Duke's First M.F.A.

Tools of the trade
Tools of the trade: Josh Gibson, assistant director of the Film/Video/Digital Program, introduces M.F.A. students enrolled in his experimental film and video course to equipment they’ll use.Tom Rankin

Afew weeks before the start of fall classes, Joel Wanek and Laura Doggett meet for the first time at Mad Hatter’s café near East Campus. Both belong to the first cohort of students in Duke’s Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, and, as they quickly discover, they share a number of other connections. Both lead rewarding careers teaching teenagers and young adults how to express themselves through documentary work, and both feel an eagerness to push the boundaries of aesthetic expression. The two find they’re equally excited about being part of a group that will help shape the direction of Duke’s new graduate-level venture.

“There is no other M.F.A. program like this anywhere,” says Wanek, a professional photographer and educator who withdrew from a photography M.F.A. program at Columbia College in Chicago because it was too narrowly focused. “Duke understands what contemporary documentary is—it’s multidisciplinary, it pushes boundaries. That’s the way students think, because that is their world—it’s not just images, it’s video and sound and writing.” In addition to his extensive portfolio of published and exhibited work, Wanek has taught students at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, Center for Community Arts Partnerships, and High School for the Arts.

Doggett, who moved to Durham from New York, has directed youth media and creative-arts programs for twelve years, working with teenage girls in Appalachia; Latino, African, and African-American youth in Washington, D.C.; and immigrant teenagers at an international high school in Queens. She’s facilitated video and audio documentaries, a bilingual telenovela, and a variety of creative-writing and theater projects.

Like Wanek, she was familiar with the international reputation of the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) through its permanent and visiting faculty (particularly Wendy Ewald, who launched the CDS Literacy Through Photography initiative in 1990); the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; and the award-winning DoubleTake magazine, which was published through CDS from the mid- to late-1990s. “The Center for Documentary Studies is really well-known among people working in documentary,” she says. “And I liked the idea of working collaboratively with other students in the program. I had no plans to go back to graduate school because I had a job I loved, but two friends separately e-mailed me about the program, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be part of it.”

Sponsored by CDS, the Arts of the Moving Image program, and the Department of Art, Art History, & Visual Studies the M.F.A. is a two-year program that includes training in documentary fieldwork, experimental film and video, computational media, documentary traditions and innovations, and a survey of experimental art and non-traditional creative production. Students produce a final thesis project and paper; the culminating projects will be presented in public exhibitions.

CDS director Tom Rankin says Wanek and Doggett exemplify the kind of students he and his colleagues hope to attract. “We’re looking for M.F.A. students who genuinely want to take advantage of the experimental/documentary emphasis of the program, students who have a strong body of work in their submitted portfolios. We also want a class of students engaged in diverse approaches—photography, film, mixed media—that make for a cohort of students with wide-ranging approaches. We want students who are steeped in traditional approaches but who also are intrigued by the complex possibilities of both production and presentation through the newest digital forms.”

Rankin says he expects the program “will have a great impact on raising the profile of serious art-making at Duke.”

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