SO YOU WANT TO BE A MOTHER F****N' ARTIST
An unofficial guide to the University of Ottawa MFA program
You got into Grad School! This is a time for growth and change, if we're completely honest, we will admit it is terrifying, but it's also exciting and wonderful. If you applied to Grad School because you felt you needed more intensive time in an academic setting with established artists guiding and advising you on your practice, and you hope to get what you put in from your interactions with Professors and peers, you have come to the right place!
If you applied to Grad School in the Arts because you didn’t know what else to do, I mean, sure, there's also Business School, but overall, you made the right choice. Business, ugh. If you’re here hoping that an MFA will fix your life or propel you to art stardom from the sheer accreditation-- adjust your expectations.
Those problems will still need to be addressed, during these two years or after, and art stardom is… well, it’s good to have dreams!
I, for one, would like to one day have a robot body. You know, so I can right injustices and stuff, but mostly because my joints ache and I’m kind of over this mortal coil situation.
Art stardom for some, robot bodies for others!
If you had the grades necessary to have been granted the scholarship, you now have funding to make work for two years… Ish.
LET’S GET THE BIG THINGS OUT OF THE WAY FIRST
What do you mean, "ish"?
Your tuition is covered, but part of your funding is a TAship, this is money for living and making work. Something to keep in mind is that there are no Undergraduate classes in the Summer. From April on, you will have no monthly income. Save up and work that art hustle. Your survival depends on this. If you work on the side all year round, do NOT tell people (braggart!), and make sure it’s not public. If you have a scholarship, you are not supposed to have other funding--this really should be the absolute rule, essentially it benefits you to focus on school, but it seems most ignore it because life is expensive, just don’t flaunt that you are ignoring it.
If you have OSAP or other loans, make sure you save a big chunk for the summer.
It’s still more funding than any other program, it’s just not as absolute as it first seems.
I didn't get the scholarship...
We stress our funding because most often MFA's secure the scholarship. That said, life and academics don't follow the same path each time, and this obviously doesn't reflect on your drive to pursue a Master's. So... don’t panic. You’re just in the same position of all the other grad students who have to take out loans. It’s going to be okay. Be smart and budget. This is entirely doable. I’ll add tips for affordable living further along.
You do belong here. You're not an idiot. Every single one of your peers is worried they shouldn't be here and at any second someone is going to figure it out and then comes the shaming ceremony. It's okay. You're all fine. And while it's nice to have group bonding rituals, there is no shaming ceremony. Instead we have a barbecue. There is no shaming at the barbecue. Instead, there are prizes! And burgers.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE SMALL CLASS SIZE DURING CRITIQUES AND DISCUSSIONS
This is a great opportunity to get the most out of your Professors and colleagues. Be active. Ask questions, listen to your colleagues. Have studio visits with one another. The University of Ottawa MFA Program usually accepts 5-6 students, this provides a unique and individualized experience at this level.
ARE YOU A PAINTER?
Safety first! Make sure you turn on the ventilation system wherever you are working, there are ceiling fans in the MFA studio wing. FYI Gamsol is a subsidized product in the store, so it is the cheapest and safest solvent you will find anywhere. Gloves and (the very basic) masks are also available for free. Just ask!
ARE YOU A PHOTOGRAPHER / DO YOU WANT TO MAKE INKJET PRINTS?
Papercut is an account you set up with funds from which the cost of paper and ink are automatically subtracted. Set this up ASAP and get familiar with the lab (see LAB PROTOCOLS). Unfortunately Papercut must be set up with cash or debit. It’s a drag not being able to use credit, I know, so just be aware and budget for this. You can add funds to your account in the office (cash only).
ARE YOU A SCULPTOR/INSTALLATION-BASED ARTIST?
Carve out your space. See what I did there? Yeah, you saw. Ask for the space you need to do the work you want, see if the room adjacent to the sculpture studio is available to use in the summer.
GALLERIES IN THE COMMUNITY
The Visual Arts Department has relationships with local galleries, but you should also foster your own relationships with these institutions by going to their vernissages and taking an interest in their programming.
OAG, Saw Gallery, AxeNÉ07, DaÏmôn, Karsh-Masson, and Gallery 101. Depending on their programming and institutional availability (construction has been a big challenge this past year) they may be available to you for your thesis exhibitions. Don’t take this for granted, and work to participate in the Ottawa arts scene. Start right away, and be sure to attend the defences and vernissages of those graduating before you.
HOW TO CHOOSE A THESIS SUPERVISOR
Some programs don’t even let you choose (*cough*GUELPH*cough*) often to disastrous effect. So deciding with whom to work should take time and consideration on your part.
