Through his use of bold color palettes, meticulous details, and iconic symbols, artist Kristoffer McAfee displays technical rigor while provoking questions about the allure of consumerism that permeates our lives. Kristoffer is a California-born, Chicago-raised artist and a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose practice focuses on confronting political and social issues through intricate paintings and large-scale three-dimensional objects. His artistic voice and the intent of his work has surfaced in a myriad of ways: through life experiences, like growing up with the disparities and segregation within the southside of Chicago; by travelling the world, spending many years in Paris; by channeling the influence of other artists, like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons; or through rigorous training, which he received at SAIC. But perhaps a less considered factor, and one that has impacted the development of Kristoffer’s path, is timing. He was skeptical of higher education and traditional art school, and only made the decision to enroll at SAIC once in his late twenties – a choice he acknowledges was beneficial for him. But timing might have an impact on Kristoffer and the artistic path ahead of him yet again. Once a reluctant art student, Kristoffer now finds himself at one of the most prestigious art programs in the country during a year of social upheaval and national crisis–perhaps not the most ideal time to dive into a graduate program.
In February of this year, Kristoffer McAfee travelled to Yale University’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut to interview for the School of Art’s graduate program. In the first week of March, he received his acceptance letter into their Master of Fine Arts painting program, and his plan to attend Yale in the fall was set in motion. Just a couple weeks later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and we found ourselves entering into an unprecedented moment of uncertainty as the virus rapidly spread through the United States and the world. Suddenly, every facet of public life and nearly every kind of public gathering shifted or was shut down entirely to contain the spread of the virus. Slowly but surely, businesses, schools, art institutions, and public spaces adapted and changed their plans for the remainder of the year, as our lives increasingly moved to a virtual space. By the end of March, many universities, including Yale, closed their campuses and facilities, and finished the spring semester entirely online–prompting students from many art schools to request partial tuition refunds. And in the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that the pandemic would create challenges for any type of educational environment in the fall semester as well.
There are many factors to consider when an artist decides to begin an MFA program, such as the necessary time commitment and the ability to articulate the trajectory of their art practice– the application process itself can require a lot of determination and financial undertaking. But one thing that Kristoffer McAfee and other artists hoping to begin a graduate program in 2020 never considered was doing so during a public health crisis. “I never thought I would be coming back to New Haven after my interview during a pandemic,” says Kristoffer. “So, safety obviously is on that list of new concerns.”
He arrived at the Yale School of Art as part of one of the smallest MFA classes that the school has seen in a long time, as many students who were accepted into the program have chosen to defer for a year due to the pandemic. His arrival to this place is unique in more ways than one.
“After dropping out of three separate schools by the time I was 22, and giving up on traditional higher education, I never thought I would even have a bachelor’s degree. So when that became more of a reality for me, I started to entertain the idea of going to grad school within the last two years of being at SAIC,” he says. “The process [of applying to graduate school] was pretty intense, but only because I applied to so many schools . The biggest issue for me was more so the cost of applying to so many schools. I probably paid close to $800 out of pocket just for the application process itself, with no guarantee of anything.” When reflecting on what he learned through the process, he responded, “I honestly just learned how much I really did want this to possibly be a reality for me. To stick with it and [write my] personal statement [and also] find those to write me recommendations. It was clear that I wanted this.”
One of the people that Kristoffer sought out for a recommendation letter was artist David Heo. They met at SAIC when David was a guest lecturer for an undergraduate class that Kristoffer was taking. David received both his BFA and MFA from SAIC at a fairly young age, but still needed time to find the determination to attend graduate school. “I took 2-3 years off [after my undergraduate degree] and honestly, those few years ended up being some of the most important times in my life,” David recalls. “I didn’t make art at all during those years. Instead, I ended up working a lot in the service industry. One day, I woke up and realized I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to work for someone else. I didn’t want to abandon art. So I decided to revisit making again and slowly built up a portfolio.” Though the timing of their paths through art school have been completely different, both Kristoffer and David had to reach a personal epiphany to make the commitment to graduate school–what David calls “a certain level of desperation and motivation [that is necessary to devote] two years of your life to actually go pursue your dream.” But now, circumstances have completely changed. David admits, “Because of the pandemic, the social structure and expectations of education are so different now I don’t know how it’ll be for any upcoming students.”
Of the schools that Kristoffer applied to, Yale School of Art was definitely on the top of his list. Yale is also frequently at the top of the list of preeminent graduate art programs in the United States, particularly for painting and photography, and has a long list of notable alumni including Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, Mickalene Thomas, and Dawoud Bey. Not surprisingly, the admission rate to the program is highly competitive. According to statistics from The Yale Daily, the university’s student newspaper, and Peterson’s (the educational research site), about 5% of applicants to the program are accepted. Though the Yale MFA program may have this perception of being a pipeline to artistic success, the benefits of being in such a program lie within an artist’s ability to fully commit to their work, as well as access to studio space, esteemed faculty, visiting artists and critics. Building community amongst peers and faculty is often considered one of the greatest benefits of any graduate program. However, the inability to do this while the campus manages the pandemic is going to have new limitations for the students.
“Yale and New Haven are doing a great job at being proactive about the situation at large,” Kristoffer explained. “One way they are taking things seriously is that there will be no physical classes, everything will be online. The facilities are still available, just on a time-based reservation system with proper distancing and cleaning. Slower, but safe.” The campus is also taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. According to Yale Daily News, Yale’s current COVID-19 testing policy requires undergraduates and graduates living in campus buildings to seek COVID-19 testing twice per week, and adhere to strict social distancing guidelines. When considering how this will affect his first semester, he said, “To be honest, due to the current state [of] COVID and social distancing, I’m not really looking to build a community slightly because it will be very hard. However, we have come together digitally and have done everything we can to stay linked in that realm of reality. I’m not really worried about the lack of physical classroom time. I’ve come to accept this ‘new’ reality months ago and what it may bring. With that being said, this opportunity is such a miracle that it would take a lot more to persuade me not to take full advantage of this situation, especially as a Black man.”
