“OK, so who here has sculpted?”
Sculpting instructor John Phelps asked the question from the front of the absolutely silent classroom. The assembled students were talented teen-agers who had earned the right to be there, but at the moment, they were a bit out of their element. Phelps and his co-instructor, John Kobald, addressed the group for a few minutes, then rather quickly got the two dozen students drawing. Drawing is the foundation of everything. It’s also something these kids know how to do. They got to work.
Thus began the first step, in the first hour, of a transformative month–Phelps and Kobald concentrated on getting the students thinking along the right direction. They showed the students—high school kids who earned scholarships from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and the San Antonio Livestock Exhibition to attend the Western Art Academy (WAA)—examples of their work and that of others. The artists talked about negative space, the ideas behind the bases holding the sculptures, the engineering and logistical issues about sculpture construction. Many of the teen-agers kept their heads low and their arms near their torsos, their body language revealing and reminding everyone that this new environment was, at the very least, demanding sharp attention from them.
These students gave up four weeks of their precious summer, left their friends and their home, and traveled to the welcoming and decidedly warm campus of Schreiner University, in Kerrville, Texas, for an intensive session of art education. For nearly all of them, it also meant the longest they had ever been away from their parents or guardians.
“I think it demonstrates their passion for art,” comments Dr. David Smith, the dean of the School of Professional Studies at Schreiner. “They deserve credit for this.”
Like in years past, the students in the 2014 edition of the WAA had a wide range of experience with art. Many were skilled draftsmen, but very few had sculpted. Some approached art and talked about it as though they would never deviate from a career trajectory into the arts. But many will end up in jobs that, while benefitting from their arts training, will perhaps only draw from the instruction in an indirect fashion. Learning how to see three-dimensional objects as the forms they really are (instead of their function), and knowing how to turn them in one’s head or render them in 2-D not only gives a person better visual communication skills, it also helps one think in a larger and more nuanced way. “I’m excited that the students get some right brain work,” says Wanda Mumm, the program director for SKB. “These are the things that people will retain their whole lives.” Echoes Smith, “Most of them won’t realize what they got from the experience until pretty far down the road. When they reflect on this month, it will become richer for them.”
Big changes, rapid growth. The Texas teens come into Kerrville from many different walks of life, and at a crucial age—most are 16 or 17. The group is watched over by several Schreiner students who act as resident advisors and make sure the participants are safe and accounted for. The program is rigorous, with many of the teens opting to work after hours on their paintings and sculptures. The instructors—all contracted through SKB—end up staying after with the willing as well. They get paid to teach at the academy, but the big payoff isn’t in dollars. “The academy is great experience for us, too,” says Mumm. “When they ‘get it’ in the studio, when they finally grasp something we’ve been teaching, they dance around. That’s our payday.”
On the first day of a WAA session, Smith gives a relatively short talk to parents and students that covers the overall philosophy of the academy and the logistics governing the month. Moms and kids both have tight smiles and perked ears; the new participants and their parents can’t grasp the tried-and-true routine of the academy, they haven’t yet witnessed the professionalism and nurturing nature of the teachers, they don’t know how familiar the tranquil walk from dorm to art building will be after the first handful of mornings.
“It’s both intimidating and exciting,” Allison Garcia said on her first day at WAA. “I knew there would be a whole bunch of really good artists coming here.” Rather quickly, the teens get over the first-day jitters. “At first, they don’t know each other, and they are a bit scared,” observes Phelps. “As soon as they warm up to each other, everything changes. This month builds their confidence a lot. And there are no cliques. The facades drop.” The diverse backgrounds merge into a “cohort,” as Smith puts it. “They discover that there are other kids who are good at art,” Phelps notes.
The students come to grips with the shape and impact of the academy almost immediately. “In the first five hours I have learned a lot already,” reports Lucas Newell. “I didn’t expect [the academy] to have such great instructors. And I am here to learn.”
The Western Art Academy is not a breezy summer camp. The instructors follow a curriculum with a textbook written by Mumm with input from the other instructors—Nancy Foureman, Christine Knapp, Kobald, Phelps, Victoria Schultz, Stephen Spears, Terry Stanley. The students are brought through the fundamentals of color relationships, values, perspective, composition, and other foundational tenets; they spend one day depicting cones or cylinders in black and white paint. In the end, they are expected to have several pieces finished and ready for sale on graduation day. Each teen is given an area in Schreiner’s Edington Sports Center on graduation day where a sculpture, at least one painting, and a sculpted relief by them are on display. They are coached on how to market their work. Parents, local folks, and representatives from the rodeos buy more than a few pieces from each class. The business side of art becomes real for the kids.
The curriculum is stable, and the academy has been in operation for 32 years. But there is flexibility in the program, and growth each year. For instance, Lagos was able to fulfill a goal she’d long had–to paint a night scene. Ngan Thi Le was most comfortable painting portraits, and she was subsequently guided in this area by the instructors. Marivi Rodriguez was thrilled to get close to cows—even in Texas there are areas where bovines are scarce!—and she painted something approaching a loving portrait of a Hereford.
The sculptures executed by the students expressed motion and energy that rivaled the dynamism of many professional sculptors.
When David Yates, a member of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo board of directors, saw the student show, he remarked, “The caliber of work is up considerably this year, especially in sculpture. There’s no comparison, really. The students had some great instructors, and it shows in their work. Plus, the kids love the instructors, and that’s extremely important.”
Smith advised the graduating class to stick together, to stay in touch even as they go their separate ways. By networking they will continue to operate as a support system, an invaluable asset for young adults. Within days, evidence that this was happening showed up on Facebook. What a difference a month can make.