A Reflection On My MA in Fine Art Journey

Arlene Caffrey, taking the final bow after her closing performance at 'Polyphonic Textures' exhibition at Limerick School of Art

This is me, after taking the final bow and closing the show having made my performance at the closing night of our ‘Polyphonic Textures’ graduation exhibition at Limerick School of Art & Design, 12/09/2023.

‘But do you really need to go back to art school?’ one of my colleagues seated at the boardroom table asks me, genuinely confused. ‘No, I don’t need to’, I answer him, ‘But I want to’. I sense a palpable awkwardness among my colleagues as I imagine that I appear to be insane to them for openly stating that one of my dreams is to get a master’s degree.

This memory is very clear to me. It is a Saturday morning in February 2015, I’m with a dozen or so other fitness business professionals at a 2-day summit in a vague hotel adjacent to one of the London Airports. We’ve just spent the morning talking about vision, mission and values, as well as making five-year plans for our businesses and our own lives, and were now sharing. No Audi, no seven-figure salary, no rambling pile of a mansion in the countryside; all I want is to have a bit of stability and the time and space to make art.

I remember Chris, our business mentor, challenging us to dream big as we came up with a vision for our lives; one that is outlandish and seemingly impossible, or in true biz-dudebro speak: ‘If your goal doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough’. This is how I came to arrive at my goal of getting a master’s degree in art.

That goal of going back to art school terrified me. I had already been out of college more than 5 years at that time and was already feeling creatively atrophied, as well as a bit traumatised after graduating right into collapse of the Celtic Tiger with an honours degree in Graphic Design that became my ticket to the dole queue (more about this in my memoir!). Was I just indulging in selfishness and pure notions? The thoughts of ‘going back’ scared me so much that I didn’t fully believe that I ever would. So I did the sensible thing; I completely shied away from this goal for many years, eventually forgetting about it as I found myself swept up in the hustle of running a small business and somehow ending up with two locations on opposite sides of the country and a team over 10 people.

Fast forward five years to March 2020. I was a burned-out wreck from the aforementioned adventures in entrepreneurship. The world shutting down brought it’s own difficulties to my life; I feared that it would be the death knell of the rather successful pole dance studio I had at that time. However, I also was gifted the luxury of some much needed time and space to rummage through the junk drawer of my dreams.

I googled master’s degrees one evening and came across Limerick School Of Art & Design. I also have a clear memory of reading about the MA in Social Practice and the Creative Environment (dubbed MA SPACE) and knowing on a soul level that this was the course for me. I had no idea what I would be doing during that course (or after it), other than learning about socially engaged art and taking my critical and creative thinking to the next level, but I knew this was my path. I was too late for the next intake, so applied for the following year and got in. I couldn’t believe it, I was finally going back to art school!

The course due to start in October 2021 got pushed back to January 2022. No big deal, I needed the time to settle back into the studio after it being closed for the best part of a year and a half. The course starting in January 2022 got pushed back to October 2022. Ok, annoying, but again not a big deal; business-owner life after lockdown was proving more difficult than I expected so I had plenty to be doing. September 2022 rolled around and I had everything finally sorted for my 12 months of study; myself and my classmates due to start got the news that MA SPACE had been permanently cancelled due to lack of sign-ups and changes to the overall university structure.

Well, fuck.

This was a curveball that I had not planned for. Maybe my dream to get a master’s degree was just a fanciful notion after all?

The dream almost ended there, and I honestly have no idea what my life would look like now had I stayed on that path. It probably would have continued in more or less the same vein; being burned out bit-by-bit by small business woes and the occasional morning spent stress-vomiting. Thankfully, a different path presented itself: there was still spaces left on the inaugural MA in Fine Art and myself and my three other MA SPACE classmates were being welcomed with open arms.

