and high production,” she says. “You start to feel detached from the act of drawing itself. It’s been really fulfilling to focus so much on the craft again.” In addition to classes, Martinez has enjoyed working with undergraduate students as a TA for a sophomore History of Illustration course.
“This semester, many of the students used the personal to examine the political,” says Brown. “Their final projects were emotionally impactful and highly thoughtful. The craft, depth of self-examination and vulnerability combined with extensive research and investigation was truly amazing to see.”
—Isabel Roberts / Photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH