Artists: How to Stay Focused on College

Haverford College

It’s that golden time of year again. The ghosts, goblins, and Disney characters have all gone home. Sidewalks are blanketed with autumn leaves and daylight savings time ends this weekend. Thanksgiving and winter break will be here before you know it. Even though the calendar ahead is whispering “r & r,” families of college-bound artists need to stay focused. Yes, the approaching December break is a good time for rest and relaxation, but I’d like to add another “r” into the mix: reassessing the family college plan. Irrespective of the grade your high school creative is in, make sure he is being strategic, planning wisely, and taking action towards his artistic future.

Here are some tips to help your visual artist stay focused:

Studio space, Carnegie Mellon

Seniors
January general application deadlines are looming. Now is the time to stop procrastinating and double-check everything. Finalize essays, confirm that applications and transcripts have been received, and verify that reference letters have been submitted. If discrepancies are found, contact your guidance counselor or the college representative to clear things up. Finalize your portfolio. If you find it doesn’t say all you want it to, then create more art! There is still time. Then upload your selections to each college’s SlideRoom account. Lastly, consider squeezing in an interview. Contact your top choice programs to inquire if they offer them. Interviews show demonstrated interest and might be just the added ticket to place you into the “accept” column when decision time comes around.

Juniors
Keep creating! Winter break is a perfect time to focus on your growing portfolio. The downtime also provides opportunities to get closer to what makes you tick. Attending art fairs, local craft shows, and art exhibits can all provide inspiration. Have honest conversations with family and friends to help you hone in on what’s important to you artistically and otherwise. Is your ideal college location a large urban setting? Or would you prefer to stay close to home? What about cost? College costs are staggering. If financial aid is a necessity, then make sure you include it as part of your college family discussions. All these thoughts and considerations will help you find the right college fit. Being realistic now will help eliminate idealistic expectations and crushing disappointment down the road.

College for Creative Studies

Underclassmen
It’s not too early to begin envisioning your college future. Your best preparation is to keep drawing, creating and making. Follow wherever your art takes you. December is also a great time to see what winter is truly like on the campus of your dreams. Go exploring and get your steps in by visiting a college or two – even if most students have gone home for the break. Those still on campus will most likely be happy to answer questions about the place, the food, the professors… You get the picture. And when the weather dictates indoor time make sure to keep up with your reading. The commitment to it now will help develop your vocabulary and writing skills for those upcoming pesky standardized tests.

Juniors and underclassmen can all benefit from campus visits. Most tours and information sessions are unavailable in late December, but it doesn’t hurt to swing by a college or two if you’re nearby. Strolling across campus and checking out the local neighborhood can still influence future decisions. And, especially if winter isn’t your season, start thinking about summer art programs. Sign-ups for pre-college programs will be on college websites before you know it.

How Artists Can Find a Meaningful Summer Experience

art-splattered-resumeBuilding a resume for college can seem overwhelming. Many parents become confused with the vast expectations put upon them and their college-bound teens. What should my teen focus on? Should she prioritize grades and test scores above all else? Should he allocate extra time to his art? What about extra-curricular activities, volunteering or work?

The seemingly endless questions could make you hyperventilate with anxiety but don’t. Taken one step at a time; there is value is each of these activities but it isn’t necessary for your teen to have them all. Admissions representatives repeatedly will tell you that grades, test scores, and a portfolio top the list. Yes, they want well-rounded teens who have been exposed to a variety of experiences, but they also favor students who are focused and purposeful in their endeavors and accomplishments.

With those confusing requirements in mind consider summer as an opportunity, a great time for your teen to further explore his passion for the visual arts while building his resume. Numerous summer opportunities exist for high school artists who want to explore their creative passions and expand their skill set while working, volunteering, or attending a pre-college program. Any of those experiences will positively impact a resume.

Pre-college Summer Programs

School of Visual Arts dorm room

School of Visual Arts dorm room

I’m a big fan of pre-college summer programs. They provide a wealth of opportunities. Teens typically live on campus, giving them a true taste of college life while they experiment with artistic approaches that are different from those they’ve practiced in high school classes. Instructors, who are working artists, can become mentors. More importantly, they provide a window into the real world of creative careers.

The downside to pre-college programs is that they fill up quickly. And, they can be expensive, at roughly $2,000-$6,000 for a two-to-eight week experience. Other options are available but will vary; mostly depending on which art form your teen is interested in pursuing.

Off-campus 

Disney's Fish Hooks

Disney’s Fish Hooks

So how does your teen prepare otherwise? For many majors the recommendation is the same, “draw, draw, draw.” Diana Lafyatis, children’s comedy director and writer for Nickelodeon’s Harvey Beaks and Disney’s Fish Hooks, and animation alum of the Art Center College of Design echoes that sentiment. “In animation, there is a heavy emphasis on drawing from life.” Her recommendation? “Bring along a sketchbook with you everywhere you go and continually draw the people and places you see.” It’s an excellent way to gain confidence in a skill set. The additional benefits are that many colleges encourage submitting sketchbooks as part of the portfolio application, and they want to see drawings specifically from observation not just what’s in your head.

Jaclyn Didas, RIT grad student

Jaclyn Didas, RIT grad student

Anne Holman, jeweler, and owner of The Smithery is a former college teacher herself. She’s experienced first hand how “translating a 2D drawing into a 3D piece of jewelry can be a challenge.” She suggests tapping into the programming at a local community center or even a local organization’s workshops in jewelry, sculpture, or 3D design to get over that hurdle.

