Written by multidisciplinary artist and current CIIS MFA program director, Cindy Shearer.
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from…”
- Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost
Solnit’s “Open Door” in A Field Guide to Getting Lost invites and challenges us: “A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, ‘How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
In our MFA, we invite artists to use inquiry to step through new artistic doors and get lost. A key to “finding,” as Solnit says, or, as we say, to meaningful inquiry, is being okay with being disoriented, confused, unsure. “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” In our MFA, we don’t focus on art for art’s sake but discovery for art’s development. Learning, we believe, can occur when we sit skillfully with the unknown, so when we inquire as artists, we have the chance to become something new — at least more knowledgeable or aware beings.
It is vital to stay — be content with — the unknown, Solnit writes. “For it is not, after all, really a question about whether you can know the unknown, arrive in it, but how to go about looking for it, how to travel.” Solnit quotes Thoreau saying that a man has only to close his eyes once and be turned completely around in order to get lost. It’s that easy and, at the same time, it takes that much trust.
Trusting in our curriculum requires a focus on questions rather than answers and willingness to sit with the possibilities that arise, new perspectives that emerge, discomforts that questioning inevitably brings. It asks you to allow yourself to be as much with what you don’t know or aren’t right now able to know as with what to question or further explore. I think this is why another value of our program — working with and being supported by a community of artists — can be so valuable. It’s hard (although necessary) to be lost alone, but in community, you can share what it feels like and means to be lost, and, at the same time, have a shared experience of being lost.
Solnit tells us 19th century explorers were willing to get lost because they remained optimistic they would survive and ultimately find their way. Our experience of students in our MFA supports this optimism. Artists who lose themselves to inquiry do more than find their way — they embrace the unknown, are challenged and changed by it — and thrive.
For more about the Master of Fine Arts program at California Institute of Integral Studies, please visit: https://www.ciis.edu/academics/graduate-programs/mfa-programs