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Clemson Master of Fine Arts program celebrates 50 years

Mercedes Dubberly
Faculty of the Clemson Visual Arts program pose for a photo.

Mike Vatalaro helped foster the Master of Fine Arts program at Clemson with a loaf of bread. And no, not in a biblical way, but through a weekly bag lunch that became a round table of sorts for artists of all mediums to hear and be heard.

When Vatalaro first came to Clemson in 1976, the Master of Fine Arts program was young. He recalls looking for life in the program and finding only quietness, which surprised him.

But, with the arts in the state beginning to pick up and the South Carolina Arts Commission having celebrated 50 years by that point, Vatalaro was ready to get to work and break the silence. He fed off the new energy of the Arts Commission and contributed to the MFA program in ways for which Clemson is still thanking him.

“The most exciting thing I was met with here was a very excited, dedicated and professional faculty,” Vatalaro recalled.

Vatalaro added how, even with just one faculty member for every discipline, they were always talking as a team, building a united front of faculty for one very young program.

The strength of the program, even in its earliest stage, was that there was always an exchange taking place between faculty, which passed on to students. Everyone shared their strengths with each other and tackled whatever weaknesses that came along together.

That same spirit of having a close-knit community remains at the forefront of the program today, as Clemson Visual Arts celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clemson Master of Fine Arts in visual arts program on Feb. 2.

The program held a reception in Lee Gallery, where pieces done by current students and alumni were on display. Patrons were able to hear alumni and program members, like Vatalaro, speak on the history of the MFA at Clemson as well.

“This exhibition is the first time we’ve done something like this in the program’s history,” Valerie Zimany, chair of the department of art, said. “It’s been a really valuable experience to have past and present members all in the room and to be able to exchange with each other and make new connections.”

At a time when the world of creatives is constantly changing, building a stronger network is more important than ever. Celebrating 50 years of an MFA program is a milestone.

“Art is the lens through which we can discuss any topic of contemporary concern, and galleries are one of the few places where you can meet people from any walk of life,” Zimany added.

“When you look at artwork, it allows you to have a dialogue about something that might otherwise be really challenging. That’s one of the strengths of art; it offers inclusivity and openness.”

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Mercedes Dubberly
Mercedes Dubberly, Associate Editor
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