Jane Lewis is a textile designer who began her craft drawing prints by hand but then quickly moved into digital design. Her recommendation for those serious about designing anything in print is two-fold. “Focus on your design and color skills in whatever medium you love – digital, watercolor, pastel, drawing, etc.” Then, if you don’t have the skill set already, make sure to learn graphic software such as Photoshop and Illustrator. “Even a base understanding of the tools in these programs will give you a huge leg up,” she added.

STACKED CUPS - WELLIE'S [Converted]Separate from making art, students can maximize their summer experiences learning about a specific field of interest. Examples include shadowing, interning, or volunteering. Students can reach out to intern at a local advertising agency, shadow a team at a fashion magazine, or approach an art gallery or photographer about volunteer work.

In-depth learning, experience, and exploration can be found via numerous avenues. Whether on campus or not, the idea is to focus on increased knowledge and skill development. At summer’s end, your teen will have a better understanding of future college and career goals, and she’ll have added one more thing to include in her resume.

Crafting an Artist Statement

Lenivec (flickr)

The language of artists and designers is visual. Color, light, composition, texture, and dimension are the paragraphs and punctuation of our stories. Yet, working artists and college-bound creatives also need to rely on words to communicate our creative goals and vision.

That’s where an artist statement comes in. These useful tools help audiences’ access and understand the why behind our artistry. And, for many applying to college art programs, artist statements are an essential part of the application process.

So how do you create one and what should it include?

book of life, david kracov

Think It Through
Begin with some genuine self-examination. Artist statements are an introduction to your work. They explain your inspiration and your approach to making. Start by answering some tough questions:

  • What are you trying to express through your work?
  • What keeps you coming back to it day after day?
  • What influences you? (This could be anything from other artists to social issues, etc.)
  • What themes do you have running through your work?
  • What medium do you work in and why? What materials are essential to your toolbox?

Write It Down
Follow these few tips when putting pen to paper:

What to Write

  • Address why you create what you create
  • Be personal
  • Talk about your goals and what you hope to achieve through your art
  • Explain your choice of materials and your techniques
  • Share what you’re trying to communicate

monks cradle 2, tommy olaughlin and patrick dougherty

How to Write It

  • Be clear and honest
  • Write in the first person, using “I” instead of “you”
  • Be concise; 50-100 words is enough for a college statement
  • Stay away from clichés and artistic jargon
  • Don’t summarize your resume
  • Remember, this is about your work, not you

Crafting a well-written artist statement is a difficult yet very valuable exercise. Your written description will become an important link between you and your audience. And after you’ve presented it as part of your college admissions you can amend it for any future gallery or show submissions.

What’s On Campus Now

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University

There is nothing quite like the feel of walking across a college campus, especially in fall. The quintessential image of backpack-laden students strolling along paths between manicured green spaces, with leaves crunching underfoot. It has to be experienced to be believed.

Only by visiting campus can your teen obtain that first-hand understanding of the culture or “feel” of a college. Each one has its own unique vibe comprised of its students, the courses, the professors, the quad, the local town, and even the weather.

College information sessions and tours provide a wealth of information. But keep in mind that they only show off what they want you to see. To know which colleges could be “best fit” opportunities, get off the beaten path. Make time to explore the studio space, talk to some unassuming students, and take in a local exhibit or lecture. All will provide you with a better understanding of campus resources, how available and friendly students and faculty are, and what opportunities exist during and after college.

Every campus has great events and lectures taking place throughout the year. Here’s a sampling of some that caught my eye. Let me know what others you find.

Cranbrook Academy of Art
University of Michigan, Stamps School of Art & Design
University of Florida, College of the Arts
Pratt
UCLA
RISD

More College Tour Tips for Visual Artists

Boston College

Boston College

Teenage artists and designers are like everyone else this time of year. They’re anxious for spring and the accompanying warmer weather that gets everyone outside. I’d suggest guiding – and prodding if necessary – those thoughts of outdoor escape towards touring colleges. Spring break and summer are optimal times to explore as a family.

I’ve toured a lot of colleges and universities, and have found these few fundamental tips can turn touring time into very worthwhile experiences. Share them with your teen ahead of time and you’ll have some very successful touring!

Ask questions. In information sessions, while on tour, and of anyone you see. Remember that tour guides are paid cheerleaders. Listen to them, but keep in mind that random students will give you their unbiased view. Professors will have a completely different perspective. (For what it’s worth, parents are the ones asking most of the college tour questions. Getting your teen to speak up will keep them engaged and get noticed by admissions reps. File that under demonstrating interest!)

Take the tour! Getting oriented will help you and your teen visualize the layout of the land. How far is the dorm from the studio? Is the campus integrated into the surrounding city? Or does it have a defined border?

University of Washington textile studio

University of Washington textile studio

Get lost. As an avid traveller, I often find the most wonderful gems when not on a planned tour. The same rule applies to wandering around college campuses. I’d pay special attention to studio spaces; your teen will be spending the majority of her time there. Make sure to include off-campus spots too.

Document it. This is the voice of experience here. Even if you only visit one campus at a time, you will mix places up. I guarantee it! Make sure your teen records his thoughts and impressions with words and photos. You can thank me later.

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