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The Parsons Challenge


Hooray and huzzah, I got accepted into Parsons The New School! I admit I was a little uncertain about Parsons because I finished some portfolio pieces for RISD after the Parsons deadline that I thought were stronger and would have significantly boosted my Parsons portfolio. In any case, YAY!

So in the spirit of YAYOMGPARSONS, here’s my Parsons Challenge. I found the incredibly vague instructions very frustrating, and had to change my plans a few times as I hunted down more information online and found some clarifying remarks by people from the admissions offices in various FAQs and forums. It was also frustrating to look at the few examples people had posted online and, for the most part, not know if they got accepted or not. So if you’re reading this and found this post by looking for information on the Parsons Challenge, good luck and I hope this helps.

From the school website:

Explore something overlooked within your familiar surroundings and daily life. Choose one object, event, activity, or location.

Interpret your discovery through 3 pieces of art using any medium. Support each piece of art with an essay of approximately 250 words each. The series you create should convey a conceptual and creative response of the subject matter you have chosen to discover.

Acceptable media can be any visual art form such as: drawing, video, photography, sculpture, 3D work, collage, digital images, etc. All 3 pieces of art may be created with the same media, or different mediums.

Your work will be evaluated on the concept conveyed through your writing and visuals and the relationship you create between the two.

I decided to explore three aspects of my teaching experience through NYCTF, visually tying it together with the presence of a brick wall. My original idea was to go a little more Norman Rockwell and depict some scenes I had witnessed that may appear strange, but I saw as a depiction of a New America, such as the time I watched an emaciated drug addict pick up a little girl after school and buy her ice cream on the corner.  Eventually I decided that doing three paintings like that would be too one-note, and shifted my focus to some of the conflicting sentiments I had about my experience.

I also ended up submitting these pieces to the other schools I applied to, which didn’t allow for an accompanying essay. For those, I changed the title to hopefully better capture the intent of the pieces (Parsons Title/ Title For Other Schools). I don’t know how the other schools will respond to the pieces, but at least Parsons liked them well enough.

Parsons Challenge 1:  “First Impression”/”South Bronx Revival”

Watercolor on paper; 9 x 12 in.

Look beyond Manhattan. Take the 1 train up to the 181st stop and transfer to either the Bx 11 or the Bx 13. Ride across the river, past the community center and the burned out bowling alley that, for some reason, has a small parking lot surrounded by barbed wire that is filled with rusting washing machines. You will be tempted to pull the cord here, but the bright orange and green building is only the annex building. Take the bus another two blocks, past the salons and bodegas, to the corner of [REDACTED] and [REDACTED].

Here is a big, old, stone building, with a main entrance and two smaller entrances on either side, humorously labeled “boys” and “girls” as if resolutely trying to transport you back to a time when such things mattered. As soon as you walk through the main entrance and walk past the security guard, a gangly, stuttering man named Thompson who takes no shame in flirting with the teachers, the noise belies any sense of peace or authority the outer edifice of P.S. [REDACTED] might have bestowed.

This was my home from the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2010. I was a new Teaching Fellow, having skipped my college graduation to move to New York to teach in the South Bronx. The exterior monolith matched my dreamy expectations. What I encountered inside shattered and exceeded them. Instead of reliving my childhood memories, the children I met inside this building changed my life forever.

*The specific location and name of the school have been removed for privacy.

Parsons Challenge:  “The Forgotten Boy”/ “The Forgotten Soldier”

Acrylic on canvas; 18 x 24 in.

One of the greatest challenges I faced as a teacher was not the bureaucracy or the classroom violence, which were daily struggles, but rather a constant battle to balance my own perceptions of my students –specifically, the new influx of poor African immigrants coming into this traditionally Hispanic neighborhood. I was taught by my mentors and in my graduate classes if not directly, then certainly by suggestion, to always keep their differences in mind. These were not normal children, not like the African Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Dominicans.

These children came from homes with multiple wives, from civil war, from a culture so wholly different from our “normal” students that they became caricatures. It was the new West meets East. It was the new Orientalist craze for us, these upper middle-class well-meaning liberals to come into this impoverished neighborhood as explorers.

On the one hand, these were students, so we needed to administer standardized tests when we had no real method for addressing the myriad languages and cultural references that we normally lumped under “African.” On the other hand, this is a damaged child whose village was burned, and who does not have a community to fall back on. In the midst of all this, sitting overlooked, is the child him or herself. He is the immigrant, the ESL student, the refugee, the outcast, but he is still Kamara, Moussa, or Ibrahim who likes chicken nuggets and WWE wrestling. In this big bad world, he is impossible yet easy to forget.

Parsons challenge 3: “Dream Girl”/ “Kani Believes in Make-Believe”

Ink, acrylic, paper on wood; 6 x 12 in.

Every kindergarten classroom has something like this: a board with the simple image of a place, like a park, or a kitchen. Part of childhood is taking cutout figures and stickers of dogs and balls and placing them on these settings. It is educational role-playing for the children to be able to insert themselves into these scenes, and its therapeutic optimism for the supervising adults to imagine each child’s future full of good things like puppies and beach vacations.

It is likewise therapeutic optimism to picture the smart, good-natured, immigrant inner-city student.  She is above the racial slurs and crippling poverty. She will be the one to make it out of this place. For the moment, she is accessible. I can pick her up in my mind, dress her in the bright colors she loves, and open her eyes to the world through books and learning.

