Guest Post: Studying Art – An Education In Critical Thinking

By Ellen Fraser

Elon fountain

Elon University

Like many students, when I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to choose as my major. All I knew was that I liked reading, writing, and history better than I liked science and math. A liberal arts college seemed like the best fit for me—a place where I could dip my toes into a lot of different disciplines. The first semester of my freshman year, I took an art history class. I decided this would be a good idea because I had always enjoyed history in high school. My favorite part of the subject had always been learning about the ways in which historical happenings influenced aspects of the culture in the place where these happenings, well, happened. Art—its genres, styles, and techniques—was included in this.

Often times, art history has this stereotype of being a class where students sit in a dark room, trying to prevent their eyes from glazing over as they stare at endless slides of ancient artworks that they are expected to memorize for a test at the end of the semester. Well, I went to college at a little school in North Carolina called Elon University, and at this school, I quickly learned that art history did not simply involve a dark room illuminated only by image slides.

logoThe art history program at Elon illuminated my mind. My classes and professors exposed me to art and artists from a variety of geographic locations and time periods. However, and more importantly, they aided in my learning of critical issues that occupy the minds of some of the greatest creators of all time, as well as the fact that works of art can be seen in a variety of ways, and that no way is more correct than another. Also, as a friend to many practitioners of studio art, I was always impressed with the way these students could articulate their concepts when showing their work at campus events. Not only were they talented creators, but they also knew how to talk about their creations.

I never was and (even after having finished my Bachelor’s degree in the subject) am still no artist. And by this I mean only not an artist in a literal sense of the word. Studying art in college taught me how to think critically, to see different perspectives, and to use my thoughts to be a better asker of questions and artist of the written word. These are all important skills to have as students leave college to work on being more aware participants in life. A degree in art, especially from a liberal arts university, can help to sharpen these tools.

Ellen graduated from Elon in the spring of 2014 and is now happily employed by a non-profit arts organization.

 

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Good News For Fine Arts Majors

Boston College

Boston College

OK, here’s the truth: moms and dads worry about their children studying fine arts in college. It’s true. Questions surrounding what type of jobs they’ll obtain after graduation intertwine with concerns about future incomes and lifestyles.

But good news is here.

The Wall Street Journal recently touted opportunities for fine artists in “A Fine-Arts Degree May Be a Better Choice Than You Think.” Specifically, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce studied the satisfaction felt by fine arts graduates, noting that they’re not necessarily starving anymore, and are actually quite content with their chosen career paths.

The article goes on to mention the job opportunities available to fine artists, stating “almost 83% worked the majority of their time in some arts occupation, such as art teaching or in a nonprofit arts organization.” I believe the list of opportunities is even broader. The skills acquired while studying art – in time management, communication, collaboration, and problem solving – result in marketable combinations that large and small businesses clamor for, especially when combined with creativity.

Whether your journey after graduation is one of a working artist or along a different path, the skills you’ll gain majoring in fine arts will remain useful and valuable throughout your life.

Good news and a sigh of relief for mom and dad.

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What Makes A College Unique?

Class critiques

Class critiques

One of my main objectives with Art.College.Life. is to try to identify the nuances that differentiate one college art program from another. It’s not always easy. Variables such as size, location and specialty are the obvious standouts, but delving deeper and learning more about each program brings out the true distinctions.

The Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning Department (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati (UC) has found its place. The department participates in the university’s cooperative program (Co-op) offering students a real glimpse into potential careers while they’re still students. In existence since 1906, Co-op has become a mandatory part of the design curriculum. Beginning sophomore year DAAP’s fashion design, graphic design, industrial design, and interior design students alternate between semesters spent attending classes and working full-time in a professional area of interest. Integrating the two gives students the opportunity to apply classroom lessons to real-world situations, and bring on-the-job issues and concerns back into the classroom for further analysis and discussion.

Workplace assignments take place throughout the U.S. and across the globe. The list of companies and organizations in which DAAP students have engaged is impressive, including Abercrombie and Fitch, Fisher-Price, the Smithsonian Institute, and Warner Brothers Pictures. And, the benefits are fantastic; theory and practice live side by side as students gain first-hand experience, develop broad networks, and gain confidence in their chosen fields. The added time spent away from school means students take five years to complete their degrees, including summers. If cost is a concern, consider that Co-op students earn a salary during their working semesters.

