Kehinde Wiley (the painter behind President Obama’s portrait for the National Gallery), Awol Erizku (who photographed iconic Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement), and Mickalene Thomas (a frequent Solange collaborator) all have something in common. They attended the Yale School of Art. The prestigious, almost exalted MFA program, established in 1869, has been a pipeline to artistic fame for many.
But admission is fiercely competitive. The Yale Daily, the university’s student newspaper, found that only 65 applicants had been accepted from 1,442 for the class of 2010. The program's recent graduates are also noticeably more diverse, recent alum including artists like Jordan Casteel, Devan Shimoya, Matthew Leifheit. These artists have taken a magnifying glass to complex issues like race and sexuality, making the art world a little less white and boring. Last week, a new cast of starry-eyed, formidably talented diverse artists earned their degrees from the Yale School of Art and, potentially, a golden ticket into the art world.
i-D decided to profile the Yale School of Art’s graduating class of 2018 before they go on to conquer the art world. The graduates of color we talked to are full of promise, creative vigor, and, understandably, anxiety about their futures. Here, we talk to recent graduates about their hopes for the future, and what attending one of the most esteemed art programs in the world is really like.
Kenturah Davis, 37, Painting and Printmaking
The two years of intense study and practice were testing, Kenturah Davis, a printmaking and painting student, says, but she came out on the other side stronger because of it. “I would attend this program again in a heartbeat,” she shares. “I’m so glad I did it, not that it didn’t come without its challenges, but it was totally worth it.”
How would you describe your work?
Before the program, I was rendering drawings by writing the text in repetition in order to think about our relationship with language. When I got here, from the outset I was thinking about how I could push these images to do something else. I’ve been making garments and building structure and, for the past several months, dove into including weaving into my practice.
How do you find your subjects?
Most of them are people I either know very well or have interacted or crossed paths with. Usually I’ve been making the portraits in serial terms, as a series with a specific idea at the output. So sometimes the concept then directs me to who I want to draw. Most of that’s personal sometimes. I get interested in some aspect of an archive. So finding the right archival image comes up as another strategy for making that image. Both of them are personal, and I think that’s kind of a preference of mine unless there’s some sort of historical interest that drives the series.
What motivated you to go to grad school?
I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. For a while I had gallery representation in LA. At the time, it seemed possible to continue down this path without feeling a need to go to grad school. I actually really like school, it’s an explorative space. Without it I think I might of have stay more focused on my portraits. But I didn’t want to feel stuck with a thing that is more singular than the other forms I have been trying out recently. My thought was, ‘I’ll apply to the schools I admire from a distance and from their reputation seems really challenging and see if I get in and if I get in, that’s great. And if not, I can keep hustling in this other kind of way.’
How did the program help you get to the next stage in your craft?
Here, you’re kind of challenged to extend and experiment. I think I’m one of the older grad students in the program, so as a result of kind of living a life in the professional world between undergrad and grad school, I wanted to make sure I used the time here to try other things. It was already something I wanted to do, but the pressure from the faculty in the program was to really use this time to experiment. That pressure is really palpable and that alone helped to push me in ways that surprised me. How the experimentation manifested I never would of anticipated.
What was your favorite part about the program?
What I liked about the program is we had access to the rest of the university. We were required to take at least two classes outside of the School of Art. The first year, I spent probably spent most of my time in classes outside the School of Art. There’s a really great anthropology class called “Meaning and Materiality” and that was really invigorating. I also took one philosophy class called “Language and Power.” That was important in helping me think about the intersection of writing and drawing in my work, and thinking about our relationship with language and how power is introduced.
My hope and dream is to continue as a working artist and figuring out how to do this full time. I do want to continue with my portraits, and even working with other materials has helped me rethink other things I can introduce back into the images.