In your first term, try to fit in as many studio visits as you can. Studio visits with EVERYONE. Get to know your Profs eligible to supervise, look at their work, read their research, test your rapport and ask what their approach is like; whether they make schedules with you or are more loose with visits, determine your working compatibility. Also, ask your peers about their experiences. There is no right or wrong Professor, only the right or wrong Professor for you.
There is incentive for Professors to supervise, but they are not allowed to pressure or campaign for you, most of the time if you are feeling pursued, it's just because an artist or theorist sees something in your work that appeals to them. This decision should still be made by you for the betterment of your practice and to get the most of your time in the MFA program.
Logistically, there are some Profs who are wonderful with insight into practice, but who find the administrative duties outside of their capacity. This is just how some brains work. This might be when you want to split your supervision between Studio Prof and Theory/History Prof and ask that the latter tackle these points. Do so carefully, hopefully you will also be getting much more than paperwork from supervision from a History Prof. There are some Profs who are everything in one. EVERYTHING, and you should cherish them.
ARE YOU WEAK WITH RESEARCH?
Some artists aren’t research/theory based. This is a program with a strong theoretical component. Good thing for you there is an amazing series of books called Documents of Contemporary Art, released by Whitechapel Press. They are collections of excerpts from art theorists, artist statements, and curatorial papers all selected by subject matter. They are a great starting point for delving deeper into your research. Like the excerpt? Get the full text. Like the statement? Research and cite that artist as one of your examples to situate yourself in contemporary practice. You can find most of the collection in the library. This is truly the place to start (but not end).
Are you interested in new texts? Hit up Art Metropole or check out Sternberg Press for what’s new and now.
DO YOU KNOW HOW TO MAKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY PROPERLY?
Me too, but I really don’t want to and neither do you. Which is why there is EasyBib!
You will be working 10 hours a week for a Prof either as a TA or RA. Usually TA assignments alternate between a studio and a history or theory course. This will also depend on the greatest need for TA’s.
This is a real job, discuss the duties expected of you, but also make sure to draw the line when you approach your 10 hour mark in order to avoid burnout. Some Profs will consider you a co-prof and will ask you to really be involved in the class. Others might ask you to stand in a corner and turn the lights on and off…
Maybe in the case of the latter check in with the Graduate Program Director and see if your help would be of better use with another class.
Professors should not ask you for personal tasks. Assert boundaries.
WORKING, FOR NON-SCHOLARSHIP STUDENTS
You have class for seven hours a week. You can schedule a job around this, try to do so wisely so you give yourself enough studio and reading time. We have alumni and Professors looking for studio assistants, this can be a good place to start.
FIND TIME TO SETTLE IN
It’s important to get comfortable in your studio space. If you’re a studio-based artist, you’re going to spend a lot of time there, even if you’re not, you’re going to write and hold studio visits there for two years.
There is a free depot off campus you can visit to snag some furniture--most of it is pretty basic office-stuff (still useful!), but there is a rare gem to be found. Also Kijiji is big in Ottawa, check it out before going directly to Ikea.
If you go to Ikea, take me with you.
I just really like it there.
If you brought your own supplies and studio gear, get to it! Otherwise, we have a store where you should find everything you need, and Wood Shop, Metal Shop, Darkroom and Print Lab at your disposal. You probably saw these facilities on your tour, but if you ever need a refresher on location, just ask Sylvie in the office.
Because the studio spaces are compact, organization is key. If you need to talk storage solutions, there are a few places to tuck work away. If you are an especially small group, consider using the last room of the studio wing (photo above) as a clean space for storage and documentation--the double window makes it ideal for 1-1ish lighting.
BUYING SUPPLIES: THE SHERRY WELDEN ART STORE
The store is your go-to resource for all things painting, photography, sculpture, and electronic art-based. We have little room, we opt to sell professional grade products. Whatever we don't have in store, can be ordered for you. We skew toward Canadian-made materials (Kama, Support Surface) due to their quality and stability of pricing (the dollar was rough there for a while). We don’t pay rent for our location so there is a built in 10-20% discount on most things. This alone is incentive to shop with us, but other than that, we will always try to find you what you need when you need it with the best pricing. Come by and chat about what kind of work you do.
For more office supply type items and basics, there is also the uOttawa bookstore in Morrisset.
ONCE YOU HAVE MADE WORK, DOCUMENT THIS WORK
The trajectory of your practice through the program is important to show both in your thesis support paper and in your thesis defence with firm, photographic/video examples. Photographers and video-based artists have to worry less about this as they can embed their work directly (though photographing your media/photographic work installed for crits with example of scale is still advisable) painters, sculptors, installation artists… get on this.
