Sean McFarland: An Artist Who Found His Calling

Photographer Sean McFarland (MFA 2004) wasn't that kid who spent his youth in a darkroom, nor was he enrolled in art schools from an early age. "I actually didn't start making art until I was 21," he recalls. "And then, within six years, I'd graduated from CCA with my MFA."

Good thing he didn't miss his calling. Since then he's shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Berkeley Art Museum, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and he has won numerous national art prizes.

McFarland will be having a solo exhibition, Glass Mountains, at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco November 7 through December 21, 2013.

McFarland is well known for his landscape Polaroid photographs, but he works across the spectrum of light-sensitive materials: cyanotypes, gelatin silver prints, and archival pigment prints. In recent years he's been drawing, too. All of his photographs deal with artifice in some way.

By employing collage, double exposure, and light effects, he creates images that blur fantasy and reality, often without ever quite letting on which parts are the "deception" and which are "authentic." What you see is never what was there in front of the camera.

Who's Afraid of Larry Sultan?

McFarland clearly remembers the day he visited CCA as a prospective student. "I was scheduled to meet with Larry Sultan, and I was scared to death. I'd been going to school in the woods and had just started making art."

[Editor's note: McFarland got his undergraduate degree in computer information systems at Humboldt State University.]

"But after the introduction, the rest came easy. I thought to myself, yes, this is exactly where I need to be. This person is amazing."

His accelerated artistic maturation depended on his mentors and colleagues. "My knowledge of contemporary art was limited," he says of his first semester at CCA. But with the support of his teachers, and the community CCA connected him to, he grew immensely.

"It felt like I got both an undergraduate and a graduate education in the two years of my MFA. Mine wasn't the typical path, but in retrospect, it worked out perfectly."

McFarland also notes that it helped having such a great class of peers. His classmates included John Chiara, James Chronister, Greg Halpern, and Mitzi Pederson. All of them have been very successful and are showing at museums and galleries across the country.

Out on His Own

The September after he graduated, McFarland got his first solo show at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco, which got him his first print review in Artforum. Later that year, he had another solo show at White Columns, New York's oldest alternative art space.

The director at White Columns, Matthew Higgs, was a former director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and former co-chair of CCA's MFA program; he had taken a liking to McFarland's work while they were at CCA. Higgs was also the one who introduced him to Jack Hanley.

"Stuff just started happening. I was working hard, but there was definitely someone watching over me."

An important step in McFarland's professional development was his continued association with some of his former professors. After graduating, he spent a few years working with Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan in their studios. "That experience was totally invaluable. I gained not only technical skills, but also knowledge of how to work as a professional in the field."

Adept at navigating the nitty-gritty, he decided he was sufficiently prepared to venture out on his own. "At some point I told myself that I wasn't going to work for other people anymore," he recalls.

Awards and Accolades

Growing recognition of his work made this transition possible. The opportunity he calls "the real beginning" came in 2009, when he won the Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer, which includes a $10,000 cash grant and a three-month exhibition at SF Camerawork.

That year he also won the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship, which likewise came with a $10,000 cash award. In 2011 he was awarded a $25,000 Eureka Fellowship and had three works acquired by SFMOMA.

Continuing Education

Residencies have played an important role in the development of McFarland's career. "Having a residency is the most special thing that can happen to an artist. It's a tremendous validation when someone to says they like what you're making, you have good ideas, and they want to give you the time and space to make whatever you want."

In 2010 he was awarded a residency at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, and in 2011 another one at Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. "Headlands is an incredible resource -- a place I knew was special and valuable from my first visit, which actually was a field trip for one of my CCA studio courses."

In summer 2013, McFarland was in the inaugural cohort of a new residency in Gualala, California, called Project 387. "I had a ton of space to work, and we'd have dinner with the family that owns the land. I got so much work done in two weeks. It was mind blowing!"

Entry into Teaching

These days, when McFarland isn't making his own work, he's passing along his skills to others. He got his start teaching Intro to Black and White Photography at CCA. He credits his former CCA teacher Susan Ciriclio, who is also a CCA alum (Photography 1971), for much of his development as an educator.

McFarland is now entering his fourth year teaching photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, at the undergrad and graduate levels. He still teaches beginning black and white, but he's also been creating his own courses, which are inspired in part by the professional skills and teaching he learned while working for Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan.

And every summer for the last nine years, McFarland has returned to CCA to teach in the Pre-College Program. One of the other artists at Project 387 this past summer was one of his own former Pre-College students. That they would cross paths again in the woods of Northern California as professional peers speaks to what McFarland sees as one of CCA's greatest assets: the creation of community.

"CCA really helped me become a part of the arts community in San Francisco. It was an invaluable two years. I couldn't have had a better grad school experience."