Have you ever considered enrolling in a postgraduate course? Perhaps it was during the final year of your bachelor’s degree, or in the period after graduation as you figured out alternatives to entering the workforce (because your dream boss is not responding to your messages on LinkedIn!). Or perhaps the thought just occurred to you on the commute after work, as you stared listlessly at your partial reflection on the bus window and pondered ways to level-up your career.
Bradley Cooper once remarked about his grad school days “I couldn’t get a job, so I was like, oh, I’ll go to school!” I have a feeling Bradley Cooper is not the only one who started the postgrad journey on that note. But what about those who are already in good, comfortable roles in their chosen industries? If someone advised them to take a pause in their career trajectory and go back to school, I would question whether or not this would be a valuable thing to do. Would they not be better off just gaining more industry experience?
In light of this, it is worth noting that every year, at LASALLE’s graduation exhibition for the MA in Fine Arts programme, there are a handful of artists who have already found their footing in Singapore’s art scene. The recent 2018 exhibition had Green Zeng, Hilmi Johandi, Mary Summerbell and Yen Phang to name a few. 2017 had the likes of Zul Othman a.k.a. ZERO, while prior years’ shows had their own familiar names such as Justin Lee in 2016.
I reached out to Mary Summerbell, Yen Phang and Zul a.k.a. ZERO to find out why they took such a seemingly bold step as mid-career artists. Here is what they had to say –
What was your main motivation for pursuing further education at LASALLE?
Mary Summerbell (MS): When I applied to LASALLE, I identified with the concept made famous by Eleanor Roosevelt that “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I most certainly had my doubts about undertaking the course. It had been 9 years since I left an evolving career as an Architect in London. But, in 2017, when I was considering the course, I felt I needed to challenge myself. I sought this opportunity to meet a selection of like-minded and not so like-minded people. I wanted to engage in workshops, explore art and open my mind to learning in a different way, under the guidance of experienced mentors.
Yen Phang (YP): I felt that I needed a change in my practice. I felt that I was coasting creatively, and wanted a sort of irritant to create new problems for myself to solve. LASALLE could provide that intensity and rigour that I was seeking.
I had spoken to a few of the past graduates of the LASALLE MA Fine Arts programme. What I had heard about its faculty and programme directors was a deciding factor. My experience there did not disappoint. The teaching staff were able to relate to my practice in a sensitive manner, challenging me to broaden my scope of exploration, while at the same time to also gain new criticality in how I looked at my own recent practice.
After splitting my time between Canada and Singapore over the last 4 years, I felt like doing my MA in Singapore. It was a particular itch that I wanted to scratch, as I felt that the country and the region had many more stories to tell. I already knew some of my fellow classmates before we started, and LASALLE also tends to attract interesting candidates into their graduate programme, so that was a bonus for me. It’s not just what one explores during a graduate programme that is important, but also who one embarks on the journey with.
ZERO: The most important factor for me in deciding to further my education at LASALLE was the challenge. I was looking into the postgraduate programme as a space for my works and creative processes to be challenged and questioned. As a mid-career artist, I find that to be extremely important. It gives me a space to reflect upon my artistic practice for the past 15 years and to look into new possibilities and different ways of seeing and making. The MA Fine Arts programme gave me that space, a space that allowed an opportunity to discuss, not only with my MA supervisors but most importantly my peers and visiting artists.
Listening to the artists’ self-reflection and criticism, it is easy to be misled into viewing the whole endeavour as a solitary or inward-focused one. There is actually a more pragmatic side to it. In fact, the artists stress that the advice and opinions of other alumni and industry peers were the deciding factors for them choosing the MA Fine Arts course.
ZERO shares: “The moment the thought of furthering my education crossed my mind, I did my own research on the course. I asked friends and peers who previously went through the same course and sought advice from members of my collective, RSCLS. Most importantly, I spoke to my wife about it. She is also an artist and her input probably carried the most weight on my decision to go back to LASALLE to take my Masters. Her support is very important to me.”
For Summerbell, the greatest takeaway from the programme was that, at the end of a challenging course, she wanted to keep challenging herself. The course is more about asking the right questions than the finding the right answers. Yen Phang also echoes this sentiment:
YP: At the start of the MA, I had expected to build upon my current practice, a sort of expansion of my practice if you will. At the end of the programme, what I had learnt was to embrace the opposite – the ability to strip away the inessentials, to dwell in silence and not speak sometimes. For me, it was less about buttressing the beliefs, philosophies, and ideas that I already held, but rather gaining a level of equanimity with being vulnerable, being able comfortable with doubts and uncertainties, and in the process, liberating my past ways of thinking and working. So this MA for me was not about finding the right answers, but rather learning to ask better questions…
The thing that distinguishes mid-career artists from younger ones is their starting point. Having already created a strong foundation for their artistic practice, these artists are re-examining their steps, re-enforcing certain things and unlearning what does not serve their practice.
A young artist coming into the programme will not be able to experience these reflections as profoundly as I have, as their works and processes have not reached the stage where they have been given enough attention before being dissected and deconstructed by their audiences.
So there is consensus about how the postgraduate is an opportunity for critical self-reflection for a mid-career artist. But have there been any transformations in how the artist’s works and projects are received by their peers or collectors?
MS: Having entered this course as an Architect I think there is a huge transformation in how my work might be received. My former co-workers in the field of architecture were very interested in my change of direction but the work is so far away from technical architectural drawings that of course there has to be a shift in how my work is received. I believe that is why this course was so beneficial to me. I came from a background of technical fine line drawing where every millimetre is a cause for concern and every line is considered in a very technical manner. My lines now are still highly considered but in a very personal conceptual manner.
YP: I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of the people whom I work with or those who have supported me, though I am encouraged by perhaps a certain quiet delight (and also a slight degree of welcome apprehension) on their part that comes from observing an artist’s willingness to experiment and take risks in his practice.
I mean, moving away from oils on canvas to working with toilet paper and soap in space… I’m not sure how that recontextualises the narrative of my practice in the eyes of those who have collected my paintings in the past. Would others call it growth? An evolution? If anything, I do hope that people will not view my current (and future) projects as part of a neat progression within a linear practice and life of an artist. What I am grateful for, however, is the willingness of others to journey with me along circuitous routes that lead to new hidden trails, to lost spaces, and sometimes, to dead ends.
We are often very narrowly focused on the most immediately rewarding or gratifying path of learning. Which road is the shortest, with the largest pot of gold on the other end of it?
The thing about postgraduate courses is, the road is definitely long, and steep – perhaps the reward at the end of it is just not obvious from where we are in our current positions. But it is cool that that does not deter our community’s artists from treading the path anyway and feeling that they have grown and changed from the experience and are the better for it.