Excursions and other journeys for PAFA artists

Nasir Young and other PAFA graduates at Philly’s Gross McCleaf Gallery open up about the end of PAFA’s degree programs

6 minute read
Oil painting showing Young, in black jacket & red hoodie, looking at himself in a Chinese takeout place’s security mirror

Nasir Young’s paintings of everyday scenes contain stories hidden in plain sight, and the works in his first solo exhibition, Nasir Young: Excursions, at Gross McCleaf Gallery (GMG) through March 2, 2024, catch our gaze and hold it. Young is a recent BFA graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and especially in the wake of big news about PAFA discontinuing its degree programs, it was the perfect time to visit this emerging Philly artist.

Young zeroes in on the settings where people cross paths but often leaves the people out of the frame. His subjects are cluttered bodegas and gas stations, ATMs, and street corners mostly in Philadelphia. Young’s well-placed, bold brush strokes bring Edward Hopper’s work to mind, particularly in nocturnes like After Hours, an empty, floodlit parking lot, and a restaurant in Late Night. Most of the paintings in Excursions are daytime scenes, however, and Young’s unusual perspectives lift the mood but retain the mystery. “Scenes are important,” says Young. “People’s actions get the attention, like in a movie, but if you remove the actors, you see that the scene sets the tone. It’s telling a story.”

Reflections and interruptions

People are occasionally seen in reflections or through windows and windshields. As a child, Young savored the passing scene through his parents’ car windows. Later, he became an avid skateboarder, paying close attention to the streets. Four of Young’s sketchbooks are in the exhibition; they give a sense of the deep observation that informs his paintings. Often five or six sketches share a page, and Young plays with stitching images together, collage-like, in his work.

Young frames and interrupts his paintings with obstructions like chain-link fences and window blinds. Themes of money, access, food, and necessity are lightened by pleasing, intriguing compositions. Young likes to paint white-paneled trucks blooming with graffiti, like Unmarked Van #2 in the exhibition at GMG. “There’s almost a call and response to the mark-making on these trucks,” he says. “There are assumptions people make about graffiti. Maybe the truck’s owner likes the graffiti? It’s interesting, the choices people make about where to be offended. Which is more harmful to a neighborhood, graffiti or an abandoned building?”

Young, a Black man with glasses & bleached short hair, stands in the white-walled gallery with his sketchbooks.
Nasir Young's solo show, ‘Excursions,’ is up at Gross McCleaf Gallery through Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Photo by Emily B. Schilling.)

After receiving an associate’s degree from Montgomery County Community College, Young earned his BFA from PAFA in 2021. A residency at the Delaware Contemporary led to a scholarship at the University of Delaware, where he’ll start an MFA this fall. Young’s work was first shown at GMG in May 2022, when gallery owner and director Rebecca Segall juried PAFA’s alumni annual fellowship exhibition. Since then, Young has appeared in group shows at GMG and other galleries, including a 2022 residency at Da Vinci Art Alliance, and GMG now represents him. He was recently awarded an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant, which may allow him to reduce his “survival-job” hours. Except for during the pandemic, Young always worked while attending school: in food service, as a truck driver, and in guest and protection services at the Barnes Foundation.

The end of an era at PAFA

PAFA announced on January 10, 2024—just after the spring semester’s tuition deadline—that it’s giving up accreditation for BFA and MFA degrees and will lay off 15 percent of its teachers and staff. PAFA opened its MFA program in 1991, the BFA in 2008, and was accredited in 2013. An option to receive a dual BFA from PAFA and the University of Pennsylvania has been in place since 1929: students take 16 courses at UPenn, paying about $4,000 per course (before financial aid or scholarships). If successful, they earn a bachelor’s degree from UPenn for roughly $65,000 instead of about $300,000. PAFA’s full-price tuition is $172,000 for four years of study.

“Our certificate programs, commitment to K-12 arts programs, and continuing education will remain in place,” stated PAFA president and CEO Eric Pryor in his January 10 announcement. Abandoning the degree accreditation will not affect the museum or its collection. The school’s certificate programs (traditional training in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture) will continue.

PAFA’s last degrees will be awarded in spring 2025; about 40 first- and second-year students will have to transfer. PAFA’s announcement caused an outpouring of anger and sadness on social media. Segall, Young, and fellow GMG artist Morgan Hobbs all attended PAFA, and Hobbs worked there for five years. She earned her MFA in 2015, choosing PAFA for its hands-on approach: “I had heard horror stories of young painters being told to put down their brushes in grad school, a trap for many MFA programs. The theory should never supersede the form."

Oil painting of a closed, graffitied storefront with crates out front & a red awning that says DIY Tools & Paints.
Nasir Young traveled to London on a Raymond D. & Estelle Rubens Travel Scholarship from PAFA and spent March 2023 there finding universal scenes like ‘Faces of London #2’ that could be in any English-speaking city. (Photo by the artist, courtesy Gross McCleaf Gallery.)

“I was thrilled to take a job at PAFA after graduation,” Hobbs continues. “I worked as the resident director and student life coordinator for three years and then became director of student services. There seemed to be great potential … [but] significant operational dysfunction. I love PAFA and wanted desperately to see things get better. The school was hiring promising new faculty and staff, but the support structures were weak. It felt like we were doing everything for the first time, all the time, sometimes in the middle of serious circumstances.

“This situation is very sad. I wonder if the board of directors with president structure makes sense for small schools and arts nonprofits. Who came up with this? Rich board members and a president who tries to please them end up planning expensive galas [and] big new construction when all we need is to create a safe space for learning and making. We keep turning our museums into failing businesses instead of the community services they should be. These kinds of problems are happening across the country, and I just wish that PAFA could have done things differently.”

Segall returned to art school in her late 30s, choosing the full-time certificate program. “I was fortunate to receive what I consider to be the best fine arts education in the country,” she says. “I treasure every bit of time I spent at PAFA. ... I believe that PAFA’s return to [the certificate] focus will allow the school to thrive.”

Alumni and faculty have expressed skepticism on social media about the future of PAFA. Hobbs agrees: “I am not totally confident that the certificate program with the UPenn BFA will remain available after all these changes.” In spite of the school’s problems, the camaraderie among PAFA alumni is strong. As Young says, “In the end, it’s all about the students and faculty.”

The time he never had

Young made the leap from illustration to painting when his survival jobs disappeared during the pandemic shutdown. With “all of the time I never had,” he concentrated on art-making and experimented with new materials. In a way, the shutdown allowed him to escape “the boxes I put himself in: imposter syndrome, coming from the illustration side.” As his work evolves, Young is cautiously revealing more of himself. The works at GMG include a few self-portraits, and in How Long’s the Wait, he returns the viewer’s gaze.

At top: A rare self-portrait by Nasir Young: How Long’s the Wait. (Photo by the artist, courtesy Gross McCleaf Gallery.)

What, When, Where

Nasir Young: Excursions. Through March 2, 2024, at Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 South 16th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 665-8138 or grossmccleaf.com.


Gross McCleaf is on the second floor of an older building. It is not wheelchair accessible. Contact [email protected] with questions.

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