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Larry Witham: Art Schooled

A journalist crafts an indispensable primer about life at the Maryland Institute College of Art

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Larry Witham

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Art Schooled: A Year Among Prodigies, Rebels, and Visionaries at a World-Class Art College

Larry Witham

University Press of New England, hardcover

Though it has been around since 1826, many Baltimoreans likely have little idea what actually happens at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Events like last year’s Rooms Play (“The Quest,” Stage, April 27, 2011) and a host of exhibitions bring some aspects of MICA to the public, but when it comes to day-to-day life there—classes, for instance—the institution is a cipher to most. Fortunately, journalist Larry Witham stepped in, taking on the mission of observing an academic year in the life of the college. The challenge resulted in Art Schooled: A Year Among Prodigies, Rebels, and Visionaries at a World-Class Art College, an account of what he discovered and the young artists he met along the way.

I am a former employee of MICA, and conveniently enough I was there while Witham was on campus. Throughout that year, he was everywhere, politely asking questions, quietly watching everything unfold before him. His dedication shines through in the book, which is bursting with history, rich characters, and anecdotes from his time there. Following a handful of art students from various majors, it drops the reader into the bustling and often overwhelming world of college life.

During Orientation Week, MICA teems with undergrads coping with the sudden shift into a new environment. Before, many of them may have stood out as “artsy,” but now they’re in a sea of like-minded students—a jump that can leave some feeling lost and lacking a sense of identity. In that first weekend, the school asks Jamie Washington, a motivational speaker, to take the stage and address the crowd, and that’s just the topic he chooses. “If they felt a stigma in the past, says Washington, that is over at art college: ‘You come here, and, no, you ain’t standing out’ any more.”

Later, a freshman pins up his homework in his Drawing II class. The piece is clearly unfinished, white space gobbling up the partial drawing. His teacher cuts right to the chase. Witham writes: “‘If you want to stay in this class, you have to do much more than that,’ [he] says. ‘Otherwise, you are insulting me and the students.’” Though the student might have been an art star in high school, it’s clear he will now need to push himself in order to stay with the pack.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Witham says he hopes to reveal “something universal about the life of every art school,” and in this he succeeds. Art Schooled isn’t just about MICA; while reading it one can imagine it taking place in any similar institution. Witham touches on the sorts of things most art educators cover: art theory, history, and practice. But though the book is a pleasurable, comprehensive read, it is clearly geared toward a specific audience. The ideal reader would be someone considering pursuing an art degree or perhaps a family member of such a person, since the book details the basics of what to expect.

That said, Art Schooled is well written and engaging. Witham describes scenes from his year there in cinematic detail, writing in the present tense and placing the reader in a vivid, clearly defined world. His “characters” come to life with just a few sentences, and he strongly conveys their personalities and the kind of art they make. Sadly, we can’t actually see the work these students produced, leaving Witham with the responsibility of recreating their pieces with the written word alone. He largely succeeds, but a few accompanying images would have been nice.

Not surprisingly, Witham is an artist himself, and the book is filled with his own illustrations of life at the art school. Having studied “drawing and painting in a more realistic vein,” he produces illustrations that aren’t quite photorealistic, but they hew fairly close to real life. They provide a clear portrait of what one might see at MICA, filtered through Witham’s own artistic approach. He reveals in the introduction that he received a degree in art, but his career went in a different direction. His artistic eye comes through in his writing, which has a strongly visual style. He discusses art history and theory with ease, quickly familiarizing readers with diverse topics, like the ideas of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the story of Baltimore’s own Cone sisters, an art-collecting duo who rolled with the likes of Matisse and Picasso.

The book wraps up where most students finish up the school year, describing the minutiae that even the spaciest art students face. Final papers are submitted, dorm rooms are emptied out, and cleaning crews tackle the task of clearing paint-clogged drains and charcoal-covered walls (leaving the messier students with some serious fees). The seniors step into new lives beyond art school, with many understandably freaking out. The illustration department’s Senior Seminar teacher Allan Comport offers some sage words of encouragement to his departing class: “‘Your life is a marathon,’ he says. ‘The first thing you do is not what you are going to do for the rest of your life.’” Scenes like this could inspire anyone, really, but for the book’s ideal audience—the art-student-to-be—Art Schooled should be required reading.

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