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News . Feature Stories . CIA Student Illustrates BFA Week for Plain Dealer


June 14, 2010

CIA Student Illustrates BFA Week for Plain Dealer

After working as a Plain Dealer reporter for 18 years, guest author Karen Sandstrom is now studying illustration at The Cleveland Institute of Art. She will face her own BFA Week in 2012.

CIA Student Illustrates BFA Week for Plain Dealer

After working as a Plain Dealer reporter for 18 years, guest author Karen Sandstrom is now studying illustration at The Cleveland Institute of Art. She will face her own BFA Week in 2012.

Story and illustrations by Karen Sandstrom
Published in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, May 23, 2010

We are a small but rapt audience perched on folding chairs in the thrall of a young artist presenting his work. He’s a big man wearing a dark suit and flop sweat, but he’s doing just fine. His children’s-book drawings hang on moveable walls he has arranged into a tiny living room complete with wing chair.

He has his book, too - a handful of copies printed up just for this presentation. He introduces the idea behind his story. CRASH! From across the room comes a brief interruption - too brief and distant to grab much attention. Still, I know what the noise means. It isn’t good.

The artist in front of us continues his rap. He acknowledges the influence of Chris Van Allsburg, creator of the blockbuster children’s book, “The Polar Express.” CRASH! I wince.

Just on the other side of that wall, an artist has been hanging her series of exquisitely made ceramic pods. Each pod is mounted with glue to the wall. Some stay put. Some don’t. The glue has proven unreliable.

I know this as I listen to the children’s-book artist, because I walk by earlier and saw the ceramicist standing amid shards of hardened clay. She’d had her game face on. She had made lots of extras, she said. Soon it would be her time before her audience on folding chairs.

Welcome to “BFA Week” at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The scene above is a year old, but it springs to mind because we just finished another such season. Every year, the art school’s graduating seniors prove their mettle in a very public way. If they succeed (and they mostly will), they walk away in a few weeks with their bachelor of fine arts degrees.

For a few, the BFA thesis takes place in December, but spring is the big show. Last week, 123 painters, sculptors, digital animators, illustrators, and designers took their place in the sun.

The work each artist celebrates during his or her hourlong presentation is the culmination of a year or more of sweat and studio time. They don’t just execute a few paintings and call it a day. They plan and articulate, do market research, create, revise and rework.

Perhaps they cry once in a while. Some swear.

Then, with parents and friends and other students as witnesses, they defend their choices before a panel of teachers, some of whom turn up the flame pretty high. Last week I watched the grilling of one student in which the teachers seemed determined to get her to articulate the deeper meaning of her work. It was an excruciating - and illuminating - experience.

My first experience as a BFA witness was last spring, as I finished my freshman year at CIA. Months earlier, I had traded in 25 years of journalism to train as an illustrator. My first months back in college were proving exciting and daunting. Art school is good. And art school is hard. Could I DO this?

But while I watched BFAs for the first time, I was swept up with hope. Old enough to be the mother of most of these students, I was stunned by the sophistication of the talent. Not every senior produces perfect work. And to a person, they are better at making art than talking about it.

But at the risk of sounding like a kook, I found this display almost breathtakingly inspiring and I still do. I wish everyone in Cleveland could see it, whether “it” is the dapper industrial design major showing off his concept car, the graphic designer exhibiting his campaign to counteract the negative effects of corporate-generated hip-hop messages, or the pretty young metalsmith exhibiting necklaces with tiny portraits embedded in each one.

By now, the BFA drama will is a memory for the class of 2010. And so the real work begins.

A CIA survey of 2009 graduates indicates that 84 percent are working full-time or part-time in their field. Another 7 percent have gone on to graduate school. Nine percent were still looking for work at the time of the survey.

Building a life out of creative work is famously difficult. As an artist and reporter, I know this. I also know that the world runs on hot, creative energy, and that a lot of that is brewing, right here and now. It’s not just about learning how to draw in perspective, it’s also about how to pull out Plan B when your work falls off the wall and smashes to the floor.

So what a blast it is to be a witness as a new flock of artists - tired and relieved, flush with success and maybe a little battle-scarred - prepares to take flight. It’s good for them. It’s great for the rest of us.

- Courtesy of Karen Sandstrom ’12

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