Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Maria Michails

Ph.D. Electronic Arts

Hometown: Montreal, Quebec
Prior Study: MFA Intermedia (ASU 2008) and BFA Interdisciplinary Arts (Concordia University, Montreal, 1996)
Degree(s) Sought: PhD
Department: Arts
Year of graduation: 2019-2020


Describe your graduate project and its purpose/applications.

My project uses citizen science and do-it-yourself making, models with mainstream appeal, as methods for critically addressing a community's local environmental problems. My Ph.D. work has enabled me to shift my solo studio practice and investigations toward co-creation and knowledge production with community members. The aesthetic 'end product' becomes less of a concern and the focus is on the development of knowledge that is, hopefully, instrumental in affecting change. Although socially-engaged art doesn't work within a vacuum with predetermined results, I nonetheless hope to develop methods and approaches that other artists can learn from and apply when choosing to step out of the gallery and studio to work with communities and be able to create robust experiences and artwork with their community collaborators.

What are your hobbies/interests/special talents?

Although I don't have hobbies at the moment and my interests are closely tied to my work, I do enjoy getting outdoors when I can carve out the time. I used to rock climb and backcountry telemark ski, and was a budding mountaineer before choosing grad school over becoming an outdoor recreation guide. These early "hobbies" (my friends would scoff if they heard me call them that!) were pivotal to my shifting the context of my artwork from identity issues to environmental issue. Those many years of spending time in the mountains shaped not only my perception and sensibility toward the natural world, but helped me to express the importance of finding a balance between modern conveniences and responsible resource use. My artworks became the loci of connecting those dots.

List the information about your background and accomplishments in your college and work experience

I've been an independent artist for about 25 years. Essentially, I've been mostly "self-employed" and funded my practice through grants. I now teach grant writing for artists. The writing skills I developed over the years have served me well now that I'm in a PhD program, not just in securing fellowships but also in communicating about my work. Even before I came into the program, I was beginning to publish in journals and a book chapter. In the arts though, our "publications" are considered visual and in the form of art exhibitions, performances, and screenings. Over the years, my works have been exhibited in solo and group shows throughout Canada, the United States, in France and in Greece. I have always approached my education -- that is, my Masters and my Ph.D. studies -- as opportunities to expand my practice and to enable a transition that will increase my knowledge and provide for a concentrated work time. My education, therefore, has served my artistic practice well.

What has been the most rewarding part of studying at Rensselaer?

The freedom and opportunity to explore across disciplines within my School (HASS). I feel as if my degree should also be in STS, as I'm working and studying with professors in that department equally, if not more, than in my own department. The support – both financial and advisory – is paramount to succeeding. I'm very grateful to have this support, as it has enabled me to really push myself and the boundaries of my field. I have been much more productive in my output in the past year than at any point in my career. I attribute that to the support I've received that has enabled me to focus all my time toward my work.

What are your plans following graduation?

I'm setting the foundation to be able to diversify my opportunities when I graduate. I think this is really important, as the "world out there" becomes more competitive and the problems needing to be solved more complex. Ultimately, I see myself as being involved in academia – but it would have to be quite a unique position. I am seeking a cross-disciplined appointment. But I'm also interested in starting a social enterprise, doing one or two post-docs, working/consulting for an NGO, government agency, policy-making or other socially driven organization. All of these positions would be focused on environmental issues, justice and education.


I knew before coming to RPI that my research project would require substantial funding to execute. The research and artmaking takes place in two locations – Albany and Saskatchewan – and involves multiple projects with several groups in each. I applied for and was awarded two fellowships, one from HASS and the other (supporting the Canadian portion) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada.