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Securing America’s Future:

The Power of Liberal Arts Education

Julie Mehretu

Artist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” Recipient
Kalamazoo College (MI), Class of 1992
Julie Mehretu is a past recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and is well known for her contemporary works of fine art. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970, and then moved with her family to Michigan as a child. In 1992 she earned a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, and while an undergraduate, she studied for one year at University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar (1990–91). In 1997 she earned an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. She has been a resident of the CORE Program, Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1997–98) and the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001). The Museum of Modern Art in New York City holds pieces of her art in its collections, and she has exhibited her work in England, Korea, Lithuania, and Italy among other places.
My decision to become an artist came while a student at Kalamazoo College. A supporting and nurturing faculty, a curriculum that allowed flexibility for me to explore my creative passions, and the ability to think critically about it all—myself and my art, shaped who I am today. 
 
College is the time when you begin to see yourself as a human being, or rather, as an adult individual. You’re far away from your parents; you’re living on your own. For me, home was just an hour-and-a-half away, but that was far away enough. As an adult individual, you have to wake yourself up, eat at the right time. True, these were things I also did at home in East Lansing, but the distance, being at Kalamazoo College mattered.
 

The liberal arts experience gives you the opportunity to learn, to fail, to succeed, to really find out who you are.

 
I remember the day at Kalamazoo that I finished one particular drawing. I had spent a whole weekend drawing, and I remember being back in my room after drawing the entire day, laying on the floor on my back, and having my music on. I just remember this feeling of having done that work because I wanted to, and being fully engaged in it, and not knowing what other people were doing that day. And that’s one of those moments when you become self-aware of your growth as an individual, as a person. The liberal arts experience gives you the opportunity to learn, to fail, to succeed, to really find out who you are.
 
When I reflect on how my artistic work has progressed, I think of those early years at Kalamazoo College. My artistic process takes both intense thought and impulse. Balancing this has taken time and evolved over the years. It happens in all kinds of different ways. I’m making all these decisions, determining one thing at a time, and not even so much determining as understanding. I think that’s what Kalamazoo College was for me: a place to begin to understand.
 
That is what I think being an artist is: getting deeper, trying to get as deep a connection as you can to who you are as an artist, getting close to your work—it’s so slow for me—and I think the artistic language evolves from within that. The funny thing is that you’re using this particular language that you find, and you have moments where you think, “Is this who I am? I never thought my work would look like that!” When I was younger, I did paintings I thought of at the time as really good art. They look so different from what I’m making now. You have these ideas of what you’re going to do, but when you’re making art, it’s coming from somewhere deep inside. How do you know that, how do you get to know that part of yourself? That’s the discipline I got from being in a liberal arts environment at Kalamazoo College.
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