Duke's MFA: On the Edge of Convention

Duke's first master's in fine arts program pushes students to experiment

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series
Laurenn McCubbin, a student in Duke's new experimental MFA program, draws a portrait from a still-frame image. The work is part of a documentary project on sex workers.
Laurenn McCubbin, a student in Duke's new experimental MFA program, draws a portrait from a still-frame image. The work is part of a documentary project on sex workers.

The sex worker's haunting blue eyes practically leap off the paper as Laurenn McCubbin brings them to life -- one careful brush stroke at a time.

Crouched low on a chair, McCubbin leans in and carefully adds details: The cherry red gloss of her lipstick; the auburn waves of her hair. The woman's name is Maxine, and McCubbin, a documentarian, wants to tell her story.

McCubbin is one of 15 students enrolled in the inaugural class of Duke's new Master's of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program. The program, Duke's first MFA, is unusual in that it requires students to dabble in a variety of documentary mediums rather than focusing narrowly on one, like photography or filmmaking.

And McCubbin has taken full advantage, utilizing four mediums to tell Maxine's story: traditional documentary video, audio interviews, a silent film and portraits based on still-frame images of Maxine and other women she's interviewed. 

It's quite an arsenal. 

"I'm trying to figure out which way best tells the story," she says. "We're encouraged to experiment and try new things. I'm going to try and maybe fail. This is the time to do things that may not work out."

Here, failure is an option. The program's director, Tom Rankin, wants students to "work around the edges of convention," to try new things, swap ideas with each other, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.

Results of this grand experiment's birth year will be on display Monday, May 7, at a show whose name itself is a bit of an experiment. The class is calling it the "Wang Dang Doodle", because Rankin said that once -- riffing on the old Howlin' Wolf song -- and people thought it was funny. 

The show is free and open to the public. It will be held at the old Duke School building, a university arts annex at 1517 Hull Ave. It starts with a reception and gallery viewing at 6:30 p.m. Films will be shown outdoors starting at 8:30 p.m.

The MFA program is based in a retrofitted former carpentry shop along Campus Drive, a large, open room in which students have used portable partitions to cordon off workspaces. McCubbin's "office" is a spartan space measuring maybe 20 by 20 feet, with paint peeling off the cement floor, a long line of Coke Zero cans lining the window sill and plenty of sunlight streaming through tall vertical windows. 

A former graphic designer and comic book illustrator at Marvel Comics, McCubbin went back to school because "I didn't want to do other people's stuff anymore."

In the Duke program, she found a way to vary her skills and get a fresh take on the sex workers project, which she started years prior while in a master's program at the University of Nevada -- Las Vegas.

Students in this program have a broad collection of backgrounds, and while they'll each experiment with new storytelling mediums, they each must bring specific expertise, Rankin says. 

"It's really important that you come in with one thing you do very well, or else you're a jack of all trades and master of none," he says. "You may come in as a shortstop and leave as a shortstop, and that's okay. But you may come in as a shortstop and leave as a centerfielder."

The program was created to encourage students from different backgrounds to learn from each other. In more narrowly focused MFA programs, a photography student, for example, wouldn't spend any time critiquing another student's film, and vice versa.

But there's room for that, Rankin insists.

"It's perfectly natural for a film student to learn from a still photographer," he says. "We learn a lot looking across the table at people who aren't just like us. Our common ground is that we're going out into the world and trying to represent something real."

Across the room from McCubbin's cubicle, Lisa McCarty is tinkering with photos she took with a plastic Holga camera. Popular in the 1960s, the Holga has a manual wind, which means you can take two photos on one film frame. This double exposure effect has McCarty's attention; she's been experimenting extensively with double exposure photos in the hopes of one day putting a series of photo books together featuring that sort of art.

"It gets back to early photography where the uncertainty about what you’re getting was prevalent," she says. "I enjoy being able to relinquish some of the control of the image. I'm never sure what I'm going to get."

As the first class of MFA students at Duke, McCubbin, McCarty and their colleagues are guinea pigs of sorts, helping give the program an identity. Their work this year has helped shape the program a bit for the next class of 15 students who will start in the fall. 

The program's very existence is a credit to Duke's commitment to the arts, officials say. One of the program's prime features is the intellectual muscle of the university's arts and sciences offerings, says Scott Lindroth, Duke's vice provost for the arts.

"We wanted to set our program apart from other MFA programs, and the best way to do this is to encourage artists who may be working in traditional media to think about enlarging the scope of their work through critical engagement with new media aesthetics and technologies," Lindroth says. "What makes our program distinctive is that it is embedded in the academic community at Duke."

As it grows, the program may change. But it should never have a doctrine, no set of rules about what's right and wrong, Rankin says.

"It resists the idea that there's a single way to do anything," he says. "What's experimental today is old fashioned tomorrow."