What I learned from being an Art student at a Liberal Arts College

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During my freshman year Calvin made  a lot of cuts throughout the art and art history department. Professors were bought out the summer before I arrived, or laid off during the following year. In addition, the architecture minor and theatre majors were cut, amongst many others. I need to say this because the whole generation of Calvin that saw these cuts happen will be nearly gone at the end of this semester.

Myself being an art major, I was furious and ready to transfer from Calvin to anywhere else. It didn’t help when I found out that the art department was relegated to the basement of Spoelhof. No natural sunlight there, because why would artists want any of that? The administration, it seemed, clearly didn’t value the more creative fields.

After talking with my parents and friends, they redirected my attention to what I could gain from the general core curriculum; a tactic that might not have worked with someone else, but for me, being the nerd that I am, it did.

I decided to stay, with a deep commitment to trying to make a difference at Calvin. I was determined to try and make the most of my time here, and fight to create a space where art students and professors were valued more.

I didn’t know what that meant, though.

Half the time, it meant me thinking, “They need to do something.” I don’t know who “they” are; and, in case you didn’t realize this, just thinking something doesn’t make it happen. I wanted the universe to magically conspire in my favor and somehow spontaneously create intense interest in the arts by everyone. Then we’re magically awesome again and I’m somehow able to have a creative career because my college was awesome and gave me everything I needed to be successful.

The other half of me tried to use some of that anger in my creative work. I wanted to be innovative. That basically meant me trying to find public places I could put my art up on campus. I wanted at the very least for people to see that we existed. I started putting artwork around campus when I could. When I got into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program I started inviting my friends to come see what I had done. I got involved with Dialogue; even though they had a snobbish reputation, they were still in the field of spreading art. I didn’t care if my work got in it anymore. I got involved in the Visual Arts Guild and created the print sale to encourage art students to sell their work, and to make a point that college students are interested in what we make. Last year I organized the Fall Arts Festival that brought in speakers to encourage art students to embrace their careers and realize that it is possible to “make it.” I tried everything and anything I could think of or get my hands on to increase visibility for my work, but also just for the arts in general at Calvin. It didn’t always work; I found resistance in some minor and inconvenient ways, and, honestly, I didn’t always have the energy for it.

But at the end, I don’t know if much has changed at Calvin. People are still people; engineers and doctors still make much more than your regular everyday-living-under-the-bridge-artist, and from a (shallow) practical standpoint it kind of makes sense to not dump too many buckets of money on just art.

I also recognize I made a huge mistake. If you look above, most of what I tried doing revolved around me and promoting my own career. I thought I could do this alone. But I can’t. At the end of the day it’s a department, and not a single “Me” that needs more investment. It’s a whole group of people: students, staff and faculty.

And so from this I have two takeaways. Two takeaways that I think matter to everyone, not just us art students. One is to care about people. Care more about them. And find ways to work with them. I’m way too good at being individualistic, and I think most of us artists tend towards that. Group projects have always sucked. But find ways to make them not suck. Everything great made in this world, as far as I can tell, had the participation of more than one person. Great art has always involved more people, as they collaborated ideas, projects and dreams.

My experience at Calvin has been a battle for one purpose. To realize that whatever my experience at Calvin is, it is determined more by my attitude than by whatever structure they’ve given me.

Professors, classes, clubs, dorms and their activities are all there to be shaped by the way you interact with them. When I got to Calvin I never saw students sell their work on campus. Since we started the Print Sales I’ve seen others start with their own initiatives and have been happy to see a couple of students anticipating it, asking me about when the next one will be.

I’ve grown tremendously by all my attempts at being a presence for the arts at Calvin. Trying to “fight” the system and falling on my face and not knowing what I’m doing. I grew so much more than if the college had decided to just give everything to me tied with a ribbon on top. Otherwise there would’ve been no challenge.