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Real-World Art School

Real-World Art School

Real-World Art School

December/January 2012 issue of American Craft magazine

Photo: Ryan Carle

So long, ivory tower. Engage. Collaborate. Partner. These are the watchwords of a new direction in art education.

Whether it's a response to a changing economy, a reflection of our hyperconnected society, or both, schools are looking beyond classroom and campus, with formal programs designed to reach out to the public in strategic, innovative ways. The goal: Help students discover new ways of applying their skills and vision to make better products, a better world - and, while they're at it, a living. Here are three recent initiatives.

California College of the Arts

"One thing I like to tell students is that they're part of something larger," says Sanjit Sethi, director of the Center for Art and Public Life at California College of the Arts, with campuses in Oakland and San Francisco.

Originally trained in ceramics at Alfred University, Sethi has since devoted much of his inquiry to the role of the artist in society. "The center is focused on a question," he explains: "How does an institution of higher education that's devoted to creativity - architecture and design, writing, craft-based materials, fine arts - address some of those pressing issues of our time, from lack of educational opportunities for youth to climate change to health care for elders?"

To find answers, in 2010 the center launched Engage at CCA, in which faculty custom-design a class around a real-world project. Furniture design students built seating for the atrium of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for example, under the direction of furniture department chairman Russell Baldon. But first, says Sethi, they had to go through "a process of ideation and thinking, engagement with the docents, security guards, and patrons." Only then could they come up with "innovative designs that specifically activate the space," he says.

For his Engage class, ceramics chair Nathan Lynch had his students don wetsuits, sail out to Año Nuevo Island off the coast, and work with environmental scientists to make clay shelters for an endangered seabird species. It was a great example of an experimental approach to material and function, Lynch says. "The students see more career trajectories for themselves, not just this slim chance of getting into a gallery or chasing after public art projects. There are all these other ways of using the skills they learn in art school to do interesting things. We try to stress agility, being nimble in the way they approach life after school."

An Engage course can be about insight more than outcome. Anne Wolf, an adjunct professor of textiles and interdisciplinary studies, brought students to the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco to make pillows for its guesthouse, where volunteers help terminally ill people through the dying process. "There was no problem to solve, nothing to replace. The only thing we could offer was our presence. The craft of knitting and crocheting these pillows was just part of our being there," Wolf says.

"What I've seen over the years with art students is that there is this longing for authenticity. They are driven by something other than a need to be successful in the conventional sense. A lot of them are really searching for meaning," she says. "And death and dying is an area we need to understand. It doesn't get more profound than that."

Savannah College of Art and Design
A few years ago, Savannah College of Art and Design did a self-study to determine which of its strengths deserved more focus. Overwhelmingly, the school community chose collaboration as key to its mission of preparing students for creative careers. The result, the Collaborative Learning Center, opened on the Georgia campus in 2010.

Through the center, students from SCAD's 40-plus areas of study are teamed up and put to work for a corporation - Benetton, VTech, and Kids II are among those that have taken part - to design a product or strategy. Along the way, they're trained in the fine art of working with others.

"We call it ‘coordinated friction,' where we bring in people with multiple viewpoints and encourage them to express their opinions on how to solve a problem," says Josh Lind, the center's creative director and a SCAD grad himself. "In that way, sparks fly faster. Ideas start to form in a way that's organic and creates forward progress, toward a full, cohesive, and innovative concept."

To be sure, a SCAD education is still about cultivating one's own artistic vision. "There's a balance of bringing that individual expression into the team dynamic," Lind says. "We encourage people to push for their ideas. But we also encourage them to find a way to find their sweet spot, where all of their ideas are coming together."

Such flexibility matters in a job market where opportunities aren't as obvious as they used to be. The good news is they're out there. When Dell Computers was looking for a design intern, they chose a SCAD fibers student for her knowledge of color, texture, and surface. The internship "changed her way of thinking, and theirs," says Cayewah Easley, head of the fibers department. "We help our students to see those possibilities, to speak to professionals in other industries about what they can bring to the table."

And for trend-conscious companies, SCAD collaborations offer unique access to the creative energy of that desirable demographic, the millennials - those born in the early '80s and later.

"They're a generation that understands technology and social media, and a lot of people are looking to tap into those minds," Lind observes. "What are they looking for? Where do they see the future going? Not only can they speak directly to that, but they can also design directly to that, use their perspectives to develop something that might never have been imagined."

North Bennet Street School/John Eliot School

Remember junior-high shop class? If you're under 40, you probably don't. Woodworking, drafting, metal arts, and home ec thrived in the U.S. public school system for most of the 20th century, only to fade as emphasis shifted to academic subjects. But is it time for the manual arts to make a comeback?

Boston educators Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez and Traci Walker Griffith think so. He is president of the nearly 130-year-old North Bennet Street School, one of the finest places anywhere to learn traditional crafts, from bookbinding and locksmithing to violin making and piano preservation. She is principal of the John Eliot K-8 School, which, since her arrival in 2007, has gone from being one of the worst-performing public schools in the state to one of the best. (Today's Matt Lauer paid a visit in 2010 to document its success.) Neighbors in the city's North End, the two institutions teamed up in 2009, raising $80,000 in donations to provide woodworking instruction for Eliot's sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders - not as an elective or afterschool class, but as part of the curriculum.

Sometimes, it turns out, retro is forward-thinking. "In a technological age when you can virtually create anything from your imagination, it's almost become a lost art for students to take a block of wood and create a spoon. But [in that hand process] there's a connection to math and science, and to literacy as well," Griffith observes. Strong community partnerships have been important to her school's dramatic turnaround, and this one has a history to build on: Eliot students were taught woodworking at North Bennet Street from the 1880s to 1917.

"It's part of our heritage," says Gómez-Ibáñez. "Ultimately, there is a self-interest in it. We want people to study craft, and we want bright, talented people to come to North Bennet Street." In recent years, he'd worried that "a generation was growing up without the knowledge that working with their hands might be their gift - what they should be doing, where they excel, what really makes them feel whole." Some might not be college-bound, he says, and given that spark, could find their way to a fulfilling career in a trade.

Woodworking is now "the cool class" at Eliot, Griffith reports, a hit with students and parents alike. Taught by North Bennet Street alumni at the woodshop there, the kids make increasingly complex projects, beginning with that simple spoon. This year, Griffith says, they're making her office door: "They came to measure for it. They were so excited."

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.