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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Sculpting an education: the art studio major at UC Davis

When asked what they visualize upon hearing the words “art studio major,” many people will reply with brushes, easels and intimate classrooms. In many ways this image is accurate. But what goes on in the art studio classroom? Is it really just a bunch of kids working hard at their specific craft, freed from the constraints of mid-term cramming and writer’s block?

Comprised of 13 faculty staff members plus nine emeriti, the art studio major strives to give students an education in visual, literary and creative thinking that can apply to all walks of life – not just art.

“Art can prepare for a variety of careers in the real world, just like other liberal arts majors,” said professor of painting Hearne Pardee. “Since creativity is particularly encouraged – the focus is not on mere learning techniques but on problem-solving – one could argue that students have been well-prepared for the uncertainties of today’s world.”

The College of Letters and Science developed UC Davis’s art studio major in the 1960s during the big boom in education of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first chairperson of the department, Richard L. Nelson, handpicked the faculty members – many of which were local bay area artists that had not yet made it in the scene. In addition, professors from the design, textiles and clothing and landscape architecture programs signed on to teach art studio.

Since then, the major has continued its legacy of exposing students to many disciplines and practices of art.

“As faculty and support staff, we certainly do what we can to create an environment where a creative regularity is fostered for students of varying speeds and intensities,” said art studio faculty Darrin Martin.

For a total of 76 units, students are required to take five lower division art studio classes, three lower division art history classes, nine upper division art studio classes and two upper division art history classes. Classes are designed so that students do not take midterms, but rather participate in mid-term critiques that entail giving and receiving feedback for finalized pieces or works in progress. The classes range from 20 to 25 people, although there is no strict enrollment cap. Advanced classes may have as little as five to six students.

Aware of its benefits and challenges, students have opted to take the art studio major to enhance their education and infuse creativity into their academic lives.

“I decided on the art studio major after one of the art teachers got my name from KDVS,” said Aaron Cooper, a sophomore design and art studio major who DJs for spoken word collective SickSpits.

“They needed a DJ for their son’s bar mitzvah, and out of the blue this same teacher asked me if I wanted to take art classes in Italy that summer. So after talking to my grandparents, I ended up going and having a fantastic time – the experience definitely helped with my decision to declare the major.”

Cooper highlighted the smallness of the classes and the receptiveness of the teachers as two elements that make the art studio classes enriching and meaningful, noting that even if you’re not currently enrolled in one of their classes, the teachers make themselves available for art students.

“They’re very responsive to their students and will accommodate for them if they know they’ve been putting in lots of effort,” Cooper said. “For instance, my teacher Robin let an art student sleep in her office after she knew the girl had been working hard at the studio all night.”

Despite the presence of cool teachers and the quality attention paid to each student, Cooper admits that there is stress that comes with the art major.

“These classes are taxing,” Cooper said. “When you run into a deadline it can be extremely stressful, as you can’t just cram like you’d do with normal classes – you have to put in an honest effort.”

Katie Scotellaro, a second year art studio and American studies major, agreed with Cooper that both the work ethic and motivation are different in the art studio major.

“You really have to self-motivate and drag yourself to the art building, even if you’re not in the mood or you’re really busy,” Scotellaro said.

Scotellaro noted that the stress experienced towards the deadline of each project is a different kind of stress than one might experience while studying for a mid-term, in that the stress comes from within rather than from extrinsic forces.

“The work is more meaningful and personalized,” Scotellaro said. “You want to do well for yourself and not necessarily the grade.”

While she admitted that it is harder to fake hard work on an art assignment, she also said that if students do fail to put time and effort into a piece, it only hurts themselves.

“Art is a major that you should be doing because you’re an artist and you love to create. So by not doing work you are not disappointing the teacher; you’re just letting yourself down as an artist.”

Art studio faculty member David Hollowell noted that this intrinsic motivation is more evident in art students, and that typical students don’t usually feel comfortable taking an extensive amount of art classes in college precisely because there is so much individual expression and internal incentive.

“Many students just feel uncomfortable with the idea of an art class because it’s a very different way of learning than your traditional, read this, regurgitate that, this is what you have to remember kind of learning,” Hollowell said. “That’s a type of learning many people have grown to feel comfortable with. Art isn’t like that – it’s much more open-ended and the expectations are less clear-cut. Students may feel uneasy not knowing exactly what they have to do to get a good grade.”

Hollowell said that the art student is not as uncomfortable with ambiguity because for them, the grades generally don’t matter as much as the process. He noted that what in part may contribute to this attitude is their knowledge that in the real world, artists don’t get graded.

“Above all, students care about learning; not about the grade, but about learning more about themselves, and less about information that can be given back to a teacher on a test form.”

Hollowell recognized how modern-day culture prescribes less importance to art than the sciences, and that in turn the art studio major might be looked at with more skepticism next to the more “practical” majors such as biology or environmental sciences. One thing he is certain of, though, is that art will always be around.

“We’ve had art before we could even speak coherent sentences, if you think back to the cavemen and their cave drawings. It’s a shame that it doesn’t get as much emphasis as it did in eras past, but in the long run, we as artists can feel proud and confident – because art’s going to be around longer than anything. It’s the nature of the human spirit.”

ELENI STEPHANIDES can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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