What It Takes to Be a Devoted Art Student

by Cathy Sivak
What It Takes to Be a Devoted Art Student

The art student is a driven by an intrinsic need to explore visual ideas, solve artistic challenges, or view the world in a way others might not see. Artistic vision can lead to an artistic education and life's work.

It is up to the student to decide what approach to take as an artist. Studio arts involve materials such as paintings, sculpture, photography or other art forms; design arts include interior design, architecture, graphic design and product design; and some students and careers focus on knowledge of art, such as art historians and art critics.

"An art student could choose a variety of colleges that could point in literally over a 1,000 different careers; there is a plethora of jobs for a wide range of skills," says John Siskar, art education department chairman at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, NY.

To draw the verbal sketch of an art student is difficult, even for Siskar, a university educator and former high school art teacher. "In our program we have people with six different colors in their hair, and people with football jerseys. It runs the gamut. Almost anyone who finds an attraction with the visual world and likes to solve problems could become, and often does become, and art student."

For those dedicated to a specific area of art, Ivy-league caliber art schools exist in various art disciplines. Siskar highlights the Maryland Institute of Art for drawing or painting, and Rhode Island School of Design or Cooper Union for fine art.

However, students can be passionate about art, but be unsure of their field. Many larger schools -- including Buffalo State -- encourage students to explore options before starting to concentrate in a specific area of the arts. The roughly 900 art students at Buffalo State are found in the Art Education, Fine Arts and Design departments, where there are several choices of disciplines and degrees, including BAs and BFAs and MFAs, as well as Bachelor's of Science degrees for those art students geared toward the professions such as designers or teachers.

At Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., art and art history department students can focus in arts, studio art, art history and art education. Students start out with two and three-dimensional design basics and explore many art types, such as metal sculpture and photography, in addition to more traditional fine arts. "We want them to find the media they are best able to express themselves in that is invigorating and exciting to them," says Rowena Schussheim-Anderson, co-chair of the department.

Students (and parents) can tap into the federal financial aid package of loans and grants to help cover savings shortfalls. In addition, both need and merit-based scholarships are available from various arts supporters and many schools. Most state university talent scholarships are restricted by limited funding, but full and partial scholarships are available at private colleges and universities, as well as at specialized art schools. "There are opportunities for students who are passionate about art. They are highly competitive, but they are attainable," Siskar says.

Such scholarships can open doors for students with talent but without the means to attend a private institution, Siskar says. He advises students to follow a basic formula when applying to colleges: Make at least five college applications including one or two affordable, one or two fallback schools, and one or two dream schools.

To apply to colleges and for scholarships, gather together your best samples of work - digital formats such as CD or DVD are often acceptable - and build a portfolio. A body of work also comes in handy to bring to various open house and portfolio review sessions, which can serve as one way to judge art aptitude. As all high school art experiences vary, art educators agree that passion and commitment to art displayed in the portfolio are weighed more heavily than technical skills.

Augustana offers several art scholarships, ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 per year (automatically renewed for art majors/minors). The application process includes an evaluation of student work during two springtime portfolio reviews.

While occasionally an art class such as photography will become expensive due to the purchase of a camera and supplies, the experts agree an art focus is not a budget breaker. "Some art classes don't require books, so costs even out with non-art classes," Schussheim-Anderson says.

Being a well rounded individual is important to the artistic mindset, and a liberal arts education can provide a base. As a fine artist, a degree offers understanding of the world; in the commercial fields, a four year degree is required to move into management, Siskar says.

Art course requirements and availability vary, but four-year programs include a broad liberal arts program in addition to art-specific classes, while two-year programs like the Art Institute tend to focus on only art. Once in an art program, students should expect access to school studio space, with upper level students often granted private or semi-private spaces.

Art students may even find opportunities for travel and study abroad. The foreign study program at Augustana places students on a different continent for a quarter: Asia, South America, Europe or Africa. Students explore native art forms, visit local museums, meet and work with local artisans, and can see native designs and landscapes on location, explains Schussheim-Anderson.

"A good addition to the traditional liberal arts education is to go visit other countries," she says. "Instead of only studying about it in studio art or art history, it's great for young artists to go and do it."

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