While Kristoffer is now committed to his art practice in an academic setting–even amidst new challenges from COVID–it took many years of life experience and travel in order to arrive at this decision. As a Chicago Public School student, he remembers being drawn to art as early as elementary school, energized by the chance to use his creativity and imagination for school projects. During his time at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, he emerged as a painter, immersing himself in the street art world and working on commissioned murals. Despite his passion for art and these formative experiences, he was reluctant to study art in a formal setting. “Coming from the graffiti world, not many have an art degree background and it can even be looked at as ‘selling out’ or not keeping it ‘real’,” he said. “So it took years to see past that.” He explained his resistance further, saying, “I didn’t believe then, and I still don’t now, that artists are made in art schools, or that art can be ‘taught’, which to some degree is right. But the passion, drive, and self motivation has to come from within, and that can’t be taught.”
The pivotal turning point for Kristoffer was the time he spent living in Paris. Starting in 2011, Kristoffer took several extended trips to Paris to visit friends, galleries, museums, and curators. “I got to Paris and saw individuals have such a high esteem for the arts and artists,” he recalled. “I found myself at parties and nightclubs with nothing but creatives either in fashion design or modeling.” Being amongst notable figures in the Paris creative scene, while also “getting gallery doors shut in my face for not having an art degree,” Kristoffer came to a realization that he needed to take his craft much more seriously. “So when I came back to the States for good in 2015, it changed me. I saw art in a very different, much more serious context. The experience as a whole prompted me to pursue art school.”
With a new outlook on his own art and his desired place in the art world, Kristoffer enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He believes that starting his undergraduate degree at a later age was beneficial for him. “For me, I absolutely had some growing to do as far as what I wanted to do with my future, which I definitely did not know in my early 20’s. Waiting allowed me to truly see the benefits and rewards of my actions in connection to school and my immediate future,” he explained.
Kristoffer graduated with a BFA from SAIC in 2019. As he prepared to leave Chicago and head to New Haven at the end of this summer, he reflected on his time there. “The biggest lesson that I learned at SAIC was that others will respect my work and vision just as much as I respect it, and to represent that confidence every step of the way,” he said. “SAIC taught me how to take my craft to a level and arena that will not only be respected but now accepted with having such a historical institution behind me. It gave me confidence in my work and direction.”
At SAIC, Kristoffer developed his artistic method and a more confident voice to address the content in his work. Much of his practice involves deciphering omnipresent symbols in our culture and politics, and drawing attention to the hidden forces in the portrayal and dissemination of these symbols in the media. The iconography that began to emerge from his work while at SAIC included references to capitalism, consumerism, politics, and the war on drugs. “I’m speaking first and foremost about global issues, with me being a part of that like everyone else,” he explains. “It is the multifaceted aspect to these issues that I enjoy dissecting.”
In his mixed media paintings, Kristoffer incorporates overlays of intricate, hand-cut illustration boards that give the paintings added dimension while also presenting a layered story of what is often a recognizable symbol. In his piece Chicago Flag, he discreetly adds the words “Gentrification”, “Segregation”, and “GANGS” to the Chicago flag, almost imperceptibly so, as they are monotone within the flag’s colors. These added texts communicate the underlying societal issues within the city. He also uses this method of monotone overlays in his series of paintings resembling vintage Coca-Cola cans. The colors and script of the iconic brand are instantly recognizable, but closer examination reveals the use of several hazard symbols, which suggest that the consumption of this popular product is actually detrimental to one’s health.
The critical lens that Kristoffer brings to his subject matter feels particularly suited for this moment of social unrest in the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a moment of societal upheaval, exposing disparities within the education and health care systems while sustained protests against police brutality across the country call for racial justice. He says that he prefers to stay away from current events in his work, but acknowledges that they serve as motivation to go deeper within certain topics. Recognizing the significance of an artist’s role in this moment, he says, “Artists play in this moment of time the same role that they played in every other transformative period in human history – to record and give not only testimony to these events, but to also provide insight and dialogue. As artists, we have to be at times the messengers of the truth, good or bad, but we can also give hope by depicting a reality outside of what we are going through in that moment; a time and space to see a different way of doing things that can be a better end result for all, not just a small few.”
As he settles into graduate housing and his own studio space at Yale, Kristoffer remains optimistic about his venture into a graduate program, even amidst an undeniably different campus environment. “[I am most looking forward to] being in a space where I can confidently give 100% of myself to my art. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the school, but it does in a very indirect way. I mean, I’m excited to be in a brand new space, a feeling I haven’t had since residing in Paris. I’ve never lived on the east coast and never thought in a million years I would move to New Haven, so I’m ready for a new adventure.”
Featured image: Kristoffer McAfee stands outside the School of the Art Institute Columbus building, where the painting students spend most of their time. He says his experience at SAIC “gave me confidence in my work and direction.” Photo by Kristie Kahns.
Kristie Khans is a freelance photographer based in Chicago, specializing in capturing movement, music, editorial portraits, and performances. Remaining close to her first passion of dance, she has spent over a decade as a part of the Chicago dance community through her camera. She received a BA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, and has received multiple grants from city and state art agencies in Illinois. She teaches film and darkroom photography for After School Matters, a non-profit organization serving teens in Chicago.