Ask for help if you need it.
PHOTOGRAPH YOUR THESIS EXHIBITION
This is mandatory. One thing that is left out of materials on the MFA is the document that you must submit directly following your successful thesis defence. It is a PDF for the Office of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Arts. This document is evidence of your work and is necessary to submit in time in order to graduate. This can be an unpleasant surprise just after triumphantly defending, so I’m telling you about it now. It will include an abstract, index, your statement, list of works and photographs. The formatting is finicky and specific. Search the library online or ask the Graduate Program Director for previous PDF's submitted because the instructions for the document just made me want to cry. But then I suffer from a condition called “Form Hysteria” it’s a diagnosis I made up, but I assure you it’s very real.
MFA WEBSITE, WHICH YOU ARE ON RIGHT NOW
As soon as you’re settled, please provide an image, description, and bio/statement. You should be represented on our many platforms. If you publish, show or just want to feature some work in progress, we're happy to post about it. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is also a good reason to document your work, so you can exist in our archive.
WHEN TO SEND IMAGES
First or second week of school.
After final crits
The transition between First and Second Year
If you’re having a show
Before thesis exhibitions
WHAT TO SEND
Images 1000 pixels wide, 100+ DPI
Short bios and statements--have a look at the site and how we have introduced the MFA candidates here.
For thesis exhibitions -- images, dates, time of vernissage, venue, statement
The last image you want to represent your time in the MFA when I move you from Candidate to Graduate
Post-MFA, continue to keep us in the loop about your practice by adding email@example.com to your mailing lists for exhibition invites.
For those on a tight budget, look to Hull as the place to live, and consider becoming roommates with your colleagues (even if just in Second Year). There are also pockets of Sandy Hill that are affordable, go for walks, as this is the best way to spot apartments, some don’t bother with online listings as foot traffic is all they need. If you want to live in my building because I’m the best and you want to borrow my drill, I will consider putting in a word for you if you’re nice.
Both the Loblaws and the Metro on Rideau have Student Days, Tuesday and Thursday. Show your id, get a discount. It adds up. Get the PC Card and load your offers. I redeemed $200 in groceries last year. There are also small groceries in Byward Market and Farmer’s Markets during certain seasons.
If you’re living frugally, try to batch your meals and bring leftovers for lunch. There’s a mini fridge in the 205 studio wing. Don’t… let it get gross.
IF YOU HAVE A CAR
And people find out? You will be driving people everywhere. All of the time. Disclose this information wisely.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP
There is so much to do and deadlines can be tight, but try to look after yourselves and get enough rest, it's so important for your brain and stress levels. Studio power naps are a thing.
IF YOU GET SICK
Go to the doctor. We have a clinic on campus, it's an excellent resource, but heavily trafficked by undergrads. If you feel it's serious, be assertive as sometimes they get too accustomed to students just after notes to excuse late papers. You need to be well.
Make it a point to take Vitamin D in the winter, this is Ottawa. Winter means business. If you get very ill, inform your Profs and colleagues and ask that accommodations be made. It's Grad School, we're adults, you can ask for reasonable extensions.
WINTER OPEN HOUSE
Traditionally, every December just after term critique, there is an open house. This is an opportunity for MFA’s to invite prospective students, curators, and the wider community to their studios and introduce their practices. You provide the food and drink (typically non-alcoholic).
There is potential here for this event to be turned into a studio sale--especially for Second Years going into their thesis exhibitions. BFA’s fundraise for their end of year exhibition, MFA’s should certainly take advantage and do the same. Be organized and get lists of contacts from Sylvie. Advertise this well in advance, give us promo materials for the website and Instagram, and it can be a great party and a way to support yourselves.
MAKING ART IN THE SUMMER COURSE
This is largely an experimental time. Class schedules are looser, and you won’t have TA work or theory classes, branch out. For those on a tight budget, this might be a time to go back to some basics, or try something in the performance/digital sphere--sincerely, not just because you need to be cheap. Doing it strategically doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be otherwise well-reasoned.
Cite wikipedia. Even ironically.
Cite Alain de Botton either, gross. Unless it’s like “Look at this idiot and his stupid ideas, what a dummy.”
DO YOU HAVE A NETFLIX ACCOUNT?
Get a Netflix account.
I DON’T NEED TV
Fool, you will.
HOW TO GET ALONG
YOUR PRACTICE IS NOT THE MOST EXPENSIVE PRACTICE
It’s not a contest. Making art is expensive. Don’t backbite your colleagues over these things, you’re all going to be struggling to some degree.
