If you visit the website of emerging artist and first-year MFA candidate Jordyn Stewart, you’ll discover an array of curiously mesmerizing videos and photography, some featuring the artist herself exploring natural environments, and others showing subtle or peculiar interventions of outdoor and indoor scenes.
In one video, Careful, you might strain your neck, a tranquil scene of native plants and birdsong is disrupted by one plant suddenly spinning crazily on its stem. In another entitled 3° 8′ 46″ N 79° 28′ 38″ W, Jordyn traverses natural landscapes with four rocks from her childhood home as her stepping stones—it’s both awkward and beautiful. ”Site specificity and the rural is very important to my work,” she says, with the majority of her pieces set in Niagara region where she grew up.
A standout among her work is Compulsory Figure, a video performance recently exhibited at Stratford Gallery. Made in 2016, the 2-channel, five-minute video is set on a series of frozen winter ponds along the Niagara escarpment. It features Jordyn in traditional figure skater’s dress preparing a tiny skating area for her routine. “While adopting this constructed persona, I critique the hyper-femininity of the sport and challenge its traditional context,” she writes in her statement for the piece.
Jordyn’s performance video practice emerged toward the end of her undergraduate years in the University of Toronto’s joint art program with Sheridan College. Since then, she has developed in a number of ways, including independent work and collaboratively.
“I think it was important that I took two years between my undergrad and my masters,” she says. “It was a chance for me to make work outside an institution.”
Those experiences led her work in some unexpected directions—such as live performance art—but they also inspired her next move: “Going through a transition in my practice, I thought this might be a good time to do an MFA, to have faculty support as my work develops.”
As an artist focused on location and environment, research was not yet a big part of Jordyn’s practice—but that’s something graduate studies can offer. “The faculty are pushing us to explore new ideas and themes, introducing us to things we might not do on our own. The program builds a good theoretical foundation.”
Pedagogy is also a new area to explore. In their second year, the MFA students have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate studio-based class. “Not a lot of grad programs offer this kind of teaching experience,” says Jordyn, now developing lesson modules and her own course syllabus as part of a fine arts pedagogy seminar. “It’s pretty great when you can teach something you know and you’re excited about.”
Elective courses can help push students to experiment with their practices. Jordyn anticipates working with Bojana Videkanic, a performance artist and professor in the department, and to taking Motion and Sculpture with Lois Andison, a senior faculty member and renowned Canadian artist.
Program flexibility is important to most MFA candidates, and Jordyn experienced that willingness to customize at the outset. Tara Cooper, professor and associate chair of the graduate program, arranged a Research Assistantship for Jordyn rather than a Teaching Assistantship, which first-term students typically do. The RA gives Jordyn the opportunity to work with Ivan Jurakic director of the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (UWAG), something she was especially interested in experiencing. For one of the program’s top attractions, the Shantz International Research Scholarship, which enables students to travel internationally to work with an established artist for six weeks, the faculty are especially dedicated to helping students find the right fit for their individual goals and interests.
The intentionally small MFA program supports a vibrant and diverse cohort from different geographic locations and backgrounds, ranging in practice both conceptually and formally. In today’s MFA studios, you will find artists working on painting, comics, video art, sculpture, artifacts, performance pieces, and more. “We look for both rigour and potential within MFA applicants,” says Tara Cooper, “a studio practice that demonstrates knowledge and a level of seriousness within the contemporary art realm, but also a kind of spark that allows us to imagine how this work might move forward.”
Jordyn’s commitment and curiosity to develop her practice stands as one example among the diverse group of 10 students in the program today. To get there, says Prof. Cooper, they all have one important characteristic in common: “a kind of all-in commitment to their practice and a willingness to embrace the what-ifs proposed by graduate studies.”
Last photo: Funded by the Shantz endowment, the 2017-18 MFA cohort travelled to the Venice Biennale in October. From left to right: Tara Cooper, Terry O’Neill, and students Paula McLean, Lauren Prousky, Tait Wilman, Jordyn Stewart, Aaron Maclean and Patrick Allaby.