Commonly, the first-year experience for an art student follows a curriculum merging theory and practice – but often not like this.
The University of Arizona School of Art is experimenting with a new approach, one developed by Gary Setzer, a UA assistant professor of art.
The First Year Experience program allows students to take a series of accelerated courses meant to give them a more comprehensive experience during the initial year. The program remains deeply rooted in tradition, but also incorporates more contemporary methods and forms.
"It is one of the largest, sweeping curricular changes the School of Art has seen," said Setzer, who arrived at the UA in 2007.
Thematically structured, the new six-course program allows incoming freshmen – though some upperclassmen are currently enrolled – to select from a total of eight classes. Each course is offered as a half-semester workshop lasting for an eight-week period.
"I like that the students get a breadth of experience," said Neal Galloway, a graduate teaching assistant who is teaching a sculpture course.
"It's a taste, but we are giving them a lot of options to help them develop some really good skills," Galloway said. "I really don't know any other way to do it."
Each student must take three foundational courses: Mapping, Surface and Space, as the classes are called. Grounded in traditional forms, the three courses collectively offer training on the theoretical and conceptual bases of art.
However, students have the option to choose from five other classes that center on photography, graphic design and illustration, new media or four-dimensional space, mixed media and also figure drawing.
"While the arts have changed several times throughout history, art colleges have largely remained the same," Setzer said, adding that all undergraduate studio majors and individuals studying art and visual culture are required to participate in the program.
"Being at a research university, I wanted to sharpen the focus and rethink what we could do to bring the program into the future so that the students were more prepared to make art in the contemporary world," Setzer said.
"If a student wanted to be a photographer, video artist or a graphic artist, there wasn't a celebration of that mode of thinking before," Setzer said. But there is now.
For each class, students are responsible for completing at least two major projects, most of which demand a research component, the completion of portfolios and attendance at arts events.
Students starting their first painting projects in Clare Benson's course were encouraged not only to consider form, but also the symbolic meaning of their work. The prompt was that they create a painting representation in the form of a self-portrait.
"When I was an undergraduate, it wasn't possible to get as broad an experience as the students here," said Benson, who did her undergraduate work in the Great Lakes region.
Many students who arrive at art school do not know what medium they want to work in, "but this program gives students the choice to figure it out," said Benson, also a first-year graduate student in the UA School of Art studying photography.
"So the objective is to allow them to have that experience," she said. "We want them to be able to make an informed decision about their career."
That is part of the experience Sebastian Campos is having.
Campos switched from studying engineering to art, finding that he was more attracted to the design elements in the field of art.
"This is fairly new to me," said Campos, a UA visual communications junior. "And I think the classes are awesome. It's the environment – the smell of the work; working with my hands."
Setzer said another set of motives has been to offer students the opportunity to be more focused and engaged in their work. Variety is key, as is personal exploration.
Thus, the curriculum is designed to be more challenging, artistically and intellectually. He and others in the program want to ensure that students are both responsive and reactive, he also said.
"I think freshman are quite capable of doing these things. They are bright; they can make it now," Setzer said. "If we get them excited now and show them what art can be while giving them an introduction to what it means to be a professional – that's the driving philosophy."