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by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Professional artist Will Preman concluded his on-campus lecture with an invitation: If any students, at any skill level, wanted to join in as he created new sculptures for an on-campus exhibition, he was game. “I’d never had the opportunity to work with an artist hands-on and learn new skills along the way,” says Nate Chaves ’23, who had experience with pottery in high school and had just rediscovered an interest in it during an art-focused First-Year Seminar. Soon, Chaves was in Dickinson’s ceramics studio, learning new techniques—some particular to this artist—and creating small figures that would be displayed on campus as part of a larger work. And all this during Chaves’s very first weeks on campus.
For students like Chaves, the chance to peek under the hood of a working artist’s process—and even tinker around a bit in there—helps illuminate what a day in the life in the arts can look like. That rare opportunity arrives thanks to the Sylvia J. Smith ’73 Artist-in-Residence Program, established in 2007, which brings up-and-coming artists to campus each year.
Sylvia Smith residents work directly with students during open studio hours, visit art classrooms, deliver individualized critiques to senior studio art majors, give a public address about their work and complete new art for an on-campus exhibition. So that students will be exposed to artists working in different mediums, the art department rotates between hosting residents who specialize in painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture and ceramics, although many take an interdisciplinary approach to their work.
The broad and deep professional networks of individual faculty members were key to the program’s early success. Sculptor and Associate Professor of Studio Art Anthony Cervino’s connections with a Norwegian curator led to the 2018 residency with Norwegian multimedia artist Sif Ankergård, for example, and Barbara Diduk, Dickinson’s late ceramics professor, drew from long-established connections in the international ceramics community.
“We try for as diverse a field of applicants as possible, as we view this as a great opportunity for the students to engage with artists whose experiences and outlook may be very different from theirs and from faculty’s,” says Ward Davenny, professor of art. “All told, it has provided a great learning experience, not only to the students but to us as faculty as well.”
The Sylvia Smith residency is made possible by its namesake, a Dickinson trustee who studied fine arts and art history as an undergrad and now is an award-winning architect and senior partner at one of New York City’s top architectural firms. In recent years, she’s provided expertise to help guide construction projects for renovations and new facilities on campus, including the Rector Science Complex, Althouse Hall, Waidner Admissions House and the Kline Fitness Center.
Sylvia Smith '73.
Smith’s $75,000 gift to establish the fund was inspired by an eye-opening classroom experience she had as an undergrad. Working with maverick painter William Wiley, who visited her drawing class on the invitation of Dickinson art professor Eric Weller, the young artist was inspired to view and approach the creative process in new ways.
“I thought if I could bring creative artists to campus, maybe they could have that same kind of impact,” Smith says.
“Because interaction with students is key for Sylvia, we look for someone who would be great in that capacity,” says Todd Arsenault ’99, an alumnus of Dickinson’s art department as well as an associate professor of art who served as the program’s inaugural faculty coordinator in 2008. Over the years, he adds, the faculty has learned that because each residency is unique, the coordinating faculty members must be flexible, tailoring each residency to the artist, so the students can wring the most out of the experience.
Another evolution in the program: Since 2015, the art department has sent out a national call for residency applicants—a change that not only allows faculty members to select from a larger applicant pool but also helps raise national visibility for the college.
Preman was the 10th artist to serve a Sylvia Smith residency. To mark the occasion, students in Cervino’s Exhibit Craft class curated a retrospective exhibition that includes works by past residents. The art department used this opportunity to redocument and repack the works and to reassess them as a growing collection.
“We had these pieces tucked away, and it was great to see them together,” says Cervino, who guided the students as they selected the works and designed and hung the exhibition, using a handcrafted to-scale model of the Goodyear Gallery as a guide.
For Smith, the residency is an effective way to give back to her alma mater and further cultivate creativity on campus, as students sharpen skills and explore career goals in competitive fields that do not present one definitive path forward.
“I had an amazing experience at Dickinson, and it informs who I am every day,” says Smith. “Having the opportunity to continue to be a part of the college community and support others’ experiences is rewarding. It’s gratifying to be a part of an institution that has done so much and to do what I can to perpetuate and strengthen it.”
In letters to Smith, the artists note that it’s gratifying for them as well.
“I loved speaking with the professors both in and out of the classroom and having the chance to work with the senior art majors,” wrote Kristopher Benedict, the inaugural Smith artist in residence. “The creative energy, intellectual engagement and warm collegiality I found at Dickinson far exceeded my expectations.”
“The opportunity to be on the Dickinson campus has been so meaningful and productive to me,” Preman wrote. “To be surrounded by young creative people has inspired and invigorated my work.”
Read more from the spring 2020 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
TAKE THE NEXT STEPS
Published May 13, 2020