Clemson University’s Master of Fine Arts program is celebrating a half-century of art and learning with a three-part exhibition featuring a wide variety of art from its graduates and receptions featuring reflections from notable alumni and supporters of the MFA program.
“Celebrating the 50-year anniversary of our MFA program in visual arts fills me with immense pride and excitement,” said Kathleen Thum, associate professor and MFA graduate program coordinator. “This milestone allows us to honor and witness the incredible successes of our alumni, achieved over five decades, while also looking forward to the promising future ahead.”
The MFA program was created in 1970 with a single student in the Department of Visual Studies, the predecessor to the Department of Art. Fifty years later, it boasts more than 250 graduates.
The student who started it all was Jeanet Dreskin ‘73, who remains a cherished pioneer for women in the arts at nearly 102 years young.
Dreskin became Clemson’s first MFA graduate and orchestrated an impressive and diverse career, beginning as a staff artist for the American Museum of Natural History, then as a certified medical illustrator, the director of the Greenville County Museum of Art school and an independent studio artist. Her artwork is in collections all over the world, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Asheville Art Museum and more.
A recent visit to Dreskin’s room at a senior living facility in Greenville found her as sprightly and passionate as ever about the visual arts. When presented with one of the 50-year-old paintings she created while still a Clemson student, she remarked, “There’s an old friend!”
She has given back to Clemson over the years , most notably through the Dr. E. Arthur and Jeanet S. Dreskin Travel Fellowship Endowment, which has had a profound impact on decades of MFA students by enabling them to study abroad, something she sees as vitally important.
“Funding travel for students was very important because I felt they needed to get a picture of what was happening in other parts of the world,” she said. “My husband and I decided that one of the things we’d like to do would be to set up a program so young people could travel abroad and see what was happening in other places. It’s very important, particularly with the arts, to be aware of what’s going on in other areas of the world.”
The MFA is considered the terminal degree in the visual arts. Clemson’s program offers concentrations in the studio areas of drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics, photography and sculpture. Interdisciplinary and collaborative projects are encouraged within the department. The primary goal of the program is to provide students opportunities to develop a high degree of professional competence in their chosen area of concentration.
En Iwamura ’16 came to Clemson’s MFA program after meeting Department of Art chair Valerie Zimany while she was on research leave for a Fulbright-Hays award in Japan.
“To be honest, I was born and raised in Japan, so I had no idea where Clemson was or what it looked like,” said Iwamura. “I couldn’t speak any English, wasn’t familiar American culture, life and customs, and I had no relatives or friends there. But Valerie convinced me an MFA degree from Clemson would set me up for success as an artist. It was the biggest decision I made in my life and the best one.”
Today Iwamura’s whimsical ceramic sculptures have been celebrated in exhibitions all over the world, from his native Japan to France, China, Australia and all over the United States.
“I believe people need to get out from their comfortable zone to grab opportunities they haven’t imagined,” he said. “For me, those three years I spent at Clemson were tough but one of the brightest memories I have.”
Thum said that graduate students are the heart of the Department of Art, and their commitment to the artistic practice and academic rigor energizes the department’s faculty and undergraduates.
“As we celebrate this significant milestone of our MFA program, we will continue to build upon the foundation of excellence laid down by our remarkable alumni over the past 50 years,” said Thum. “Together, we will nurture a community of diverse artists and scholars, fostering creativity, collaboration and innovation as we continue to shape the future of visual arts for generations to come.”
Dreskin succinctly summed up the appeal of making a living as an artist:
“I love working in the arts because it’s endless. You can create in any direction you want to go.”
Current MFA students in their studio spaces in Lee Hall.