Transitioning from the safe, comfortable classroom setting to a job in the real world is tough for all students, but especially for artists who plan to market their work professionally. They not only have to invent original, relevant ideas for independent projects, but they also have to learn how to successfully curate their work.
The visual and dramatic arts senior studio is a class that attempts to give majors the opportunity to build skills necessary for success in the art world. Over the course of a year, students develop an idea for an independent project, gather materials, build their work and eventually decide how to present their final projects to the public.
On Thursday, April 23, 13 students from the VADA department will debut their final pieces in Sewall Hall. The display will represent a year of toil to create something that pleases professors, peers and art critics alike — something that is not only true to the students’ personal interests, but potentially marketable to the art world at large.
Staging the Show
The process begins with a simple idea or interest. John Sparagana, chairman of VADA and professor of this year’s senior design class for visual arts majors, said forming a valuable idea can take as much, if not more time, than creating the project itself.
“One person may have a tremendous amount of material output, and some person may have far less, but the person who has far less got on to something very meaningful,” he said. “To my mind, that’s a real measure of this class: that each student have an experience generating their own interests and investigations.”
Although the professors are available to provide feedback to students, they try to take a hands-off approach to teaching the class. Tish Stringer, lecturer, film program manager and professor of this year’s senior studio for VADA film students, said her role is more a function of creating space for her students than it is supervising them.
“Basically you’re facilitating their development of a project, which is just creating time for them to develop a concept,” Stringer said. “You love to think of yourself as a mentor, but basically I’m just making space for them to explore.”
Aside from encouraging students to explore their own interests, senior studio is also designed to help students get a glimpse of the professional art world.
“What I’m most excited about is the aspect of professional development for them,” Stringer said. “I require them to submit works to festivals, and I require them to make a website. Basic things like having a portfolio and knowing how to submit an art proposal are really important skills.”
For Sparagana, the most rewarding part of the process as a professor is witnessing the transformation of students and their work throughout the course of the year.
“One of the things that is always exciting is when I realize that everybody has actually crossed that threshold of generating their own independent work,” Sparagana said. “I’m always doubting it throughout the year … and I start to have a crisis of faith, but every year that I’ve taught this class there’s a turnover point where I realize that they have crossed that threshold and it was a transformative experience.”
A Diverse Range of Work
Such freedom produces a wide range of projects. For one film student, Amiri Boykin, this freedom means going beyond the traditional short film medium to create a film installation. For his senior studio project, Boykin, a Jones College senior, has decided to showcase a mash-up of the classic kid’s show, Arthur, and the adult cartoon, Arthur.
Boykin is interested in the threads that carry on from childhood into adulthood.
“Ultimately, I think that most adults are either hardened children — they’ve never really let go of the things they’ve wanted most as a child, or they’re adults who’ve never had a childhood, so their outlook on life has always been bleak,” Boykin said.
Although students have a nearly limitless field to explore, such freedom comes at the cost of comfortable structure. Julia Klineberg, a visual arts student whose project will feature large-scale portraits, said working without a schedule can be more difficult than it seems.
“One of the difficulties I’ve had this year is planning ahead for change,” Klineberg, a McMurtry College senior, said. “The hardest part is molding your original idea and risking that change in order to possibly produce something better.”
Pursuing one project for a year also requires a great deal of confidence in an idea. For Lydia Smith, a visual arts student whose final project will feature Tyvek, a housing wrap material, the process can initiate self-doubt.
“When you’re thrown into a year of independent study, there’s a lot of self-doubt that happens,” Smith, a Duncan College senior, said. “The field is so open, and there’s all these limitless possibilities, but at the same time, narrowing down and figuring out what you want to do for a full year is extremely challenging and scary too.”
After students settle on an idea, they must also learn to incorporate feedback from peers, professors and visiting artists into their work without sacrificing its integrity.
“There’s a healthy balance of critique,” Smith said. “When you’re working on art, what you’re basically doing is having a conversation with whatever you’re making. Learning how to take in criticism but also understanding how to still be true to yourself is a skill that people have really developed over the past year.”
Between Art and Science
Thursday’s event will feature more than just senior design projects. Alongside the VADA majors, earth science major McKenna Mitchell will debut her photographs, taken on a summer solo trip to Iceland, in the Matchbox Gallery.
Inspired by a photography earth science class, “Visualizing Nature,” Mitchell applied for and was awarded the Parish Fellowship for summer travel to take pictures of natural geologic formations in Iceland. After nearly a year and a half of mulling over the photos, Mitchell, a McMurtry College senior, is now putting them on display for the first time.
Mitchell believes that artists and scientists are pulled toward the same subject matter, although they approach it in different ways.
“I really believe that artists and scientists are drawn to describe and produce work because of the same interests,” Mitchell said. “So for a really beautiful glacier, scientists would want to know what’s going on geologically, and an artist would just paint it, but it’s the same subject.”
Mitchell also sees similarities in the methodology between artists and scientists.
“I also think that the process of fieldwork is very similar,” Mitchell said. “You have to be really well-planned, to have all of your equipment ready to go, sometimes you’re really alone, you have to research a lot and really engage with the subject.”
The senior student work, the Matchbox Gallery opening and the annual undergraduate student film showcase will all debut Thursday evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The festivities will begin at the Rice Media Center and progress to Sewall Courtyard, where there will be drinks, a food truck and a disc jockey. For specific details and times see events.rice.edu.