I can say with some authority, that no matter the medium, the cost will always make you cry and it pretty much evens out across disciplines.*
Stuff gets thrown out at the store sometimes. If you’re nice and tell people what to look out for (Do you really love semi-dry pastels and empty boxes? How about canvas scraps?) you get auto dibs.
*Except performance artists. YOU KNOW IT'S TRUE. It doesn't make you bad people, just... buy your MFA friends coffee sometimes, okay?
DON’T BE A STUDIO HAWK
Artists practice in different ways, don’t note the comings and goings of your peers as if it accurately reflects the amount of work they're doing. Some artists can work anywhere, photographers especially. Some painters work fluidly and quickly, other painters are generally kept chained to their radiators and allowed to leave only after six canvases have at least an underpainting.
Be nice to these painters while you work and frolic in the outside world. Ask them if you can bring them back anything.
DISCUSS SECOND YEAR STUDIO SPACES AS A GROUP
Once you have completed your First Year, you can move out of the First Year studios to other, more private spaces. Some rooms are better suited to specific practices. Try to factor this into decision making instead of calling dibs by level of studio attractiveness. I can’t stress this enough: talk to each other and work it out, resentment can build fast and it’s entirely unnecessary. Note: some MFA programs don't have studios at all. Others offer tuition in exchange for digging the foundations of their new business schools. Okay, that part I made up. Business...
It's cheaper than going out, and you get to know people! I'm going to tell you the secret of throwing parties: you buy two big bottles of wine, maybe some beer. You get chips, some cheese, a baguette, and some grapes. You tell people it's BYOB/W. At the end of the party you have at least eight bottles of wine, beer, more chips, and dips you can live off of for four days. Reinvest some of that wine into the next party and you can have infinite parties, and all the dip. So much dip.
THROW ONE SPECIFIC PARTY: THE WELCOME BARBECUE
At the end of your First Year, as you step into your new life as a seasoned Second Year*, it will be your job to throw the Welcome Barbecue, bidding farewell to the MFA Graduates before you, and welcoming the incoming First Years. Do not make this one person's job. It's far more fun for everyone when you take an equal role in planning and executing. Typically you bring the meat and vegetarian options, condiments and alcohol and the rest is potluck. To prevent everyone from being crammed in a space and sweaty, try to plan the event in a condo party room/courtyard: a Professor's or yours-- maybe you own a condo, I don't know your life. If you deem that someone in your year has done not a lot to help, you should ensure they are responsible for clean up, it's the only way they will learn--I take it back, there IS shaming at the barbecue.
If someone has a car and/or Costco membership, that person is your MVP, and does not have to clean.
*that was not a meat-based pun, I'm above that kind of thing.
DON’T LIVE IN THE STUDIO
I mean, figuratively, sure. But don’t actually. We frown on that.
THE THESIS SUPPORT PAPER WILL PROBABLY DRIVE YOU TO DRINK AND/OR GET SNIPPY WITH YOUR LOVED ONES/OR YOU MAY REFUSE TO LEAVE YOUR BATHTUB
Drink in moderation or your paper will make no sense. Drink the right amount, and the words will flow like the wine in your glass that you did not pour on your laptop because you kept it neat.
Tell your loved ones you need some space to write, but that you might also need some breaks for sanity. Have a plan for these breaks.
You should also get out of the bath eventually, you'll prune.
The paper is something like 6,000 words. You will be okay.
BE KIND AND MAKE FRIENDS!
And then your friends will edit your paper, and you will edit theirs, and you can all pitch in with exhibition installs and moves. OR, as it happens sometimes, you won’t all get along. It’s okay, you’re people with different personalities, of different backgrounds, and ages. Just make sure to have friends somewhere so that you don’t go crazy alone.
AFTER THE MFA
Would you look at that! We're all out of time! BYEEEEEE!!
Okay, okay, fine. Look, don't think about it in your First Year, you're just getting started. Maybe start planning mid-way Second Year, but while it all feels very uncertain, like a cliff you're about to jump off of without a vantage point that allows you to see what is below, it's going to be okay.
We have Graduates living abroad, temporarily and permanently after winning prestigious awards, a number of our MFA's are teaching, curating and going on to PhD's. Others have done international residencies, and most of our Graduates have been exhibiting. So, keep this in mind, but try to stay in the present. As a University of Ottawa MFA you become part of greater community, one that is supportive and connected.
PEOPLE TO KNOW:
Metal Technician and MFA (York), David is a sculpture/media/conceptual artist. He doesn’t say much at first, but he’s very nice and funny and he will help you if you need to weld things, cut things with the CnC machine or 3D print anything. Or, if you’re very nice, carry really big things. Ask him about his work, it’s FASCINATING.