Classrooms

Classrooms

Fine Arts and Art History majors aren’t left behind. Students here don’t have a cooperative requirement; however they are highly encouraged to intern or study abroad.

So how does DAAP fit into the big University of Cincinnati picture? UC is a public, land-grant research university located on 473 acres in Cincinnati, just north of the Ohio River. Its 42,000+ students divide themselvesinto more than 300 programs across campus. DAAP provides an intimate, liberal arts education inside the larger university context. Roughly 2,000 students study 10 undergraduate majors in four aptly named schools; Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning. The Design school engages about half the department with majors in Fashion Design, Graphic Communication Design, and Industrial Design. Art is comprised of Fine Arts and Art History; Architecture includes its namesake and Interior Design. Design majors graduate with a Bachelor of Science. Fine Arts graduates receive a BFA after four years; Art History majors receive a B.A.

UC_logoAccolades for the university are numerous. “Among the top tier of the Best National Universities,” claimed U.S. News and World Report in September, 2012. And Travel & Leisure magazine listed it as “one of the world’s most beautiful campuses” in 2011. Hitting even closer to home, the 2013 Design Intelligence survey ranked DAAP’s Industrial Design best in the nation, and Interior Design second best.

The news gets better once you’re actually on campus. According to Amberly Maryo, Senior Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, 93.3% of DAAP students entering as freshmen in 2012 returned to the university in 2013. That’s the highest retention rate on campus. Clearly they’re doing something right!

As a parent of two college students myself, I understand the anxiety that accompanies the transition from college to the “real world.” Any help bridging that looming gap will be readily appreciated and welcomed with open arms.

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Art School Alumni Speak Out

cameraSami Harthoorn and Ari Gabel traveled different roads to arrive at Ringling College of Art & Design. A native of Sarasota, Florida, Sami almost stumbled out her backdoor to get there. Ringling was a good school, and she could save money by living at home.

Ari grew up a short distance from another strong art school, the Columbus College of Art & Design. He developed a love for photography as a sophomore in high school, and considered attending CCAD, but really wanted that “away from home” experience. He was contemplating a state school, but with guidance from an attentive high school art teacher and the support of his parents, he landed at Ringling.

Ari and Sami graduated in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each with a BFA in Photography. Both now reside in Columbus, Ohio. They agreed to sit down and talk with me recently, to share college experiences and recommendations for future art students. The result was a diverse list of suggestions for those wanting to major in the fine arts. Derived from the good, the bad, and the ugly, here is what I heard – with some of my own suggestions piled on top of theirs.

Before you go…

          Research individual programs within a school, not just the school itself. Why? Sometimes the money and resources are focused in a program other than the one you find the most interesting. (Art.College.Life.) How? Start with the admissions office; they’ll have the most up-to-date information about each department, and can put you in contact with current students or recent grads.

          If a big school experience is what you crave, think twice before you sign up to attend a small art school. (ACL) A liberal arts college or university will offer a broader range of coursework to complement your art studies, but you won’t get as focused of an art education. That’s the tradeoff.

          Paying back loans after graduation can feel daunting and overwhelming. Make sure you’re truly aware of how much your education will cost you, and how much you’ll be borrowing before you sign that acceptance letter.

During your time on campus…

          Choose to live on campus! Living elsewhere might be more economical, but you’ll meet more people and feel more connected to the school when you’re there 24/7.

          Experiment! Try new things. You can’t make a mistake.

          HAVE PATIENCE. (ACL) Learning your art/craft takes time and lots of practice.

          “Major in a something that will make you money; minor in something you’re passionate about.” Meaning: it’s not easy getting a job as a fine artist.

          Start networking as soon as you land on campus. Easier said than done, especially since most students won’t have an artistic style developed yet and a related direction, but it’s still a worthwhile goal. Make contacts and try to build relationships with people of all ages and stages of their careers; students, faculty, community members. (ACL) It’ll pay off in the long run.

          “Learn something you can’t teach yourself.”

          Take art history seriously. (ACL) Learning about artists who came before you is eye-opening and inspirational.

          Find your niche. (ACL) Again, easier said than done, but start by doing what you love and applying your unique perspective to it. Your niche will follow.

          Pursue an internship. (ACL) And then apply yourself. You’ll be surprised what you learn about the world, and yourself.

