By Cameron J. Anderson
Last week I visited George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. It was a splendid day—the campus lawns lush green, trees leafing out in pastel shades, and flowers and shrubs blooming all around. Mark Terry, Chairperson of the Art and Design Department, assured that it would be a busy time, and it surely was. That afternoon, three senior exhibits opened. On view was the work of Nicole Williford (painting), Sarah Harris (photography), and Sara Jensen (digital illustration and ceramics). Their smart gallery talks were impressive, as were the throngs of classmates, community friends, and family who gathered with them to celebrate. Mark Terry and his faculty colleagues at George Fox University are running a thriving art and design program.
The afternoon’s events sent me musing in three related directions. First and without fail, each time I witness these kinds of student shows, I am reminded of my own B.F.A. and M.F.A. exhibits, now decades past. So many elements seem ever-present: the eleventh hour creative push of hand, heart, and soul to finish the work; the drafting of an artist statement; the welcoming of out-of-town guests; and, though there is hardly time for it, wondering about what’s next? If you completed a degree in art, design, architecture, or film studies, you know the experience.
If my own student exhibits occurred decades ago, our daughter Emilie’s 2005 Senior Show at St. Olaf College was more recent. Through a father’s eyes, it was clear that this event—for Emilie and others—represented a kind of coming of age. For many, this moment is a consequential passage from amateur to professional. In any case, with the graduate exhibit, the artist has probably produced his or her first real body of work. That aesthetic (such as it is) will be reworked, either in graduate school or in the new routines of professional practice, and then fine-tuned or even radically reworked again and again.
Then a second thought settled in. What an enormous investment these senior shows represent—not just the exhibit itself, but all that leads up to it: the financial costs, of course, but also the investment of time for the students as well as for each of their instructors. And there is another, more subtle, cost: taking classes in drawing, design, and art history means not taking classes, say, in biology, business, or nursing. While the world remains mostly open to young people in their mid-twenties, preferring one major over another so often becomes an expression of one’s vocation and the subsequent occupations that may follow, as if to say, “This is who I am and what I do.”
My third reflection was this: an artist’s vocation is neither conceived nor practiced in isolation. Some years ago, one CIVA board member noted that while undergraduates attending Christian colleges and universities might not sense the need for an organization like Christians in the Visual Arts, the realities of post-college life often alter that view dramatically.
As the graduating students of 2016 move on to the next leg of their journey, my hope and prayer is that they will find new mentors, coaches, friends, and colleagues. We are not designed to embark on this journey alone; rather, we are made for community and in all of its rich multi-forms. For instance, these days the CIVA community represents at least four generations—students in their early 20s to seniors in their 80s. To be sure, the conferral of an art degree and a senior or capstone exhibit is an achievement. For many, it is also a launch point into the arts—a world filled with opportunity but also fraught with questions about art practice and purpose, success and even suffering. Clearly, in all of this, we need soulmates to accompany us on this sojourn.
Cameron J. Anderson is the Executive Director of CIVA | Christians in the Visual Arts.