An Alternate Education: Reflections on Oxbow

“Hey Taryn, how was Oxbow?” I’ve heard that question at least one hundred times in the last week, but none of my answers convey even a fraction of my experience at Oxbow. Let us pretend that the exquisite food at Oxbow, the warm California climate, classes starting at 9, no tests and the chance to skip Upper or Senior fall were not factors in deciding whether to go or not. There is no doubt in my mind that I would still do it all over again. Oxbow is a semester program in Napa, California based around the visual arts. Phillips Academy students can apply to go for Fall Term of Upper or Senior year. Even though Oxbow offers a state-of-the-art cumulative curriculum, no one goes to Oxbow just for the academic classes. It is an art school, after all. All of the art supplies are free. You’re only required to be working on art during art class, which is two times a week for two and a half hours each. But studios are open until 10:00 p.m., and why would you be anywhere else? The studios are spectacular. Overlooking the river with high ceilings and tons of windows, they’re like the library at Andover: the place where everyone always hangs out. The energy at Oxbow is tangible. Sometimes when art all day wasn’t enough we took paints back to our suites and made art until 3 a.m. At Oxbow, we do not do things because we have to; we do them because we can. Art classes at Oxbow are more focused on ideas than on actual technique. No one is that impressed with a perfectly realistic painting if there is no idea behind it, if it doesn’t make people think. There are also very few restrictions on art projects at Oxbow. We get graded on every project for originality, work ethic, degree of finish and other things, but the faculty rarely tells us we cannot do something. Of course, if you are in sculpture class you have to make a sculpture. However, you are allowed to work in whichever studio can best convey your ideas for two out of the five projects you make at Oxbow. If Oxbow has or can obtain the materials, anything is possible. For my fourth project, I contemplated the idea of light being reflected or absorbed. My ideas floated around in my head for about a week, and then it all came together. I made a slab of wax with cheesecloth in the middle, projected a picture of a person onto it and burned it like a candle. At the same time I shined a colored light from above so as the wax melted and spread out, the picture disappeared and the colored light became visible. I incorporated ideas about the difference between reflecting and absorbing light, the way people appear to me when they are not physically there and how colors are more than what they seem. If I had not been at Oxbow, I never would have dared to make something so eccentric. One of my favorite things about Oxbow is that everyone is the creative atmosphere. When everyone around you is actively expanding their horizons, ideas bounce off one another, come together and split apart in a never-ending string of conversations and epiphanies. These ideas and epiphanies manifested in our final projects, which took up the last three and a half weeks of school. The final projects from Oxbow Semester Seventeen (OS17) were incredibly diverse, ranging from huge paintings to a black hole to a large cylinder of plastic wrap hung from a tree. Only just before the show did we begin to realize that everyone’s projects were, at some level, playing with the exact same ideas as ours. It is a bit eerie, seeing aspects of your project in everyone else’s. Besides art, the Oxbow curriculum offers English, history and science courses. Unlike Phillips Academy, the classes are intertwined and the line where one class ends and the next one begins is often blurred. If we were reading “Walden” by Thoreau in English, we would talk about the transcendental club of Emerson and Thoreau in history and the difference between instinctual, scientific and faith-based knowledge, which in turn has everything to with transcendentalism, in science. It is like having one big class through three different lenses. The well-qualified teachers acted as a kind of role model to us. They were genuinely interested not only in what they were teaching us but also in hearing what we had to say. Oxbow, I think, is especially useful when you go to a school like Phillips Academy. The chance to step back, breathe, put things in perspective and find a whole new way of learning and thinking is truly invaluable.