A Commonly Asked Question

A Commonly Asked Question


I want to take this post to address a question that I get asked a lot by prospective students. This would be the question of “should I take time off between my undergrad and graduate degree?”

I can’t answer this question for you. What I can do is tell you my story, tell you why I made the decisions I did, and hopefully that will help in whatever decision you make.


When I finished my BFA (I got an art degree in photo from an “art only” school), I was shot. I had been having some success showing already and had a piece purchased by the Walker Art Center (the highlight of my last year of school) but was exhausted and in no mood to work on anything art related. I have a tendency to go on long, arduous periods of art making, then stop everything for a bit. After undergrad, I wanted to do something ‘mindless’.

Fashion work

I started shooting fashion and some commercial work. Granted, it’s not ‘mindless’ work, but to me it requires much less thought and justification. Just make the thing look good, and that seems to be enough. I did that for about 8 months. Then I started showing work again. Around that time, I also began to get the itch to make a new series.

When the fall rolled around again (about 15 months after my BFA), I had decided to go ahead and make a new body of work. Right at the start of it, I won the Jerome Fellowship for Emerging Artists, one of Minnesota’s three highly respected and sought after grants (the Bush has since been eliminated). That grant allowed me to complete Technically Intimate, my second body of work. Right around the time of the Fellowship show (the next fall), I started having my art published, a lot. Both bodies of work started showing up in magazines and books around the world. This helped to raise my profile, as well as help with my income. I was also showing both bodies more frequently. That went on for two years.


After I had finished Technically Intimate, I went on another hiatus. Not necessarily because I was sick of shooting, but because I didn’t really know where to go next. I had some interests in subject matter, but I couldn’t really figure out what to do with it. Also, since I had graduated with my BFA, I had been running a darkroom for a community college, first with chemistry, then switching to digital. I liked it, but I was getting the itch to do more with the students then just help them outside of class. I wanted to be teaching them myself.

So here I was. After my BFA, I had thought, “I will never go to grad school”. And after a number of successes, I began to think that it was a waste of my time. But now, I wasn’t sure where to go with my work. Like I said, I had ideas but couldn’t figure out how to execute them. I also realized I was lacking in some of the critical thinking and theory that other artists I was showing with had. They seemed to be able to talk about their work in a way I couldn’t. And then there was the ability to teach.

For all of these reasons, I came back. It seemed like the right thing to do, because I WANTED it.

My advice to those that are trying to decide how long to wait before applying is to figure out what you WANT. I always tell people to take some time out in the world. See if you can make work on your own. See if you can gather a bit of experience, as I think it better informs the work you will make when back in school. But most of all, build up that WANT. When you enter an MFA program like Columbia’s, you have to CRAVE being here. You have to have an immense desire to make work.

I often say that the three years at Columbia will be the only time that we, as artists, will get to make art full-time, without having to worry about how to put food on the table (it’s still a concern, but less of one). You don’t want to waste it. You want to jump right in and make lots of work, lots of mistakes, and lots of progress.

It’s different for everyone. For some, time is needed away to build up that WANT. For others, that WANT may already be there. I think that the WANT is the biggest deciding factor. When you want it so badly that you can’t stand being away, that’s when you apply.