Photo-media Technician and BFA (uOttawa). Sasha is a performance/interactive media artist. He can help you wire things and not have them explode. Which really is a plus. He will lend you cameras and video equipment and generally be awesome in helping you set up for crits and thesis exhibitions if your work involves these elements--don't work him overtime unless you plan to pay him directly. Sasha is in so much demand I have suggested we place a lojack on him so that we can actually find him in the building. A bell would work, I guess, but I get the sense we would just be running after jingling all the time. So… set appointments for installs or equipment demos, otherwise you may not find him. Also, maybe learn how to mirror-screen on your own. It’s so easy!
Michel is a poet, carpenter and all around handy person. He will help you in the Wood Shop so that you don’t deglove any part of your body. Don’t google that term, it’s terrifying.
Sylvie paints and also reads more than anyone I know. Sylvie is the “receptionist” which is a misnomer. She functions as half-administrative assistant, and can help you with so many problems or direct you to the person who can. In all honesty, your first problem may be locking yourself out of your studio--everyone does it. Before you scale the wall, ask Sylvie for the master key.
(Me! Surprise!) MFA (uOttawa) photographer/writer/creator of unofficial guides to academia. I was like you once, and then was kidnapped by the Department and now they keep me in a room where I play with art supplies, the internet and a credit card. They say they will let me go one day, but now the outside seems scary. I’m the storekeeper. I hate the title “storekeeper” it’s a Naval term. Can I call myself Supply Officer? It sounds cooler, like I have a secret stash of sardines and cigarettes.
I don't have cigarettes.
I also run our three websites:
As well as our Instagram account @visualartsuo. My other title is Head of Community Engagement, I made up the title because we didn’t have these things before, and if I can make up things that weren’t there before, then I can make up a title for the making of these things. I AM A GOD. Or… I have a lot of time on my hands and care too much (I guess a god wouldn't have a butt cramp right now or have need of a robot body). Having graduated from the program, and worked in the department for two years, I am familiar with this place, its people and strange customs. Enough to write this guide. So, if you have questions, or just need to talk, I'm here for you. Or at home. Mostly at home, you can text me. I'll be there for you.
THINGS TO SEE, PLACES TO GO
THE NATIONAL GALLERY
A great resource for research and houses an excellent collection. Visit the rotating exhibitions, go to the special lectures--make it a group outing.
Free! Awesome and so very close to the University of Ottawa.
MUSEUM OF NATURE
Early horse! Dinosaurs! Crystals. If you like crystals...
FU-N. F-UN? FUH-N.
TRY TO REMEMBER WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO SAY IT
THERE ARE THINGS TO DO THAT ARE NOT ACADEMIC
I don’t really know what they are, but… they exist!
There are good bars on Somerset, like Union613 and Prohibition.
In Hull there is Bistro Coc Liquorne, Ou Quoi and a dive karaoke bar, the name of which I can't remember. I prefer Shanghai on Preston when I feel the need to un-ironically belt out Eye of the Tiger.
Chez Lucien in the Byward Market is a popular spot for drinks and burgers.
The Manx on Elgin is a standard spot, as is the Lieutenant's Pump diagonally across from it.
LUNCH ON CAMPUS
Cafe Nostalgica. Freshii. Slightly off campus is Happy Goat at Cumberland and Rideau.
LUNCH OFF CAMPUS
Bread and Sons on Bank St., Lollo in the Market, Green Rebel or Nordstrom Cafe in the Rideau Centre. (Note: This entire list is skewed toward salad.)
VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
Pure Kitchen on Elgin, Cafe My House, Thimblecakes, Mooshoo Ice Cream (this is for everyone, it is so good!), So Good Vegetarian, The Green Door, East India Company, Herb and Spice / Market Organics
Ministry of Coffee on Elgin is a nice spot for reading.
Red Door Provisions in New Edinburgh is lovely and has the best grilled cheese sandwiches and vegan salads.
OUTSIDE IS A PLACE TO SOMETIMES GO
If you like hiking and canoeing, Gatineau Park is beautiful. We have walking and biking trails everywhere.
Skate on the canal in the winter. I know some Profs who commute from the Glebe or Mooney's Bay this way. Lunatics.
Ask your upper cohort! I'm old and like watching British Mysteries while wearing a robe.
La Nordik is a spa in Chelsea. Or, fill your tub add some epson salts and light a candle: poor man's Nordik.
Try to give yourself a chunk of time each week to just chill. Read for fun, go for a walk, ride a bike, you get the idea, this will ensure you will be resilient to stress. Science backs me up on this. Science.