I believe art should be a core competency for any student pursuing higher education. I’d like to see us promote the idea that studying art sharpens a student’s processes of observation, builds problem-solving skills and self-reliance, and opens up entirely new ways of seeing the world. In my opinion, studying art is at once a study of ourselves, of nature, and of what’s possible.
The process of carefully documenting an object brings an intimacy with that object that vaults us over our plain assumptions. My first still life included a major error in observation: I had painted the shadows gray because I assumed they were. After the exercise I began to learn more about color and realized that shadows appear in the complement to the color that is illuminated — so for example my yellow bananas needed purple shadows instead of the gray. Imagine going through an entire life with the assumption that all shadows were gray?
I can vouch for a new student’s trepidation in anticipation of their first group critique. To have one’s work displayed alongside the work of others and receive judgment from a variety of viewpoints is painful. We are exposed, and then forced to communicate — to describe our choices in making the composition. Surprisingly, there seems to be a strong accord among students within these critiques; criticism is delivered honestly and with a sense of support and encouragement, in recognition of the vulnerability of the situation. Discussing a composition involves the use of a common language, a language aquired by any student of art regardless of background or physical ability. Art itself is primarily a visual language that crosses all manner of communication barriers as well.
We tend to associate art with beauty. It’s worth remembering that beauty has a biological source. For example, the Fibonacci sequence or golden mean which is the basis for the growth pattern of a nautilus shell can also be used to create the graceful proportions of a man-made Parthenon or a cellphone. Just as scientists observe nature, artists observe nature; why should the two be separate disciplines? One could argue an artwork is a different way of displaying data.
The study of art can be as laborious and painful as it is rewarding. It is by investing time in grappling with a design problem and by endlessly practicing and honing techniques that a work of value emerges.
Artists tend to be frugal and conscientious about toxins, byproducts, recycling, and waste. Consummate problem-solvers, artists apply their work process not just to solve design problems but to create tools, containers, methods, and improvements. Sometimes a playful intersection between beauty and need ends up in a bright solution to a common problem.
I have been impressed at how open and tolerant the discipline of art is to individuals who work in a non-traditional style, or who have a disability. While discrimination still exists in the world in general, and while groups share a common tendency to profess their view of the world as the right one, artists in general avoid evangelism. Artists have processes that are meaningful and preferential to them, but they usually stop short of requiring others to see the world the way they do. Rather, they serve as evangelists for thought and ideas.
We would do well to require all of our students to acquire the methods and skills of every new art student. Who knows what further heights of creativity and collaboration this would foster?
Tess McMillan, Communications “vector” &:-) for the Bellevue College Gallery Space