Evergreen's visual arts programs help students find a voice.
Walking into the weekly, program-wide critique session for Consciousness, Art and Matter, you quickly realize you're not in an ordinary art class. A full corner of the studio has been strung with red yarn, with hundreds of long strands hanging from the ceiling holding hollowed-out eggs. Paintings—abstract, colorful, realistic—spread across the walls. And a table holds a group of nine small wooden blocks that form different designs depending on which way you turn them.
Faculty members Susan Aurand and Don Middendorf know that students come to Evergreen because they know they can try ideas here. In the visual arts, this freedom to cross boundaries means students are working to push the limits of traditional art forms.
Most people equate "good art" with drawing or representing something realistically. But it's more important to learn how the human brain sees the world. "The techniques for creating art are very teachable," says Aurand, an Evergreen visual arts faculty member for more than 35 years. "There is a set of skills for re-creating the illusion of 3-D in a 2-D space. What is hard to teach is what to do with it—the idea to get across. What do you have to say?"
For students, much of their art is about figuring out their lives—a means to look at every other aspect of the world. For visual learners, it’s an illustrated depiction of concepts including religion, science, math and the economy. Art helps them develop better conceptual understanding across the board.
"It's important to make those connections so you can orient yourself better in the world," explains Chris Slaymaker, a senior who transferred to Evergreen after two years in a traditional visual arts program. "Working in seminar adds so many dimensions to the concepts you’re learning—not just learning facts, but through the process, learning more."
The visual arts faculty at Evergreen emphasize the integration of the arts, both among different artistic media as well as with other subjects, with a focus on helping students develop the content of their work in much greater depth. "Undergraduate arts education at most schools is based on developing skills—drawing, painting, etcetera," Aurand explains. "At Evergreen, we ask them why they're doing what they're doing, what they want to say, how it fits into the world. Right away, they have to think about and take responsibility for content. Their connection to their work is at a higher level – and through multiple presentations and critique sessions, they learn to speak articulately about it."
For those pursuing careers in art, those presentation skills are critical. "Evergreen graduates are very good entrepreneurs because they can present their art well and articulate their ideas," says Aurand. "They can create jobs for themselves, or go into the art world and get their work shown."
Careers in art are diverse and numerous, including art commissions, gallery work, art direction for companies, teaching at all levels, plus publicity, graphic design and illustration, and retail displays. A number of Evergreen students have gone into video game and digital design. Slaymaker is applying to graduate schools for painting, and would like to teach art at the college level, preferably at an interdisciplinary college.
At the same time, learning art is not only about training some-one to be an artist. It’s about broadening people so they can appreciate aesthetics and what's around them. "Teaching visual literacy is a big part of the visual arts at Evergreen," Aurand explains. "How do you read TV, ads, magazines, politics, other propaganda? We live in a sea of images that resonate below the surface in your subconscious. Visual literacy helps make us more awake and aware consumers, and be less easily swayed by visual stimulation."
Learning visual arts trains a person to see, which transfers to other areas of life. "What blew me away at Evergreen was how engaged the students are—how excited people are about what's going on in class," says Slaymaker. "The interdisciplinary focus and freedom to design your own course based on your interests —then you can have a corresponding career. There's a lot of responsibility there."
Robin Seaberg, a senior in Aurand and Middendorf's program, understands that responsibility to make her own path. Seaberg started college as a chemistry major, and transferred to Evergreen when she realized she was interested in a wide range of subjects. She has been doing art her whole life, but stopped in her senior year of high school when family and social pressures to do something "practical" led her to focus on chemistry. "Art forces me to be really real with myself, and connects me to my emotional sides," Seaberg explains. "It took me more than five years to say I’m going to do what I love and what I’m interested in. I just want to keep doing art."
Her first quarter she studied sustainable design, and this is her first year taking college-level art. "I found out I have a lot to say," she says. "In this program, we’re
Evergreen has always had a high number of students come to study the arts. According to the college’s most recent new student survey, more than 20 percent of incoming students plan to focus on art as part of their liberal arts education, with 10 percent planning to focus mainly on art. To meet this demand, the faculty works to connect art theory and practice, as well as providing physical spaces that allow work to happen.
"In the first 10 years, we had no dedicated spaces for art, so we were teaching in the science labs," Aurand laughs. She helped design actual art spaces for visual work, and found that the quality of work improved dramatically. Today, students have dedicated studio space, which is very unusual in undergraduate programs. It allows them to develop a deeper experience of how to work without having to clean up everything when class is over. "Facilities allow students to see possibilities," Aurand says. "Their work can develop much faster, and they learn how to do art without a teacher constantly telling them what to do."
Current art is very eclectic—"It's post post-modernism," Aurand explains. Many young artists are questioning the very nature of art, and a growing number are concerned with the environment and sustainability, globalization and international politics. And they're using every kind of media to show that, from stylized ancient Egyptian painting techniques to corrugated cardboard.
The skills and techniques are very teachable, as is the creativity. "Talent comes from good ideas and the energy and persistence to follow through," Aurand explains. "Most of what we call talent is perseverance and passion. Everyone has it. You just need to give yourself permission and learn to trust yourself."
Through painting, Seaberg continues to discover how visual perception is a key way to process the world. "Understanding chemistry has changed my view of the world," she says. "It helps to have the mentality of a scientist—it affects how I approach art. It's more like a discovery process—I can be objective and let it be." Studying psychology also affects how she approaches art, for self-discovery and understanding. "Through making something and looking at it, I can understand what’s going on with me."
For Slaymaker, studying art opens his mind to new possibilities. "Art is definitely a sacred act—a spiritual practice for me," he says. "When painting, it's like communing with the unknown— it's looking into the void of pure potential and seeing what arises out of that. That’s what's exciting—I never know what's going to happen."