Friday, January 28, 2011

Art School Part II: Foundations, or the Don't-Sleep-For-A-Year Experiment

There’s a point, somewhere around the 72-hour mark, where sleep deprivation starts to feel like an extremely potent hallucinogen.  A person starts to have micro-sleeps, or periods where they slip in and out of consciousness for seconds at a time without realizing it, and the real world becomes entwined with the dream world. It becomes extremely difficult to decipher what’s real and what’s not. Anyone who has had the pleasure of staying awake for days on end has undoubtedly experienced this, but I can say with some confidence that it is probably most prevalent amongst art students, especially within the first year of art school.

The ECU School of Art and Design’s entrance requirements differ from those of many other art schools – there is no initial portfolio requirement for admission. Instead, one is tentatively accepted into the program contingent upon successful completion of the Foundations Program – a series of courses consisting of Design I, Design II, Drawing I, Figure Drawing, and a few art history classes. You must pass each of these classes, as well as the Foundations Exam, with a C or better in order to move on to the survey level. The theory and premise behind the foundations program is sound: It levels the playing field and allows anyone to have the chance to go into the art program, despite their background and experience in art. After all, someone may have a passion for art, but come from a school with a very poor art program where they weren’t able to build an adequate portfolio.  In practice, however, it becomes something much more sinister.

The problem is that, when you open the floodgates, chances are you’re going to get a flood.  By allowing anyone to declare themselves an art major and participate in the foundations program, many more people will do so than the school can feasibly accept.  As such, the foundations program becomes less about teaching design and drawing, and more about breaking the will and spirits of the students. You have to weed out the ones who can’t handle the pressure. There’s a rule for foundations professors (perhaps secretly stated, or perhaps just unwritten and widely understood) that you can only allow a certain percentage of your students to pass. The rest you MUST fail.  I can’t be entirely sure of the attrition rates – they’re not exactly posted. But with a little bit of deductive reasoning, it’s not too hard to guess. In the fall of 2007 (records for 2006, my entry year, were not available, but they are undoubtedly similar) 11 Design I classes were offered with an average class size of 15 - that’s roughly 165 new entrants. This past December, I walked across the stage with 24 of my peers. You do the math.

Painting a Design I project. At a friend's birthday party. Brush strokes are forbidden.

In order to make sure this quota of failure is met, foundations professors assign the most grueling, monotonous, and time consuming tasks, and will accept nothing short of perfection. Each studio class meets 6 hours a week – for which you only receive 3 hours of credit – and it is expected that you will spend a minimum of two hours working outside of class for every one hour of class time in order to receive a C.  How about an A? You should probably double that number. And don’t forget that you’ve got those other classes to attend, too. There’s simply not enough time in the week, and so the ones who make it through foundations are the ones who find that time by learning the art of surviving without sleep.  You learn that you can’t possibly have a social life, and so your social circle becomes your fellow art students. You spend every waking hour of your life in one building, painting color swatches and drawing cubes, and you find time to nap in your other classes. You tell yourself that 6 hours of sleep every 3 days is fine, and you can make up for it on the weekend. Except you’ve got that crit on Monday. You start to break down, physically, emotionally, and mentally. And on the precipice of complete mental collapse, when your body is running on paint fumes and caffeine, you reach a nirvana of creative clarity that makes it all worth it. And when it’s all said and done, and you officially make it out of foundations, you realize you’ve learned so much more about being an artist than you ever knew paint swatches and cubes could teach you. You’ve learned the value of hard work, perseverance, and the creative energy that mental instability can bring.

A vast majority of the people who fail out of foundations were never meant to be artists to begin with, and would have never been able to make it in the art world if they’d made it through. But perhaps there’s a better way to go about letting them know this without destroying their GPA and wasting a year of their life and thousands upon thousands of dollars in tuition and art supplies. Perhaps we could remember that these are still people we’re talking about, and that they are betting their future on their educational investment. Or maybe that sweet feeling of success just wouldn’t feel so good if we didn’t know so many other people had failed.

Check back next week for Art School Part III: And Now The Fun Begins.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Art School Part I: Dreams and Obstacles

Almost five years ago exactly, I began my final semester of high school. I was full of naivety and willpower, as all seventeen-year-old adolescents are, and thanks to the support of a fantastic mentor and art teacher (and to the dismay of my parents who only wanted the best for me), I had a goal for my future. As I look back, it was truly this final semester that would set me on the path to where I am today.  I had late arrival and was enrolled in only two classes – 3D Design and AP Studio Art – and it was this 3D Design class that sparked my love for sculpture.  I became drawn to the tactile nature of working with the materials, and was overcome by the feeling of stepping back from a finished piece and experiencing the realness and immediacy of a three-dimensional creation. At the same time, I also became drawn to walking around the classroom and providing thoughtful feedback to my peers about their work. By the time graduation rolled around, my mind was made up –I would double major in Sculpture and Art Education at East Carolina University. I was headed for art school.

 My home for the past 4.5 years. Photo Credit:

In five days, I will begin my first semester in high school – this time from the other side of the teacher’s desk. I am very aware of how fortunate I am that somehow, over the past five years, I have been able to hold strong and stick to my goals. I am also aware of how incredibly rare that is.  You see, there’s always something that stands in the way of a person and their dreams, and in this case, that something is the only thing that has been constant in my life for the past four and a half years. That thing is art school. Think of it as less of an obstacle and more of an insane bipolar obstacle course of dastardly-designed traps, temptations, pitfalls, and dead-ends disguised beneath a facade of higher education. Please don’t get me wrong: the years I spent in art school are some of the best and most fulfilling years of my life. But I believe anyone who has been to art school can tell you that they have a love/hate relationship with it.

In the coming weeks, I will be posting my reflections on the educational highs and lows of my experience with art school, along with some anecdotal experiences of my peers.  Though my praise and criticism will highly be directed towards the School of Art and Design at ECU, I believe it will largely hold true for just about any art school. 

Check back next week for Art School Part 2:  Foundations, or The Don’t-Sleep-For-A-Year Experiment.