Jonathan Aller
Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies
Professional Artist

Kathy Huang ’18 sat down with recent MFA graduate Jonathan Aller to talk about his experience with MCAD, his favorite thing about painting, and his advice for current students.

Why did you seek an MFA?

My previous education was very technical based, so I wanted to contemporize my work and also to have the possibility to teach in the future at a collegiate level, because I teach at community centers and continuing education and so on, so I wanted to have that ability as well.

Before my MFA my work was very traditional, very classical, very naturalistic, so I wanted to contemporize it further and bring it into the twenty-first century rather than stuck in the 1500s [Laughs].

What was your thought process behind choosing MCAD for your master's?

I’m from Florida originally, but I moved here over ten years ago, so it’s very convenient. That being said, I still looked around. I saw the University of Minnesota, I saw other areas as well. The way MCAD concentrates within the arts, the interdisciplinary focus, really attracted me to the program. The University of Minnesota, while a great institution, feels very broad and I wanted a more specialized concentration of drawing and painting and also an interdisciplinary way of doing it.  

I really like this school. I came and visited it a couple times. It sounds pretty ridiculous, but I did the whole thing. I did the whole visit and I did it with other schools as well. I actually went out of state and I looked at a couple schools in New York, but I really liked MCAD.

What have you enjoyed most about your MFA experience?

That would have to be the community. You’re just entrenched within all different disciplines and all different practices and everyone has their own way of thinking about art and their own approach. It’s great to have different perspectives. You’re in a community that thrives on working hard, grit. That's one aspect that I really have enjoyed about the MFA program.

The other aspect is the professors. Being exposed to professors who are well-versed in their fields, whether sculpture, illustration, painting, video—areas that I would not even touch because of my training—is good because it broadens my horizon and education. I've enjoyed deconstructing my own practice and seeing where I can go and in which way I can take it and then kind of slowly putting it back together. I wouldn't have been able to do that before, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to go to grad school. I wanted to push myself. And this program has really pushed me.

Where did you get your BFA?

Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Then I went to Florence, Italy, and completed the Atelier program at the Angel Academy of Art. I was there for three years and then came here many years later. [Laughs] Not many years later. Let’s take that back. Several years later; I don’t want to date myself here!

What do you think about the new MFA building?

I love it! I think it’s really nice. It’s right next to the museum and main campus. I think it’s a work in progress, but it’s great. 

What is your ideal studio space or workspace?

I would love to have twelve-foot windows. I love natural lighting. My ideal studio is a lot of windows, a much larger space, a model stand where I can have my models pose, about five assistants that can clean my brush, stretch my canvases, do half of the painting and then I can come in and just do the finishing touches: the hands, the portrait, and the signature.

What is your favorite thing about painting?

I really enjoy the challenge of it. Every time I pick up the brush I forget what the hell I've done in the past. I blog a lot, so I write down a lot of my processes when I paint. I like to share with people, but it’s maybe for me to remember what I do because painting is such a huge beast in itself. There are many ways you can communicate through painting. I start and I can't stop. The challenge of it, the amount of work it brings me, and it’s kind of magic because when it starts clicking, it’s a beautiful experience and it's addicting. I can’t fathom myself doing anything else. If I’m not painting or drawing, I don't feel right.

During undergrad, I originally wanted to learn how to become a traditional animator. I really loved traditionally drawn animated movies. I knew the whole process behind it: the supervising animator, the inbetweeners, how many papers they put through their hands, everything! I knew all the details. I loved it and I grew up wanting to do it. During my first couple years of undergrad, they began transitioning into computer animation. I knew from that point on I had no future with animation because all these major companies are laying everyone off. I’m not an entrepreneur, I'm not going to start my own company of animation. It wasn’t a passion of mine to start my own thing. Long story short, I always love painting because of animation, because of the traditional part of it. You feel the paper, you feel the pencil. Same thing with the traditional way of painting. You feel the canvas, you feel the paints, the brush. There’s a connectivity to it and the materiality aspect of it really draws me. I've always loved painting before I went to undergrad, but that really just cemented it there that I knew I had to change my path. 

Can you describe your artistic process?

Before grad school, it was very observational based. I would just set up a still life, go to the grocery store, see which fruits and vegetables really caught my attention. It was a figurative painting, I’d try to find the wickedest beard I could and draw it. Now, it’s very content-driven. I'm working with identity in Latin American communities and my own identity being Latin American, so I'm basing a lot of my paintings on that. For my process, I start with thumbnails, I usually go into color studies. I do a lot of studies and then kind of piece them together in the painting. The color study serves its purpose to a certain point but a lot of my decision making comes out in the final format of the painting.

What is your favorite piece that you completed while at MCAD?

My favorite piece is probably the last one I did. I look at the first one I did when I entered into the program and it is completely opposite. I've always said that if my paintings look exactly the same as when I started the program to when I finish the program, then I just threw away thousands of dollars. It's just, “what the hell, what’s the point?” So my last painting is actually my favorite.

I love the colors. I love the contemporary feel it has. It mixes well with the classical way of painting that I do but also brings a contemporary content and technique to the overall waves executed. The colors are very vibrant and very saturated and a lot of my prior paintings were missing that. It mixes a lot of different styles together, too, and different paints. There's acrylic, there's latex over spray paint, there’s oil, and like I said different styles. It’s very contemporary and it mixes with a very naturalistic way of painting.

What is your favorite medium to work with?

Oil. Hands down.

What is your favorite style of painting?

I’m trying to find the correct term. I keep saying naturalistic. I used to always call it a traditional or classical way of painting—like a representational way of painting. That’s my favorite style. Representational.

What have you been up to since graduation?

Since I've graduated I've been able to sleep a bit more and spend quality time with my wife and son. I'm currently exhibiting at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New Jersey that's part of the Delusional Art Competition, where I won first place in the Emerging Artist competition. I am also in the XL Caitlin Art Competition which will be a traveling exhibition going from San Francisco Art Institute to the Linda Warren Projects gallery in Chicago, and end at the New York Academy of Art. I also have a painting that was accepted into the Minnesota State Fair. I will be teaching Foundation: Drawing 1 at MCAD in the fall. I'm also collaborating on a couple of pieces for a show called Art For Sale at Truck Stop Gallery. The gallery is located on Nicollet Island, right next to downtown Minneapolis.

Do you have a personal studio?

I do! It’s in my house and my son is currently occupying it but we'll talk later. He’s six months, but I’ll have a one-on-one with him [Laughs].

What advice do you have for art and design students?

If you’re going to go into a program or go into the MFA program, make sure you know you have a purpose for going and not just following a cookie cutter way of going to a college or university because everyone's telling you to. If it's your passion, follow it, no matter what. 

Remember that you're going to college or getting your master's for a reason and for a purpose. These people are here to help you. You're not here to know it all. Be open to completely changing your own viewpoint, your perspective of what you think you know, but don't half-ass it. Dive into it and work as hard as you can because it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be handed to you. Bust your ass, don't twiddle your thumbs. It’s not going to be handed to you. Work as hard as you can because it's only going to get busier after you graduate.