Beyond Class Shopping: Craft Shops at Dartmouth

by Kylee Sibilia | 10/25/17 2:15am

The ability to create is a skill that Dartmouth students know very well: On a daily basis, we create everything from a sequence of code to a complex algorithm. We spend so much time creating intangibles, however, that we are rarely able to actually see the physical manifestations of our work. The student workshops located in the Hopkins Center for the Arts are one of the only places on campus where students get to hold in their hands the objects of their creation.

Dartmouth provides its students with fully equipped, professionally led workshops in three different artistic disciplines: jewelry making and metalworking, ceramics and woodworking. While orientation processes differ among these three workshops, they are accessible to all students, from novices to experts.

Greg Elder, director of the student woodworking shop, explained that the student workshops are intended to facilitate beginner involvement.

“Almost every student that comes here to work has almost no experience at all,” Elder said.

Elder also emphasized the openness of the workshops to students working across academic disciplines, not just those enrolled in fine arts classes.

“If anything, it’s fewer students from the fine arts that we see, and it’s more from the humanities or the sciences,” Elder said. “It’s really a broad spectrum.”

In order to accommodate those students who are new to the craft, each of the workshops has at least one professional instructor as well as several trained student assistants on hand to assist newcomers.

Director of the ceramics studio Jenny Swanson said that one of the most impressive aspects of the workshops is the expertise students receive from the instructors.

“The quality of instruction is very high,” Swanson said. “All of the staff in all three of the shops are qualified professionals, people who do their own work in their respective mediums.”

Michelle He ’19, who worked in the woodshop for her architecture class, noted instructors’ enthusiastic engagement in student projects.

“The people working there are wonderful,” He said. “They are really good at what they do and also are so helpful and willing to share and be patient.”

Swanson commented on the many different kinds of people who visit the ceramics workshop, including graduate students.

“It serves as a meeting place where a first-year student might be sitting next to a senior,” Swanson said.

He also described the friendliness of her interactions with peers working in the workshop.

“I remember asking complete strangers, usually for help, or asking what they were making,” she said.

Jeff Georgantes, director of the jewelry studio, also lauded the value of the workshops as places where students of vastly different backgrounds can find things they share in common.

“One of the things we work really hard to do is to create [an] open atmosphere where anyone who goes to college here feels welcome,” Georgantes said. “I like to think of it as a club, but the requirements for entry are that you’re a Dartmouth student and you walked [through] the door. There’s this community that students find here that a lot of them say they don’t find anywhere else on campus.”

Dartmouth has been keenly aware of the importance of student workshops since 1944, when the workshops were founded. Originally funded by Aileen Osborn Webb, a patron of the arts, as part of the School for American Craftsmen, the workshops were made permanent at Dartmouth even after the program had moved on to other universities. Dartmouth is one of the only schools in the country that offers such workshops without requiring students to be enrolled in the arts classes to which they correspond.

Georgantes spoke to the intention of the workshops to give students a break from the harrowed experience of academic evaluation, as well as to provide a setting for experiential learning.

“[Dartmouth] wanted to create a place for [its] students to explore their creative sides without the constraints of grades,” Georgantes said. “So much of Dartmouth and its classical liberal arts concepts focus on the Greek ideal of body, mind and spirit. The idea behind this was that students could have a break from academia [while] also exercising their brain in a way that explores creative expression.”

Swanson echoed the sentiment, describing the workshops as a place where students can relieve stress through exercises in creativity.

“For some people, it’s just really meaningful to try a creative pursuit without worrying about a grade or having to complete a course because people can use the studio as much as they want to — on their own time, on their own schedule,” Swanson said.

Elder also noted that despite seeing themselves as beginners, many students who create in the workshops become artists without even realizing it.

“A lot of students who would never consider themselves artists are making decisions about design and form and texture and proportion, and they’re artists from that point of view, but I don’t think they would ever think of themselves that way or decide to make art otherwise,” Elder said. “It’s kind of an investigation down that road of creating something out of nothing just from your imagination.”

He described her experience making a chair in the woodshop and the ways in which the process of making served a vehicle for self-expression among her peers.

“I thought it was so cool to see how all of my classmates had their own idea[s], and no [two] chair[s] looked even remotely alike,” she said. “All of us had really different ideas and processes that got us to the final product. It was really satisfying.”

While the architecture classes at Dartmouth ensure that the woodshop is always filled with students making chairs, there are also a variety of people working creating such objects as tables, bookshelves, kayaks and musical instruments. In the jewelry studio, students create rings, earring, necklaces and bracelets — Georgantes even mentioned a student this summer who created a metal grille and a group of students who created an artificial hip joint. In the ceramics studio, many students create utilitarian objects like mugs and bowls.

If one thing is for sure, the ability to create may be inherent to us all. The only thing stopping us from “making” is ourselves.