Balancing art and academia

Gemma Else, U1 Arts, has painted since before she started kindergarten. In grades 11 and 12, she enrolled in an advanced placement Studio Art class, where she practiced four hours a day, six days a week. At McGill, Else has continued to make art and is a curator for the student-run Fridge Door Gallery. But, instead of oil painting, the medium she loved in high school, she has switched to less time-consuming endeavours, like pencil sketches and watercolours. As a student, she yearns for the day that she will have enough time and space to take up oil painting again.

“It’s been hard,” Else said. “I’ve totally changed the way I work. I don’t work in the same [media] anymore, and that’s simply [due to the] time restraint.”

Like Else, Jeanne Cholot studied visual art extensively throughout high school, taking five hours of art and art history classes every Saturday afternoon. At McGill, she realized that a political science major was not for her and that the art clubs at McGill were insufficient creative outlets. She formed an artists’ collective called École Publique with other McGill students, but she still felt unsatisfied. After attending an open house for Concordia’s art studios, she applied to their joint B.A. in art history and fine arts. For the past year, Cholot has studied at Concordia, and art has gone from a side-project to a full-time study. It marks a welcome change from McGill.

“I’m learning to be an artist, so it’s very different,” Cholot said.

Sasha Khalimonova took up guitar at age 16, and started playing at open mics around Montreal. During CEGEP, she dreamed of studying creative writing at Concordia, but her parents wanted her to go to McGill instead. While she enjoyed her classes, she felt stifled creatively. Nonetheless, she continued to practice her music on the side, performing nearly every week. In September, her band Sasha Cay opened for Homeshake at the Rialto Theatre. All the while, Khalimonova struggled balancing music with her academics.

Upon meeting Khalimonova at the Milton Gates with her guitar case in hand, she revealed that she too, had transferred to Concordia, to pursue creative writing.

It would be wrong to sensationalize a handful of anecdotes: As far as we can tell, there is no large-scale artistic brain drain crossing Sherbrooke southwards to Concordia. Nonetheless, these artists’ experience raises questions about the difficulty and the feasibility of balancing art and academics at a prestigious institution like McGill, which has no fine arts program.

The problem is largely one of time-management. When Khalimonova opened for Homeshake, she was balancing band practices, homework for her English Literature classes, and a 15-hour-per-week job. She cited an author who compared writing a novel while having a full-time job to having an affair.

“It was this secret thing she wasn’t supposed to do, but she got done anyways,” Khalimonova said. “I think there’s something kind of exciting about it, doing the thing you love knowing it’s really difficult and it’s getting in the way but doing it anyways.”

The difficulty of time management is compounded by a lack of institutional support from McGill. For music students, there is the Schulich School of Music, although the high admissions standards limit the school’s reach to a select few musicians. For visual artists, performers, and creative writers, there are no classes in fine arts, not even electives, and the only degree program where you students can learn to draw is in the school of Architecture.  

“McGill as an institution doesn’t do anything,” Else said. “I think that creates a necessity for a really strong, student-driven environment for the arts.”

Indeed, in the absence of official recognition, a variety of clubs have sprung up, offering opportunities for music, theatre, a capella, visual arts, and dance. The diversity of options is testament to the need for creative outlets across the student body.             

Yet, for Cholot, the clubs she participated in at McGill were somehow unsatisfying. They struck her as fun diversions for stressed-out students, where art was more of a therapeutic hobby than a serious practice. For instance, a recent Visual Arts Society event was titled “De-Stress with the VAS: Colouring Book Night.”

“There’s no sense of critique,” Cholot said.  “It was very much […] to breathe out your classes and release the pressure,”

Else also found the lack of critique of her work to be limiting. While wine and paint events are fun, and they provide a wonderful and much-needed release from the pressures of McGill, Else misses the level of feedback she had in her Studio Art class in high school, and she thinks her progress has been stifled as a result.

“I think critique nights instead of a drawing night could be really cool,” Else said.

Despite such limitations, artistically inclined students continue to choose McGill. Else, who has an eye to pursue law school, put it bluntly.

“I can pursue art on the side but I can’t pursue law on the side,” Else said.

Moreover, a future in the fine arts can be frighteningly precarious.

“Being a creative person—that’s always the issue, right?” Khalimonova said, referring to the uncertainty of life with a B.A. in creative writing. “You love your thing, and you want to believe in it, but it’s also kind of terrifying.”

Pressure from parents can be another factor in deciding to push a fine arts practice to leisure time. Many McGill students will attest that their university is ‘harder’ and more ‘prestigious’ than Concordia, even if in reality this prestige often translates to a lack of flexibility in curricula.

All three artists, however, told me that even more than prestige or pressure, they came to McGill because they loved learning.

“Being able to engage with ideas and the world differently is something I really value,” Khalimonova said.

Cholot voiced a similar sentiment.

“There is a great need for educated artists in the world,” she said. “When you learn [as] much stuff as you do at McGill, to be able to transcribe that into art pieces […] would be great for people.”

Unfortunately, the classical curricula of McGill fail to foster such dynamic and interdisciplinary work.

“It’s a square, and you have to fit the square,” Cholot said.

In this prestigious pressure-cooker, art and academia find themselves as bitter competitors instead of fruitful collaborators; when the going gets tough, grades take priority, and art is relegated to a remedial hobby. Cholot’s program at Concordia, which combines theoretical art history with applied fine arts, shows that this need not be the case. Perhaps, it is up to the students, with the little institutional power they have, to imagine a McGill where art and academics could go hand-in-hand.

Until then, devoted artists will keep up their balancing act. It is possible, Cholot told me, even at McGill. It just takes some sacrifices.

“You have to give up on the idea of being a straight-A student,” Cholot said.

Else, meanwhile, told me that the problem isn’t exclusive to McGill.

“You’re never, ever going to have enough time,” she said. “Graduating isn’t going to give me more time. It’s going to give me different time.”

When asked if a healthy balance was possible, Khalimonova’s answer was more abstract in nature.

“I want to say yes,” she laughed. “I’m sure someone’s figured it out!”

 

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