Studio art major affords substantial individual attention

by Frances Cha | 5/24/05 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the third of a four-part series in which The Dartmouth will delve into the arts-related majors at Dartmouth. This week, we spotlight students majoring in studio art.

Compared to the previously featured music and theater majors, the number of students in the studio art department is comparatively larger this year, with 28 graduating majors of the '05 class. This number -- while still small -- is an unusually high one for the department and almost double the average in previous years.

Like other arts departments, the small size of the studio art department allows for more focus on the individual's work. Kiku Langford '06 said that this was one way in which Dartmouth's art program was better than those at actual art schools. "You get a lot more attention and advice than you would at an art school where everyone is doing art," she said.

The department pulls no punches in terms of criticism, which understandably can be difficult to experience. "Once you're a senior, they're quite blunt with criticism," said Lydia Smith '04. "I think part of the philosophy is preparation for entering the real world -- you have to be prepared to hear a lot of things that might not be favorable and still keep your head up."

The members of the studio art faculty are themselves almost all practicing artists who show their work in galleries in New York and Boston. "I think they keep a good balance of keeping you excited about what you're doing while keeping a realistic slant by way of criticism," said Smith.

Smith actually graduated last spring, but she was chosen as one of four interns that the department keeps annually in order to help teaching assistants with classes. Her internship ends this spring, and although she has no concrete plans, she said that she wanted to continue with art in one way or another in the future. Two of the other current interns have received grants to paint overseas.

As with other arts majors, students studying studio art are commonly faced with various stereotypes that are usually quite mistaken. One prevalent misconception involves the workload of the average studio art major. A number of art students said that people often think that their majors have a light workload and that they are "easy majors, almost joke majors." However, students with art major friends know that they can in fact usually be found in the studio at any given point in the day or night. The critics who are most difficult to please are always the artists themselves, and self-imposed standards are sky-high. "Any studio art class is a huge time commitment. I always find myself spending much more time on it than on my other classes," said Langford.

For upperclassmen, one familiar theme at Dartmouth is the college mid-life crisis of major switching. This is particularly drastic in the arts, as the students' original majors are usually in the furthest subjects from the arts imaginable. It is not unusual to find studio art majors with a double major or minor in a science-related field.

Miriam El Rassi '05 is one example. El Rassi was a chemistry major until her junior spring, when she decided to switch to a studio art major. "It was hard for me to admit being an art major to myself," she said. Yet when she took an architecture class for fun, she realized that it was something she wanted to pursue. She still studies chemistry -- as a minor -- and finds that she often incorporates her understanding of chemistry into her architecture work in unexpected ways.

El Rassi is one of five majors who have a concentration in architecture. Despite the usual association of the art major with painting, the majors this year are quite evenly distributed between the concentrations of painting, drawing, architecture, sculpture, printmaking and photography.

Soojung Rhee '04 was another science-to-art convert. Rhee was on the pre-med track until the summer of her junior year, when she took on studio art at the last minute and made the decision to major in it. She is consequently graduating with a double major in studio art and biochemistry. Because of her late decision, she is taking two more terms of classes to finish her studio art major.

Of her fateful decision, Rhee said that it was extremely difficult for her at the time, but that she ultimately feels happier. "I thought my life was over at that point, but when I look back it wasn't as difficult a period as I thought," said Rhee. Her conversion came about when she actually started working with scientists and realized that she did not have the same excitement for science as they did. "I liked it but I didn't love it," she said, "and it made me realize that I should pursue something for which I had that that type of passion."

After her fulfillment of the major, Rhee will be attending Harvard Architecture School and she eventually plans to get her license. While a little late, she is one of the luckier Dartmouth students who managed to figure out her true passion.

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