By the Watkins College of Art MFA Faculty Collective, Nashville, Tennessee (facilitated by Jodi Hays)
Nothing is stable. James Baldwin wrote that artists remind us that nothing is stable under heaven, though we like to collectively forget. There’s the obvious anxiety for our public (and personal) health amidst the pandemic, the continued inequitable treatment of black bodies, school closures, an increasingly endangered environment, the Nashville tornado. And there is institutional instability, the closing of businesses and institutions, like that of Watkins College of Art.
Established in 2018 at Watkins, Nashville’s first MFA in Visual Art Program began. Given the city’s growth and creative habits, it was a hopeful yet long overdue action born from the conviction that criticality added to our creativity makes us stronger, smarter, more empathic and relevant. Professor Armon Means adds, “The presence of an MFA program in Nashville had always been something that seemed like an error somehow, as if this community had fostered so many strong graduate programs across the landscape of universities but had overlooked this space of the arts in a city that is so rich in arts and culture.”
Founder and Professor Kristi Hargrove says of the program, “It is designed to foster the importance of research, as well as critical reading and writing to bridge the conceptual ideas of a project to their most potent visual form.” A needful and ambitious function of any MFA program is to expand opportunity for education, to commit to collaboration and to encourage diversity and flexible thinking. Inaugural class member and graduate, Heriberto Palacio III, says “It’s about cultivating who you are as an artist and what you want to practice and what you believe in as an artist.” This educational path creates a scaffolding for an open, radical approach to a life of intellect, one that includes and celebrates parenting and barbering, painting and community work, design and jazz, research and writing, fathering and nursing, coaching and teaching in addition to all of the rigor of a more traditional (residential) MFA program choice. The program exists to amplify these voices.
Education began overhaul mode, addressing the institutional instability exacerbated by the pandemic. In June a resilient and committed cohort of Watkins College of Art graduate students and faculty did the work to complete a Summer Intensive, mostly over Zoom. Professor Tom Williams observed, “Many have noted the challenges of virtual classrooms—the loss of presence and intensity is palpable—but the gains are less often acknowledged. Without proximity, the ideas under discussion became the whole thing. I’ve seldom had experiences teaching where the content of the class mattered more than our individual journeys. For all its downsides, it proved to be a rare opportunity.”
Representing several states, students and faculty logged into scheduled days punctuated by reading groups, critiques, lunch breaks, theory discussions, creative Zoom backgrounds, chats and a lot of art making. It was a surprisingly intimate experience, however exhausting on the eyes – and the batteries of our devices. The collective asked hard questions, encouraged each other, read the hard texts and did the studio work with fierce commitment to hopeful, creative change in themselves and in our world. I was reminded again that artists are the teachers, the canaries in the coal mines, the conscience of our culture, nudged with a fierce need to contribute. Perhaps, given our moment, the intimacy should not have been a surprise. Reflecting on the summer, Armon Means added:
…the role of this low-residency program during a pandemic seemed to take on even more weight. It became a space where students could create and learn but still needed to be challenged and educated with the same vigor as they would when present — that includes the idea of what they would get from just being present in the community, not just from instruction. This was only heightened further by the BLM protests in the wake of police brutality and murders over the recent months. In a society on edge, the students had to confront what it meant to make art at this time. The duty of instructors also seemed to be not just to address art making, but the society around us, which as the only instructor of color became an issue of personal priority for me. The idea that this program with its diverse student body could seek discourse on cultural creativity without addressing the simultaneous horrors seemed wrong and lacking. For me, though, talking about its ties to the art world was cathartic. The pain and fear that was made real for me during this period had been internally devastating, the pandemic created a space where there was little room for an outlet. Having the opportunity to process and digest my hurt through research and lecture allowed for a healthy way to discuss these ideas and provide a sense of relief but also achieve some amount of fostering a deeper understanding of what POC are going through. Both the faculty and student body were then instrumental in accepting and creating new dialog and conversations that demonstrated a depth of critical-thinking and desire for understanding that I think was only possible because of the diverse population and the shared struggles of dealing with the pandemic.
Watkins’ two first “canaries”, committed to understanding and new dialog, graduates of the program, are Chuck Arlund and Heriberto Palacio III. After participating in their final reviews and crits, it was evident that their differences and friendship throughout the program embody our collective hopes for our culture; to love in crisis, to work, to think, to write, to do the work. “The notion of enrolling in graduate art school at 48 years old is a perfect example of liminal space, a cause of great anxiety, excitement,” said Arlund. And also hope, to work and think and make towards change. Chuck Arlund observed that “the virtual meetings can make you a better listener, and I hope to bring that into conversations in real person-to-person conversation.”
Arlund’s lens-based work includes subtle photographs of his children and figures in landscape that connect myth and mystery to bodies and legend. His practice presents an alternative to the idea that family and sexuality is fixed, profane but lacking nuance. Arlund writes in his master’s thesis that “human equality and letting go of your ego, being humble and having empathy for humankind” has been part of his MFA pursuit. And our world needs heaps of empathy.
Heriberto (Eddie) Palacio III. is a more “traditional” student in terms of age and stage. A graduate of Tennessee State University, Palacio came to the program with a connection to North Nashville. Through his practice, he investigates masculinity, gender studies and emotional intelligence through painting, performance, design and essay. His work features black men embracing through a candy-colored palette, commenting on and pushing against the (mis)perception of black masculinity in American culture. Our collective history is, in part, one that has decided who needs to be cherished and how. Palacio’s work exposes, in part, our collective inability to cherish and complexify the black male body. We need revision in writing and image to expand our abilities to love and cherish, and Palacio’s work does the labor in both spheres. Moses Williams, Professor and Watkins BFA alum reflects:
Our program is unique. In many ways, it’s a mentorship program that focuses on the strength of relationships. There is a dependency on community that’s both challenging and encouraging. It’s an attempt to piece together a template for the future, an experiment that demonstrates the how and the why we need to be part of a community. During the pandemic and amidst so much uncertainty all around us, our online summer residency was a space of accountability in every sense. A space where we ask the hard questions of one another and go the distance to figure it out.
If learning is hard-headed and soft-bodied, it is best practiced as a community like this (though often by those who are resistant to joining it). The work these graduates have done is made manifest in the way they nimbly critique the work of others in the program. I was reminded, amidst a pandemic and personal loss, that in this program/community, students become professors, work for growth, encourage and push, see and listen. I look forward to more canaries and bell ringers and reminders that nothing is stable here but love. From Danny Broadway, a Memphis-based first-year student, “In spite of all of the social distancing obstacles, Watkins/ Belmont was able to provide a unique and efficient summer intensive for the low residency MFA students. I’m feeling good about the future of the program.”
 and also zoom-bombing children, barking pets, the neighbor’s lawn mower and walk-thru parents
 Professor Armon Means’ lecture on “Periphery” was inspired, important
 “Think before you speak. Read before you think. Do the work. Do not react. Shut up. Don’t react. Read. Do the work. Think. Do the work.”-Hilton Als
 where the former Watkins campus sits until is sold for millions
 …clarifying, explicating, valorizing, translating, transforming, criticizing (Octavia Butler)