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MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Marks 1st-Year Milestone

Yellow tape still lines the floor of the former carpentry shop building on Campus Drive, indicating blocks of space where table saws and miter boxes once stood. But now in their place are film reels, an optical printer and 24 individual work stations that are home to students in the Master of Fine Arts program in Experimental and Documentary Arts (MFAEDA). This year marks the two-year graduate program’s first at full capacity, with 30 students. Founded in the fall of 2011 by three units at Duke—the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, the Center for Documentary Studies, and the Program in the Arts of the Moving Image—the MFAEDA has attracted students from diverse backgrounds and experiences. There are artists working in traditional mediums such as painting, writing, photography, and film, as well as those steeped in experimental practices including computational and new media, performance, sound, and installation.

“That’s the thing that made me want to do this program,” says Laurenn McCubbin, a second-year student whose practice combines illustration and video work. “In so many MFA programs you’re encouraged to focus on one area of specialization—there are MFAs in painting and MFAs in drawing, but they don’t crossover. The thing I loved about this was that it was very much a choose-your-own-adventure program where you can utilize all of the resources available somewhere like Duke to create a practice that fits you best.”

First-year student Caitlyn Kelly expands on this, saying, “It’s the first time I’ve seen documentary get involved in the fine arts process at this level. Even the word experimental—it left me feeling open and like I could explore what is important to me and grow.”

As Duke’s first graduate studio program, MFAEDA students draw on the University’s longstanding commitment to the arts, as well as its engagement with theoretical and historical discourse, while also shaping and expanding artistic discourse on campus. They serve as teaching assistants in undergraduate studio classes, and have exhibited work in campus spaces like East Duke and the Duke School.

They’ve also moved well beyond Duke itself, immersing themselves in a larger arts community. As Chris Vitiello wrote about the first MFAEDA class for the Independent Weekly, “These folks are everywhere—making and showing work across the Triangle, curating shows, organizing film series—and they’ve enlivened Duke’s faculty in the process, blurring those staid, blue campus borderlines.”

Such involvement will only increase now that the program is in full swing, particularly when the first 15 students show work produced for their thesis. “Our first MFA Thesis Exhibition this coming spring will truly demonstrate the significance and reach of our new program, allowing audiences both on and off campus to see and feel, to hear and reflect on the work of our inaugural graduating class,” says Tom Rankin, Director of the MFAEDA. “With simultaneous exhibitions across campus and the community, the MFA show promises to celebrate new work and promote deep conversation about the documentary arts in all its rich diversity.”

—Emily Wallace, Staff Specialist for the MFAEDA program.