HUNTINGTON — For the average person, creating art might seem a solitary practice, but it’s the community that makes learning how to create art so special at the Marshall University Visual Arts Center.
Housing the College of Art and Design, the six-story VAC sitting on 3rd Avenue across from Pullman Square in Huntington is the home of some of the most creative students at Marshall. With high ceilings, large classrooms and workshops, and tons of natural light, the space is conducive to collaboration and creativity.
Opened in the fall of 2014, the hope was the new building would increase student enrollment, but Danny Kaufmann, interim director of the College of Art and
Design, said enrollment has remained flat, pointing out that universities everywhere are experiencing decreased college enrollment.
“Our school did really well this year in regard to incoming freshmen,” Kaufmann said. “Our students make up 50 percent of the College of Arts and Media numbers, and we saw that during Week of Welcome.”
But increased enrollment wasn’t the only reason for the building. The College of Art and Design previously lived on the sixth floor of Smith Hall. The work spaces were mainly converted classrooms, and Kaufmann said students would literally be working elbow to elbow.
“There’s a physical nature to things like drawing and painting, and having your own space is really important,” he said.
The school was also disjointed, with some classes and offices located across the way in Old Main.
“Having everyone under one roof really helps,” Kaufmann said. “And I think being downtown has helped us because it allows our students to be more a part of the community.”
Senior sculpture major Brianna Taft, of Huntington, helped move the school out of Smith Hall and into the VAC.
“The major difference is we don’t have to pack up our stuff as soon as the class is over,” Taft said. “We have more freedom to stay in the room and continue working. It’s not, ‘There’s another class in this room and you need to leave.’ You are more welcome to continue your piece or whatever you are working on, and I think that is really inviting.”
Taft said she also felt like the art department was the outcast of Smith Hall.
“Here it’s more welcoming,” she said. “Everyone in this building is art majors, so it’s our own little community.”
Senior painting major Grayson Collins, of Chesapeake, Ohio, said that community has helped her creative process.
“Being able to be around these artists at all times and get their feedback, working near other people and seeing what they are doing, getting ideas from other people and overall just being here has helped my creative process more than I ever imagined just working by myself at home,” Collins said.
They both also grew their creative processes through the school’s foundation courses, which were tweaked when they moved to the VAC. Required for all freshmen, the foundation courses expose the students to all the different practices, from painting to weaving to photography.
The courses are broken into eight-week courses, pairing the disciplines together. For example, the first eight weeks might be photography and the second eight weeks print making. Then as sophomores, they take a foundation course review, where they create work that is judged by the faculty. The students must present their work, which teaches them how to speak and write about their work.
“It’s important students learn how to communicate about their work,” Kaufmann said. “Using appropriate language — that’s hard. A lot of people are visual artists because that’s how they know how to communicate ideas. But you also have to learn how to communicate it, whether it’s spoken communication or written.”
Taft, who started as an art education major, changed course after the foundation courses.
“Where I grew up, our schooling didn’t have the different mediums you can work in — it was either painting or drawing, and maybe photography was introduced,” Taft said. “But coming here, you take the foundation courses, which gives you the water to dip your toes into different mediums. It’s really nice because it’s opening us up to other forms of creating work, and that led me to sculpture.”
Taft said she doesn’t think a lot of other art schools offer foundation courses, making Marshall special.
Collins said the foundation courses helped her painting.
“There are so many things I would have never tried,” she said. “I had never done ceramics or sculpture, and that has honestly helped my painting process and finding new techniques with that.”
The freedom to explore and change is something else that makes the Marshall School of Art and Design special. Taft said unlike many art schools, students do not need a portfolio to be accepted. The professors do not expect the young artists to be experts in their chosen craft, and encourage them to explore.
Collins said she expected to be overwhelmed when she started, but quickly realized everyone was at a different level. She said she built her skills very fast.
Like Taft, Collins did not start out as a painting major. Instead, she started in graphic design, which was what was offered to her in high school. It wasn’t until she had the opportunity to study abroad in Italy that she decided to pursue painting.
“I would have never gone to Italy if it hadn’t been for my painting professor pushing me to go,” Collins said. “It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country and the second time I’d been on a plane. It was a crazy experience. The culture over there is so different and it was so eye-opening to see. And seeing all the works I’d seen in my textbooks in person — it was breathtaking.”
Kaufmann said travel is very important to the School of Art and Design.
“When we do the sophomore reviews, it’s always said at least once you need to see artwork in person,” he said.
Getting out of the classroom is also important, and being located downtown has made that an even more dynamic part of the school, Kaufmann said. Whether it’s painting at Harris Riverfront Park or doing work for a local business, moving downtown has connected the students to the Huntington community in several ways.
Kaufmann said they are working on more ways to get the community into the building, especially getting a more diverse section of the community inside.
The Visual Arts Center Carroll Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gallery is currently featuring the 2018 Biennial Faculty Exhibition.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.