A Conversation With Zlata Baum

A native of Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, Zlata Baum has had a multifaceted career as an arts administrator, educator and exhibiting artist, working at art and educational institutions from coast to coast and showing installation-based artwork and lecturing across the U.S. and abroad.

As director of MICA’s low-residency M.F.A. in Studio Art (MFAST) program, she integrates her experience in both academia and the art world to meet the needs of working graduate students as they develop an engaged studio practice in concert with sustainable careers and lives.

Read along as Commotion sets out to learn about Baum’s influences as an artist and educator, her collaborative projects and her thoughts on how students benefit from the MFAST program.

CommotionYou lived in Belgrade, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, before coming to Baltimore. What attracted you to this city and to MICA?

Zlata BaumI came to Baltimore because my husband was offered a faculty position at MICA. However, I took advantage of that opportunity to work and teach at MICA as well. The student work at MICA was outstanding, and we wanted to be part of a real art school community.

We were also keen to move from the Midwest to the east coast, especially to be here in the growing arts community of Baltimore — and within easy reach of D.C. and New York City.

COYou moved to the U.S. from Belgrade at age 12, which is a very vulnerable age for most children. How did that experience influence your work?

ZBI know what it’s like to arrive in a place where you don’t understand the language and you must learn it quickly. I know what it’s like to move from a socialist country to a capitalist country. I know what it’s like to be and to feel like an outsider. I know what it’s like to be befriended by teachers, and what a huge difference good and dedicated teachers can make to one’s life.

I know what it’s like to lose your homeland; and to feel the effects of multiple wars, displacement and prejudice. I know about the human practicalities of a multicultural society. I know about the costs and benefits of a totally individualistic but disconnected freedom.

All of these experiences affect my point of view and manifest in my artwork in various ways.

COYou work alone and on collaborative projects. Could you talk about the benefits of both types of projects and compare the experiences?

ZBAs director of the MFAST program, I work collaboratively with the core faculty team and students, both present and past. Collaboration is the essence of the MFAST community.

As director, I also work collaboratively with many of the faculty, administrators, staff and students that make MICA a success. My creative focus is strongly influenced by a collaborative research process. Working with trustworthy partners allows engaging with very complex ideas and technologies.

Working alone, however, allows time and natural rhythms to guide my spirit and practice. Trust and respect are the basis of all productive work processes. You have to trust yourself to work alone and trust yourself and your colleagues to collaborate productively.

CO Over the past few years specifically, you’ve been working in collaboration with your husband, digital artist Jamy Sheridan. How has that partnership influenced your practice?

ZBI work collaboratively with my husband, in part, because the demands of my job make individual large-scale projects difficult and what we can do together is fascinating and forward looking. Also, working with a leading edge, innovative digital artist has allowed me to participate in developments that would have been outside my sphere of activity — developments that are now shaping the world in profound ways. Working with someone who trusts and respects me but is honest and supportive can be difficult, but it’s worth it.

COAs leader of a low-residency program, how do you try to build a supportive community of peers and mentors when students do so much of their work away from MICA’s campus?

ZB It is important to build an effective rhythm: appropriately mixing in-person, human contact when on campus, intense individual effort and continuous — often electronic — communication year round with a focus on commitment, effort, integrity and respect throughout. Because the MFAST takes place over four summers and three intervening years, we all have time to get to know each other quite well. As a matter of fact, MFAST students are connected to MICA and the MFAST community longer than any other graduate students at the school. Students know that we — the faculty and myself — are there for them and students also learn they are there for each other.

COAnd what would you want people to know most about the MFAST program and what they can get out of a low-residency education?

ZB The MFAST program is based in the belief that graduate students can develop a reflective and engaged studio practice while simultaneously sustaining a career and personal life. By providing the additional time necessary for students to develop cycles of integration, disintegration and reintegration of the creative process, the MFAST’s four-summer, low-residency program offers an advantage that cannot be matched by regular two-year graduate programs.

It may be one of the hardest things you can challenge yourself to do. But if you commit to the process wholeheartedly, the rewards can be huge in terms of creative and intellectual growth as well as the deep, lifelong connections you can develop with the MFAST’s community.

COFinally, do you find it ironic that we call the program MFAST when it’s the longest one by far at MICA?

ZB I was told that Keith Code, a motorcycle racing guru, always said, “You have to go slow to go fast.” My interpretation of that idea is that you have to calm your passions, tune your attention and find your rhythm before you can use your deep desire and best efforts to maximum effect. Same goes for finding your voice as an artist, especially a mid-career artist in contemporary American society.

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