Belin-Blank programs bring talented high school students to campus for 3 weeks

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The University of Iowa campus played host in July to 25 of the nation’s most talented high school–aged artists as part of the Belin-Blank Center’s inaugural Summer Art Residency (SAR). The students, who traveled from as far as California and New York, spent three weeks participating in classes, workshops, tours, lectures, and events that introduced them to a community of like-minded individuals and stretched their imaginations as artists.

While summer arts programs aren’t new to the Iowa campus (the weeklong Blank Summer Institute for the Arts and Sciences for Iowa seventh- and eighth-graders being just one example), the SAR offers a more immersive experience.

“One of the things that’s hard in a weeklong program is that right when you get momentum going, they’re gone,” says Jamie Boling, a past Blank Summer Institute instructor and lead instruction for this year’s SAR. “For students who really focus on art, being able to spend three weeks in a really intense, really fun environment is a propellant for creative thought and energy. And if they are thinking about doing this beyond high school, this will be a massive foundation on which they can build their future work.”

Joining the young artists were 42 of the nation’s top young writers as part of the Summer Writing Residency (SWR). The two residencies were in part born out of a desire to build on the university’s role in a prestigious national award program; the Belin-Blank Center, which works with the international gifted community and supports the development of gifted education programs around the world, serves as a regional affiliate for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and adjudicates 8,000 to 10,000 submissions from Midwest high school students each year.“We identify all these amazing writers and artists, we recognize them, and then it kind of stops,” says Jan Warren, assistant director for student services at the Belin-Blank Center. “We wanted to take the next step and help develop the talent we discover through the awards.”

While priority is given to students who participated in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, any student in grades 9–11 can apply for the SAR or SWR. The participating students live in a residence hall on campus and spend their days in a variety of classes and workshops. The art students take a drawing class together in the morning and then move on to their choice of one of four studio electives: book and paper, graphic design, printmaking, or 3-D art.

Femi Shonuga-Fleming, 17, a Scholastic national award winner from New York City, says he was looking forward to building his portfolio in advance of applying to art colleges.

“It’s been kind of an escape,” Shonuga-Fleming says. “Usually I don’t have a lot of time to make art, so this is very helpful. It takes time to get in the flow of creating art.”

model siting for portrait
Summer Art Residency students sketch a model from life. Photo by Jamie Boling.

Cameron York, who in May received her MFA in studio art with a primary emphasis in printmaking and secondary emphasis in sculpture from the UI, led the sculpture elective.

“These kids are beyond what I could have imagined,” York says. “They’re smart, creative, and fearless. They’re open to trying anything. When I was their age, I was a little more conscious of what I was making and how others were viewing it. They’re just really going for it and experimenting. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Helping the young people develop their artistic and writing skills is just one of the goals of both residencies. The organizers also want to prepare the participants for successful careers in the arts.

“Some areas have more defined steps to take if you want to pursue a career in them. For example, to become a biologist,” Warren says. “It’s less defined how you move through the process to have a career as an artist or a writer. We hope to help them with that.”

The students learned how to write personal or artistic statements and put together portfolios of their work. The residencies ended with a show that included a gallery for the artists and readings by the writers. They also met and talked with people working in these professions, such as Mary Swander, poet laureate of Iowa, and Tameka Norris, a visual and performance artist and assistant professor of painting and drawing in the UI School of Art and Art History.

Boling says such experiences outside of the studio are equally as important.

“I have them from 9 to 4, but for the rest of the day they’re still in conversation with each other and participating in activities,” Boling says. “The classroom element is one portion of what they are walking away with and experiencing.”

Isabella Aviles, 17, a Scholastic national award winner from Centerville, Ohio, says she especially appreciated this aspect of the residency.

“Not only has it opened more doors in terms of styles of art, but they have shown us how to transition into the real world in terms of applying your art,” Aviles says. “Reputable occupations can come out of art. You don’t have to be a broke artist; you can have a sustainable life doing what you love.”

Caylee Fuqua, 17, a Grant Wood Legacy award winner from Ames, Iowa, agrees.

“I like that we’re not just interacting with people our own age but also with established artists who have made a career for themselves and learn how they did it,” Fuqua says.

Woven throughout the three weeks was one important theme: building a community.

“When you go into a career in the arts, which can often be underfunded or under-resourced, the ability to network and develop relationships can be one key to success,” Warren says. “We want to approach it as these are your future colleagues, collaborators, and grant partners.”

Boling also sees a more immediate impact of community building.

“One of the things I think is hard for students who excel in art is they don’t always have that community where they live,” Boling says. “By being linked in with like-minded students across the country and being able to create those relationships, they can begin to have conversations, share work, and get feedback. This is one of the big opportunities of this residency.”

Aviles, Fuqua, and Shonuga-Fleming all enjoyed meeting peers from across the country.

“I didn’t expect to meet such unique people that you wouldn’t normally meet on a daily basis,” Aviles says. “We really connected after just a day or two. We all have unique paths of thought and styles of drawing, but intuitively we’re all the same because we’re artists. It’s very cool.”

self portrait with bandana
A very recent self portrait stares over the artist’s shoulder. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Community-building opportunities included activities at night and on the weekends that allowed the art and writing groups to interact with each other.

The instructors for the residencies included UI faculty, alumni, and graduate students.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to work with the three other instructors,” Boling says. “Not all the information will be coming from me. The students will be getting three other perspectives on ways to make things and ways of seeing and talking about things. Because of the student-to-teacher ratio, there will also be a lot of focused conversation with each student.”

York says she learned just as much from the students as they did from her.

“They are reminding me to play more often in my own studio practice and to not be afraid to try something and fail,” York says. “They are just really going for it, and when they come up against an obstacle, they make it work. That can be frustrating, and you can get jaded the deeper you get into your studio practice, so they are reminding me to have fun.”

While similar programs exist, many are located on the coasts rather than the Midwest. Jan Warren, assistant director for student services at the Belin-Blank Center, says the UI is an ideal place at which to host such immersive residencies.

“These are three premier programs—the Belin-Blank Center, School of Art and Art History, and the undergraduate creative writing program—coming together to share expertise and knowledge with young artists and writers,” Warren says. “You won’t find these facilities in any high school in America. These kids will be able to come in and get their hands on stuff and do things that the average high school kid doesn’t get to do.”

Boling says Iowa City is one of the best-kept secrets in the country.

“I think that seeing that a smallish town can be as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as many big cities may be a surprise for a lot of these students,” Boling says. “They are highly successful art students already, and perhaps they’ll think about Iowa as an option when they come to college.”

Warren agrees.

“These students who are coming from far away have no idea what to expect,” Warren says. “Iowa has this reputation as a flyover state, but they come and realize it’s a cool place with a wealth of opportunities. I think we blew their socks off.”