Transforming Brutalism: Student Art Prints Improve the Learning Environment
January 2010, Volume 5, Number 1
by Tamara Pinkas
Late one Friday afternoon toward the end of last spring term, the blank, off-white walls in the main hallway of Lane Community College’s Building 19 in Eugene, Oregon, were transformed into a place of beauty and learning. Through the vision and energy of Lane’s printmaking instructor, Susan Lowdermilk, and the support of Lane’s Art on Campus Committee, a selection of her past students' finest prints became part of Lane’s permanent art collection. The prints went on display not in the art department, but across campus in a wide hallway where students from all disciplines would see and be enriched by them.
Lowdermilk’s idea to create a student alumni print collection of high quality grew out of a project she requires of her independent study printmaking students. Each student designs and creates an original print and prints an edition large enough for all students in the group as well as one for the instructor. It occurred to her that she could easily and economically compile a large collection of student alumni prints for permanent display that would highlight the wonderful work being produced by Lane alumni. The display would promote the art of printmaking while increasing public artwork on campus. Of equal importance, the collection would communicate to students, staff, and the community that student work is valued and is of professional quality.
Many Lane students, as is true of students at community colleges around the country, have limited exposure to fine art. Lane’s Art on Campus Committee, which includes President Mary Spilde, has long desired to offer art experiences to all students but lacked the funds to fill halls, offices, and common spaces with quality artwork. To realize this goal, the Art on Campus Committee meets monthly to maximize the visibility, diversity, and availability of artwork on Lane’s campuses. One of the committee’s goals is to create opportunities for students to encounter art as they go about their life on campus rather than going to see art at a museum or gallery. The committee, composed of seven to ten members appointed by the president and drawn from faculty, staff, and Lane’s foundation, wants to offer successful art experiences that develop and deepen students’ appreciation and enjoyment of a wider variety of art and subject matter while offering a sense of place and a connection to the college.
Lane is fortunate to have a president who appreciates art. President Spilde’s enthusiasm for art prompted her to raise $50K to increase the presence of art on Lane’s campuses. She hopes to embed art experiences for all students, regardless of what they are studying, by integrating art throughout the learning environment. President Spilde believes that all presidents should participate in a project at their institution that engages their passion and is also fun; public art is one of President Spilde’s fun projects.
Creating the Print Collection
The Art on Campus Committee agreed that a collection of student prints for permanent display was an ideal way to increase the college’s public art collection and an appropriate use of some of the funds that had been raised specifically for art on campus. To create a collection that would feature a breadth of images and print techniques, Lowdermilk contacted 30 former students who had continued their art education and who used a variety of printmaking processes, approaches, and subject matter.
The former students were asked to donate a specific print they had done while at Lane, with the option of submitting current work if they preferred. Of the students contacted, 18 donated prints. Half of the students submitted work done at Lane and the other half submitted more recent work. Students were offered a $50 honorarium for their donation as a way to acknowledge that quality artwork has value while also keeping the cost within a very limited budget. Prints were framed for display, and permanent plaques were made for each work indicating the title, the artist, and the print process. In addition, an informational plaque introduces the collection.
Honoring the Student Artists Leads to Next Steps
An afternoon cake and punch reception was held during the fall term to introduce the new collection to the college and the community. In addition to the artists and their families and friends, invitations were extended to the members of Lane’s Foundation Board, the donor of the art funds, and all Lane staff and faculty as well as the community. Art department faculty members were asked to announce the event to their students and encouraged to bring their classes to the reception. The event was well attended and several art classes came to view the prints and discuss them with the artists.
An unexpected and exciting outcome from the reception was an offer by a retired Lane art instructor to help increase the print collection. He was so impressed with the collection that he plans to contact former students of his who are now mid-career professional artists and ask them to donate a piece.
Another unanticipated connection made at the reception was with an academic learning instructor in developmental education. She came to the reception to talk with the artists because her students were expected to view the print collection and write about it as a class assignment. She wanted more insight into the work for the next time she gave the assignment. It became evident that an important next step is to develop ways to help faculty in other disciplines use the print collection and other art on campus as learning tools.
An idea that has emerged is to create a traveling print collection for display in community settings and perhaps at other community colleges around the country. Given the ease and low cost of shipping unframed prints as well as inexpensive ways to display them, Lowdermilk hopes to develop another print collection that can be shared.
Affordable Public Art for Lane
Lane’s learning environment, like many college campuses built in the late 1960s, is classic Brutalist architecture: bare exposed concrete. In a recent survey, students overwhelmingly commented that they experience the Brutalism as austere, cold, drab, and gloomy, especially during the gray drizzly days of a Eugene, Oregon winter. Some likened it to learning in a parking garage!
To help mitigate this experience, a series of efforts have been initiated by the Art on Campus Committee. Prior to the creation of the print collection, a painting collection and a commercial art collection were pulled out of storage and mounted throughout the main campus. An invitational sculpture exhibit was held and a number of pieces were purchased and put on permanent display. Two sculpture faculty members, also members of the Art on Campus Committee, offered several classes that created public artwork. Traditional Japanese carvers were invited to mentor students for a wood sculpture course that resulted in a large joint outdoor sculpture. A metal sculpture class created a multipiece work for the bus stop that garnered partial funding from the bus company. A stunning stone piece now stands in front of the administration building, the outcome of a two-term sculpture course.
Another goal is to transform the feel of the main campus through the design of new buildings and the landscaping and artwork for them. Currently, a new health and wellness building is under construction as is a Native American longhouse. A regional competition was held and an internationally known Northwest artist has been commissioned to create an outdoor sculpture for the entrance to the health and wellness building. Native American artwork will grace the longhouse once it is completed.
Lane Community College is using art to significantly change its stark, concrete learning environment. With the inspiration of a small group of innovative faculty and staff, support and encouragement from its president, a very modest budget, and, most importantly, student creativity, transformation has begun.
Tamara Pinkas is lead faculty, Cooperative Education Division, at Lane Community College, Eugene, OR.
This post was provided by Tamara Pinkas.