She is likewise accessible for the young students. She’s the good example, the girl who earns the stickers and has first pick out of the prize box. If you sit quietly, read your books, and raise your hand, you can be her too.

For the moment, we can ignore the food stamps and free school lunches, or that she came to school with her pants tied up with a rope. She’s a good student, she’s a nice kid, and she’s our fantasy girl. Despite the hardships outside, and inside, these four brick walls, in here, a child’s fantasy is also the teacher’s fantasy.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    06/30/2011 9:00 am

    WOW.. YOU ARE AWESOME!!! CONGRATS YOU DESERVE IT!!! I am applying for Parsons, and running a bit low on time. I keep changing my mind. I think I need to go a little more than surface.

    • Sharon permalink*
      08/08/2011 8:40 pm

      Well good luck! Just looking around online, there is a ton of variety on how people interpreted the Challenge directions, which is good, but also frustrating if you’re like me and like to have concrete directions for stuff like this. I say go for it with gusto. The worse they can say is no, and even so, you grow a lot as an artist just going through the process of completing the Parsons Challenge and putting a portfolio together.

  2. Curious permalink
    09/02/2011 4:42 am

    Heyy! thats gr8! I am applying to parsons this spring…but currently i am jst really really apprehensive about this entire thing of making it to parsons…i was just editting my parsons challenge when i came across your work…and it is really good!

    • Sharon permalink*
      11/17/2011 10:46 pm

      Thank you! Good luck to you!

  3. jenn permalink
    11/17/2011 9:54 pm

    so you can take a peice of work from anything in the media?

    • Sharon permalink*
      11/17/2011 10:48 pm

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by taking things from the media, but you can use any material you like for the challenge and interpret the assignment anyway you like. I know Parsons students who used photography and digital art, and students who literally drew 3 angles of one object.

  4. Damien permalink
    02/08/2012 10:31 am

    Im in need of help I have a idead maybe you can email me, dont wanna put it on here, congrats by the way you work is great.

    • Sharon permalink*
      02/11/2012 4:02 pm

      Hi Damien,

      I’m happy to help if I can, but it’s my personal practice to not use private email for correspondence with people I do not know. Hope you understand.

  5. Kolei permalink
    06/25/2012 9:08 pm

    OMG THANKYOU!!!!! this helps so much, im applying next fall as well. Would you mind posting an example of your portfolio pictures too? BTW, you’re an awesome artist (:

    • Sharon permalink*
      06/26/2012 4:39 pm

      Any previous posts that have an image watermarked with my name are pieces that ended up in my Parsons portfolio. The RISD application pieces were made around the same time, but didn’t make it to Parsons in time– but that’s where I was at around that time.

      Good luck on your application!

  6. Angelite permalink
    08/01/2012 11:48 am

    As you mentioned, I’m now also having difficulty finding examples past attempts at ‘The Parsons Challenge’. I’m currently working on my portfolio, and you’re post has been immensely helpful. Thank-you! 😀

    • Sharon permalink*
      08/01/2012 3:04 pm

      Happy to help, and good luck!

  7. 10/11/2012 12:14 pm

    I have no idea how to start writing about each piece so i just describe it ??

    • Sharon permalink*
      10/11/2012 5:40 pm

      Well you CAN literally describe what you drew if that’s important. You can also give reason for the choices you made or include more description of the object or circumstances surrounding the image. For example, it’s pretty clear for my Challenge that I didn’t just describe it or explain it like “I did X because of Y.” It’s up to you what you think is important to draw attention to, like the underlying message, or the method of creation, or the process, or whatever. Think about why your Challenge topic is important to you, and that should lead to a direction for your writing.

  8. 06/12/2013 1:48 pm

    How did you come up with these things and what gave you the inspiration to choose the topics to write about ?

    • Sharon permalink*
      06/12/2013 6:04 pm

      As I mentioned briefly in the post, these images and essays are in response to real-life experiences I had. It was something I felt strongly about, probably the only thing I had strong feelings about at the time, so choosing the topic was easy. Actually coming up with images required research for inspiration (images online, articles, revisiting memories and personal reflections, etc), sketching ideas out, and playing around with different mediums.

      It’s entirely possible that you will make several half-finished versions of pieces before something clicks that will become a portfolio piece. What I learned during the portfolio process, and now several years later in design school, is to embrace the process of generating a lot of ideas, making drafts, and not being afraid to do a lot of unfinished shitty things that will teach yourself how to make something awesome.

  9. warda permalink
    12/17/2013 7:05 pm

    okay so i have a question we have to submit this challenge plus that collage about which women u r designing for right so two projects.

    • Sharon permalink*
      12/25/2013 8:18 pm

      Hi Warda,

      Sorry I don’t know the answer to that. Parsons changes up its curriculum ( and likely its admission requirements) every few years. It sounds like two projects from how you describe it, but it wouldn’t hurt to call the admissions office after the holiday to make sure. Definitely call, don’t email, because the turnaround time for emails can take a few days.

  10. Anonymous permalink
    03/30/2014 5:32 pm

    This was so incredibly helpful!! Thanks so much (:

  11. 02/01/2015 5:45 am

    I was worried that I had to write 3000 character essay, but I am glad that is not the case. lol This was very interesting to read, thanks for sharing!

    • Sharon permalink*
      02/03/2015 1:57 pm

      Hi Alex,

      Parsons occasionally changes its admission requirements, so if there is a disparity between what you see here (which is several years old) and the current instructions, go by what it currently says. If you have questions, call (don’t email) the admissions office for clarification.

      Good luck!

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