California, There I Went

Last week’s unseasonably warm weather was a happy shock for most Andover students. For me it felt like the norm. It never managed to drop below fifty degrees in California, where I spent my fall term, and I am not yet resigned to the fact that twenty degrees is typical of the next two months. But the warm weather of the West coast was only one of the things that attracted me to The Oxbow School, a semester-long art school in Napa, California. Last winter, PAnet posted a bulletin for the program. My roommate, Elaine Sullivan ’07, and I were immediately intrigued. We attended the one term program with Colleen Cronin ’07 and Alex Abugov ’07. The Oxbow School required an application, but not a portfolio. This means that you do not have to showcase a selection of your own work when you apply, though the school does require that you create a self-portrait with the rest of the application. For the most part, Oxbow welcomes anyone and everyone. Most students in the program do not intend to go to art school upon high school graduation. Some do not even think that they are very talented in the arts, but are eager to expose themselves to the creative process. While I felt as though I had been exposed to art a lot since I was young, I set off for Oxbow less than comfortable with my drawing or painting skills, and slightly concerned about the fact that I could probably count on my two hands all the contemporary artists that I knew. Despite my excitement about the experience that was presented to me, there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind about what I would be returning to once the semester was completed: the dreaded Upper year. I found it hard to believe that a small art school in California would have as challenging an academic workload as Phillips Academy. On the one hand, I was relieved that I would be getting a bit of a vacation (academically if not artistically), but at the same time it seemed likely that I’d have some catching up to do once I got back to PA. Though I might be stressed for the first few weeks of Winter Term, the experience was worthwhile. Oxbow seemed as rigorous artistically as Andover is academically. Being challenged creatively was similar to a demanding Math or English course. This perspective seemed to be similar to the viewpoint of other Oxbow students, especially those interested in pursuing careers in visual art. Sullivan said, “I went because I don’t really see myself as having a more ‘academic’ career. It was a break from Andover during which I could focus on my interest in art, and develop a portfolio. It allowed me to think about the long-term aspects of being an artist.” As students at the Oxbow school, we were definitely provided with this opportunity. Throughout the semester, the school brought representatives from visual and liberal arts schools around the country to the Oxbow campus, where we were able to take advantage of their expertise and discuss our future plans and the steps we needed to take to achieve our dreams artistically with them. One of the goals of the Oxbow School is to send graduates away with digital portfolios that can easily be transfered to any job or college application. At Oxbow, we were able to prepare ourselves for a life in the creative world. However, I found that Oxbow was preparing us for larger objectives as well. As a student who does not intend to become a photographer or a painter, maybe not even a graphic designer, I still felt that the program was helping me to nurture an aspect of myself that I had a hard time finding an outlet for at Andover. For the first month and a half at Oxbow we worked in a different medium each week. Each of the three classes contained around twelve students and the classes rotated between the four studios. Oxbow focuses in photography and new media, painting, printmaking and sculpture. The first few weeks were a time to get comfortable with each of the mediums, developing basic skills that we may not have already been familiar with. Although there wasn’t much overlap between the four, it was an opportunity to see which materials you were most adept at working with. In addition, we took two academic courses. The history course focused on the topic of the U.S.-Mexican border, while the science course discussed the ideas behind quantum physics. There was an attempt to meld the science course with some English, resulting in a study on the Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, which related to what we discussed in science. For all of the classes, including our art classes, there was strong encouragement to make connections between the disciplines. The second half of the semester forced us to put this skill to use. Classes stopped, and we chose a topic for our final project. For the next month and a half, we created an art piece, and supported it with research into science and history. For many students, the final project really brought the program together. Sullivan explains that, “During the first part of the semester, there were multiple art pieces that I wasn’t happy with. I didn’t feel like I had had enough time to really get into them. The final project, on the other hand, was a huge success. I became so engaged in it, and by the end of it I really ‘got’ what the faculty at Oxbow were trying to show us.” In many ways, I agreed with Elaine. For the first half of the semester I found it impossible to let go of my Andover sensibilities to put academics before my artwork. By the time I finished my final project, I had shed the self-consciousness that I initially felt in the studios. I positively immersed myself in the art that I was creating.