Being completely real, I had always wanted to study Fine Art. I chose Visual Communications (Graphic Design) for my CAO as the then eighteen year old me didn’t fully understand the difference and thought that the employment prospects sounded better with design. I was happy with that choice at the time, though as I sat in a clean studio in DIT Mountjoy Square with my Macbook, I was secretly envious of the Fine Art students who roamed our sister campus of Portland Row covered in paint and other arty debris. Finding myself at 35 years of age having not done anything artsy since undergrad 13 years previously, I was well and truly terrified. Chris my business mentor would have been proud of me for having such a fear. Sceptical about how I would fit in, I went to Limerick anyway on a misty October morning where the first chill of winter teased the air. I felt out-of-place and daunted by my new classmates, most of whom were accomplished painters and sculptors who articulated their practices with words I didn’t understand like ‘autoethnographic’. By the afternoon, I felt my inner voice whisper, ‘Everything is going to be fine, you’re in the right place’. Looking back now, I can’t articulate why I had that knowing; everything just felt right even if it felt uncertain.

Arlene Caffrey first day of Fine Art Masters in Limerick School of Art & Design
I asked my classmate Juliette to take this photo of me at the end of the first day of our Fine Art Masters.

Over the next 12 months, I read more books and research papers than I can count. I learned what autoethnography means, plus a plethora of other words that were previously unknown to me. I caught up with my classmates and learned how to write an artist’s statement. I found myself in the sculpture department, casting plaster, resin, cement, wax, chocolate and anything else I could think of that would melt easily without setting myself on fire. I also learned how to use a hammer correctly and how to hang work in a straight line for exhibiting. I learned how to do proper research and had all my previous notions about myself and my practice challenged; it was uncomfortable as fuck. Basically, I learned the difference between ethics and morals and learned to cop on when it came to the black-and-white worldviews and identities that I was holding onto (thank you Gianna and Mike!).

As well as this, and perhaps most exciting of all, I learned about this thing called performance art, or live art. At the time of starting my Fine Art Masters, I would have already considered myself to be a performance artist; I danced on a pole in front of live audiences creating beautiful emotive pieces, that’s the same thing right? Well, I was wrong. I researched feminist epistemology and performance art theory and made it my business to go and find out what makes something performance vs. performing* (*Amanda Coogan has a rather wonderful article on the matter, which I encourage you to read if that’s your jam). Three days in January 2023 with Brian Patterson and Elvira Santamaría of the Belfast-based Bbeyond performance group helped me to fully embody what it means to be a performance artist and to discover a new part of myself that would become a staple of my main practice.

I initially thought that I would make work that integrated my pole dancing into a new and exciting way. Although the pole has not featured in my final project, the rest of my MA was spent developing a performance art project that combined sculptural stilettos. The idea was simple: I move through a space in a blue sequin gown with fracturing, degrading stilettos with ‘gradual loving destruction’, as I challenge monuments of my own identity. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by talking too much about the artworks I created, so you can see images of my final exhibition below as well as read more about it in my previous blog! Plus, these works will be seeing the light of day again at upcoming exhibitions…

As I write this blog, exactly one week after our last day of our final exhibition, I can’t thank enough all of the staff at Limerick School Of Art & Design for what has been a life-changing year, as well as my classmates. Having the wider community of classmates to support me through this journey has been invaluable; the group of us helping each other out in the exhibition space during our final week, offering physical help when needed, and words of kindness when not asked for but very much needed.

The scabs of carpet burns are still on my feet after my final performance last Tuesday; these will heal in time and my skin will return to normal, however I will never be the same. On the subject of ‘going back’, I now realize that there is never a going back. The person I am today, who ‘went back’ to art school, is not the same person who spent years burnt out by brick-and-mortar business. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that life and chose it for myself. Now I no longer have a studio and am happily teaching pole dancing mostly online, as well as my masterclasses around Europe and regular weekly classes in Waterford. I find myself with the time to dream again and set new goals. Future exhibitions and performance artworks are on the horizon, as well as finishing my memoir, and who knows maybe even a PhD…

A special thank you to the wonderful humans who supported and brought my vision for my final masters project to life:
Kathleen Doherty
Stephen White
Laura O’Loughlin
Karen Enokibara
Padraig Ruane
All the staff at Pharmacia bar
…and Chris Wright my then business mentor back in 2015 who didn’t judge me.

Would you like to support my work as an artist? If you like my art, you can contact me to ask about purchasing any of my sculptures featured below, or if you simply want to show your appreciation you can do so by buying me a coffee. I greatly appreciate the support!