So what’s it like After graduation…?

Shifting to life after college is an adventure all its own. Both Ari and Sami spoke about further developing their networks, and missing the fact that they used to live among other artists and “talk art” at all hours of the day. And of course they miss having access to the great equipment and tools available to them at Ringling. But both seemed ready to actively jump into their art. Sami’s direction has shifted a bit since graduation. She’s sculpting in wood these days, and is interested in store front and set design. She’s also contemplating an MFA. Her recent submission to an open call for artists landed her a spot in Surthrive in the Heartland at The Ohio State University Urban Arts Space. The exhibit runs through September 21st.

Ari hopes to continue his focus on photography. His interests lie in historical anthropology. Check out his website and flickr pages. You’ll see his passion, loud and clear. He is currently looking to assist well established photographers to further his own craft, and continue to build his network and portfolio. He gave me one other recommendation to pass along to burgeoning fine arts photographers. Join the American Society of Media Photographers. Membership for students and those just one year out is just $45/year. Put up a profile and you’ll find consistent job leads.

Sami and Ari clearly enjoyed their time at Ringling, and they both seem interested in the independence that a career in the fine arts can bring. They love their art, and craft, and they are beginning to grasp the business side of working in creative fields – something that Ringling knows how to teach.

To AP or not to AP?

That is the question for many high school art students.

AP Studio Art and AP Art History are available on many high school campuses.  So, should you sign up for them?  The short answer is: yes!  But let’s get to why.  For those serious about attending an art and design program, Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college level classes – backed by the College Board  – which you can take while still in high school.  At the end of the year students are required to submit a portfolio to the AP review board (Studio Art) or take an AP exam (Art History).

Moored, by CCAD alum Bev Darwin; http://bevdarwinstudios.blogspot.com/

Moored, by CCAD alum Bev Darwin; http://bevdarwinstudios.blogspot.com/

AP Studio Art students create a high quality, college-level portfolio which can then be used as part of a college application.  This challenging and rigorous course is available in three formats; drawing, two-dimension (2-D) and three-dimension (3-D).  It offers advanced art students the opportunity to focus on one medium or area during an entire school year.  Each completed portfolio is required to address three sections; quality, concentration and breadth.  The AP review board is looking for proficiency, an area of focus and exploration, and the extent of your understanding of artistic principles like composition, contrast and balance.  Drawing and 2-D design portfolios require actual artwork submitted as part of the AP exam; the 3-D format only accepts digital images of created work.

AP Art History leads to an understanding of the purpose art plays in society, an appreciation for the process of creating and displaying art, and the ability to analyze it.  The path you’ll take to understanding includes study of an enormous range of art and artifacts.  You’ll analyze early Pre-Columbian, Greek and Roman Art, learn to discern the differences between Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque Art, study cultural and religious influences of Asian and Indian art, and observe the changing art styles and subject matter of the 20th – 21st centuries.  Course resources include Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Janson’s History of Art, Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art, and many more.  (Believe it or not I still have my copies Janson and Gardner.)  You’ll finish the course with a broad understanding of art throughout the ages.  It will truly open your eyes!

Taking both courses clearly shows that you’re ready to learn at an advanced level.  It confirms your commitment to art and your willingness to push yourself by taking some of the most challenging high school courses available.  Additional benefits include the possibility of skipping equivalent-level college classes, substituting foundations or electives, or even graduating early.  The latter might make mom and dad happiest since graduating early means less money spent on college.

AP courses require planning.  With the goal of creating a stellar portfolio you’ll want to enroll in as many studio classes as possible before you sign up for AP Studio Art.  Your high school should have plenty, but don’t overlook other opportunities.  Portfolio submissions may include work done over a year or longer, in or outside of class. Translation: take local community art courses as well as those available during the summer at a local art school; your work can count towards your portfolio.

A potential downside to consider is that many colleges don’t accept AP credits.  So, while you’re planning ahead, do some research into who accepts them and who doesn’t.  That way you won’t get your heart broken after you’ve fallen in love with a school.

Lastly, if your high school doesn’t offer AP courses, don’t worry.  Online opportunities exist.  Start your research on the College Board site.  Your high school art teachers should be great resources as well.

I won’t be putting up my regular posts during the next couple of weeks due to the holiday season, but check back at the beginning of January, I’m hoping to continue this conversation and include insights from college admission counselors.