Inside Look at VCU's AFO Program

If you’ve been around VCU for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone talk about AFO. Understanding AFO is a whole different issue. AFO is the art foundation program for first year design and fine arts undergraduates. The students in the program must take four major studios — Drawing, Space, Time and Surface. These studios expose students to an experimental environment and provide students with the opportunity to dabble in several different mediums that then helps them establish a fine foundation of the arts and helps them decide which art major would fit them the best.

Beyond the technicalities of the program you’ll find students dedicated to their works and willing to do anything for their pieces (and boy do we ever mean anything!). These art students are notorious for running on little to no sleep and carrying the almighty Plaza Art bags. The motivation and dedication required for the program separates talented art hobbyists from those who plan to take their work to a professional level. One of the major challenges art majors face is the critique day. Art can be a very real opening of the soul, and those who pour all they have in to a piece may face a harsh reality in critiques. All major projects are presented through a wide variety of methods, which lead to a critique. Earning a positive critique can really boost confidence and excitement surrounding a piece, but the negative critiques may be devastating. While a negative critique may initially be crushing, the lessons push students to improve their tactics for the next piece. It is also critical for art students to remember that art can be very subjective and matters most is the artist’s feelings towards their piece.

What makes AFO such a unique program is the crazy levels students are willing to go to to better their pieces and help those in the community. The best way to emphasize this is by sharing some of the wild, weird, exciting, unusual lengths this year’s AFO students have already gone to for art. AFO student Nick Seitz was willing to go 28 miles for one art piece. That’s right, he walked 28 miles for his piece! Going the distance does not always require walking beyond Bowe Street (the main studio for AFO students). Thomas Sheehan says in preparation for a surface critique he ended up sacrificing the comforts of home, or at least a bed, to live for two full days in the studio!

One of the unique and special parts of AFO is the sense of community, which then extends into the art community. This means students are not only going to great lengths for their own pieces, but they are also willing to assist their friends and fellow artists in making their visions a reality. Katelyn Lacey found herself puckering up to kiss a stranger for her friend’s time studio video. Natalie Shenk proved her dedication to art and her friend Katrina Schutt by standing with her every step of the way. The two girls stripped down to their flesh colored panties in a cemetery and stood in silently for a minute video piece. Not only did they expose themselves for the class critique, but the video was also shown before several more of their peers at the AFO 60 X 60 X 60 video festival. For Sarah Audrïtsh and her friend, they struggled together when moving sheets of wood they estimate to be around 75 pounds when they were unable to use a cart to transport them. Luckily, the girls found a kind man who offered to help them.

These art students understand fully putting themselves in their piece. Art becomes a part of the artist as much as the artist becomes a part of their art. Natalie Abernethy placed a squid on her face to take photos for a reference photo for her drawing project. Cami Miller placed herself in her art when she dipped her whole arm in hot wax in order to create a cast for her project. Certainly not the last of these AFO stories, but the last for now, Katelyn Lacey was wrapped entirely in plastic wrap and tape. After her roommate finished creating the cast, she had to be cut out of it. These stories exemplify some of the lengths AFO students go to become one with art.

Image and project credit: Cami Miller VCU AFO student class of 2017  

The art foundation year is so much more than can be packed into a syllabus. The lessons students learn cannot be taught with any textbook. The program thrives by pushing students past their preconceived notions of their own limitations. In addition, this first year makes for a lot of great stories and memories!