Stereotypes abound when it comes to art-school students. Art school is where creative people go to become pretentious. Art students wear black and hang around looking bored and depressed. And then there's the notion that art students don't have to do any real work. Painting and drawing are certainly not as tough as earning an engineering degree, right?
On May 2 at the Free Press News Café, University of Manitoba School of Art students Shaylyn Plett and John Patterson, as well as instructors Ufuk Gueray and Erica Mendritzki, will participate in a panel discussion about the rigours of art school. They will discuss famous artists' student work and will talk about issues surrounding fine arts education. Patrons will also be invited to take a guided tour of Exchange District spaces that feature strong, motivated student art.
Though the panelists differ in their approaches to education, all agree that the years spent in art school can be demanding. It is where they learn an artist's life requires vast amounts of sacrifice and self-belief, and that chances of success are slim.
It is also where students get their first taste of criticism. In what are known as group critiques, students subject their work to the scrutiny of peers and professors. Critiques can be academically challenging but can also leave students feeling strangely vulnerable, particularly if their work speaks about personal struggle.
"I am not tough on students for the sake of making them feel bad about themselves or their work, but I also don't see critiques as instances of group therapy," says Gueray, who has taught figure study and colour theory. "You have to be able to contextualize your work within a larger historic trajectory and talk well about your artistic intentions."
Though art schools sometimes come under fire for teaching too much "talk" and not enough "walk," or technical skill, Plett feels her education is balanced. She recently created an art piece using a fog machine and stage lights. The fog was meant to convey both the atmospheric haze of Romantic-era paintings and the spectacle of pop media. Plett is pleased her education has given her traditional drawing and painting skills but also appreciates the chance to experiment.
"There's a crucial language of art that shapes the way we understand and react to any given piece. Being taught how to recognize and speak that language in my own work has been one of the most important building blocks in improving through art school," says Plett.
Art school also introduces students to the world of arts councils, galleries, collectors, curators and critics. It can also be a wakeup call as to what they will have to contend with upon graduation. Rejections from critics, funding bodies and galleries are common. In fact, the emotional and psychological requirements are steep enough that only a fraction of those who graduate with a bachelor of fine arts degree go on to pursue a career in art.
Last summer, John Patterson's public artwork Flood won Nuit Blanche's student competition. For the piece, he turned a 1956 Austin Mini into a fountain, using a sump pump to flood the car with water. Though he was pleased to be recognized, intrinsic motivation is what keeps him making art.
"Even as a student I realize that the art world, even a world as compacted as the community in Winnipeg, is fickle. Curators are fickle, other artists are fickle, I'm fickle. The everyday art student must have an independent desire to make work and be satisfied outside of fiscal recognition."
Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. She will host Art Talk/Art Walk at the Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.