BY BRUCE MYREN
I’ve written articles on graduate school in photography in the last couple of issues of www.teachingphoto.com, and in this issue I decided to run an article by a real-life grad student. Not only is Bruce Myren a fine artist and teacher, but he waited almost 20 years to enroll in an MFA program (at the University of Connecticut). In his own words, you’ll read why. — Henry Horenstein
As I write this piece, I have just completed my first year in an MFA program at the University of Connecticut, at the age of 43. My journey to graduate school was a long and arduous one, involving many attempts, a few rejections, a false start and, finally, success. I hope my story encourages older artists to pursue their dreams, and gives professors a little bit of insight into the experiences of nontraditional students.
When I was in elementary school, my family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts so my father could earn his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Because of that experience, college to me represented upheaval and drastic change, things I didn’t want more of in my life. I ended up enrolling at Hallmark Institute of Photography and leaving before ultimately putting myself through school at the Massachusetts College of Art + Design. All told, it took me over 6 years — which I jokingly refer to as the “long program” — to finish my degree.
After graduating with departmental honors in 1991, I thought that admission to graduate school would be automatic; I felt that my work was strong, though I knew my writing was not. Then I was rejected from all but one school. Discouraged but still determined, I headed west to live near the school at which I had been wait listed, and waited.
In everyone’s life, there are particular events that prove to be major crossroads. The decision I made in August of 1991 to not attend graduate school and return to Boston instead was one for me. Had I accepted and gone, I would now be 15 years into my career; instead, I am now beginning a very different life, one in which art likely plays a much bigger part. There is, of course, no way of knowing what would have happened had I chosen the other road. Nevertheless, I do know that now is the right time for me to be pursuing an MFA.
I am fascinated with location-based systems and arbitrary points of human measurement and the landscape found at these intersections. In the “Fortieth Parallel,” I have been photographing the 40th degree of latitude across the United States at every whole of degree of longitude. In “Markers: Memory,” I am returning to my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts and exploring places with certain keen memories. For “The View Home,” I traveled to the 14 places I have lived in Massachusetts and photographed the views from each of these places to where I live now. The work includes the 8 x 10 black and white images along with the street name and number, length of time lived there, distance, and compass bearing.
For the next 15 years, I worked in the commercial world and avoided art for the most part. Perhaps affected by the graduate rejections, divorce, and a variety of other life challenges, I practiced art with a lowercase “a,” and rebelled a little. I photographed in bars, took music pictures for a local alternative weekly, and started a digital room at a local camera store in 1996. In 2000, I left my full-time job and started a freelance consulting business, BeeDigital. It wasn’t easy cobbling together jobs, but at the time I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Then around 2005, my business and personal life stabilized, and I started to feel that the time was right for a return to Art with a capital “A.” With much encouragement from friends and my wonderful partner, Leslie K. Brown, I started photographing again with my large format camera. I started to build up some new work and knew I had to show it around. I was terrified.
My first “coming out” was at the 2006 Society of Photographic Education (SPE) national conference in Chicago. Portfolio in hand, I was surprised to find that I was nervous at the prospect of sharing my work; but I had figured out that in order for me to grow as an artist, I had to be open to change and suggestions, so I plunged ahead. Over the course of the next year, I attended several regional portfolio reviews and Photolucida in Portland, Oregon. These experiences led to several exhibitions and publications, and ultimately turned out to be invaluable in my graduate critiques.
I began teaching at the New England Institute of Art and soon decided that I wanted to take my art to the next level. Teaching is a big part of what I do in my business, and I began to see it as an exciting career option; I knew that if I wanted to continue teaching, I would need that coveted MFA.
When I began the graduate school search, I was dealing with constraints that don’t tend exist in quite the same way for younger students. I had a partner with an established job, elderly parents, and a higher cost of living. Thus, I needed to stay regional, and the cost of the program needed to be relatively low, or allow me to continue working. Taking those factors into account, I also had to decide if I wanted a full-time or a part-time program. Low-residency programs are a wonderful option for older students, but I knew I would only get experience teaching if I chose a traditional, full-time graduate program.
Eventually, I whittled down my choices to two very different schools, both of which shared a strong commitment to exploration across mediums, and offered an MFA in art, not just in photography. One of these was a low-residency MFA program at Bard College, with classes held primarily in the summer, and the other was a traditional full-time program at the University of Connecticut at Storrs that offered funding and a lower price tag.
I had heard of the program at UConn through the Photographic Resource Center and had previously had work exhibited at the university’s museum. For a program that only admits five students per year, UConn has a large number of photo faculty, including Janet Pritchard, Frank Noelker, Charles Hagen, and Judith Thorpe.
In March 2007, I received a phone call from the graduate coordinator at UConn that changed my life: I was in.
The adjustment to school life was a difficult one. Leslie and I decided to keep our apartment in Cambridge, so I drove and lived in my Westfalia Vanagon, and we often only saw each other on weekends. Additionally, my father has cancer and was in and out of the hospital over half a dozen times during the spring semester alone, necessitating many more trips back and forth. So for many reasons, finding the time and mental space to make art was difficult.
Going in, I really wanted to do well and not be the “out-of-touch old guy” in school with my fellow students in their mid- to late twenties. Initially, I got the impression that some people wondered why I was there; one student even asked me directly about my motivations, since I was exhibiting and working on projects outside of the program. I explained that it is never too late to rethink your work, and that I was there to reevaluate and fine-tune my artistic and teaching practices.
On the studio side, I was less concerned with the amount of work than with how much I was expected to change (which, in retrospect, is exactly what I had come there to do). On the academic side, I took an art history/theory course in which we had to read hundreds of pages and write a short essay and response paper weekly. In this class, and in others, I found that I had an understanding of history that other students did not. I had lived through the end of the Vietnam War, the fall of Berlin Wall, the Reagan years, and even the Mapplethorpe controversy. Although the workload was intense, I made many new connections, and my capacity for reading and writing improved.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned this year, though, is that everyone works and learns in such different ways. As a teacher, I love sharing my knowledge and watching students form their own vision. I enjoy the whole process—from a student’s first grappling with an idea to its implementation. Observing my current professors has opened my mind to new approaches in teaching art; in just a year, I have learned an enormous amount that will be indispensable for me as I continue to teach.
Today, I feel I am at another key juncture in my life. This concentrated time in graduate school is improving my work immeasurably and allowing me to grow both artistically and personally. I am looking forward to my final year.
Some more of my work:
Bruce Myren’s landscape work has been shown at Panopticon Gallery, the Artists Foundation, Lillian Immig Gallery at Emmanuel College, and the William Benton Museum of Art. A recent Art in Embassies Programartist, he was also a recent ARTspace panel participant at the 2008 College Art Association conference. Solo shows include one at the Danforth Museum of Art in fall 2008 and another at the Hallmark Museum of Photography in 2009. He is represented in Boston by Gallery Kayafas. Visit his website.