Sell Us Your Major: Studio Art & Art History

Art students listen to a presentation on the current exhibit in the Wriston Gallery.
Photo courtesy of Beth Zinsli

This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.

Every student dashes past the Wriston Art Center on a daily basis to make it to their classes on time or to get their much needed dose of caffeine from the Café. However, taking one step into Wriston is like stepping into a new world full of paintings, photographs, sculptures and more. The art majors here at Lawrence, on the other hand, call the place home.

The art program at Lawrence encompasses two distinct fields of the study of art: studio art and art history. The studio art major is a tactile field of study where students work closely with faculty members on a variety of different artistic mediums. Painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, ceramics, sculpture and new media all find their place under the umbrella of a studio art degree.

“Studio art is whatever the person creating it wants it to be,” said Instructor of Studio Art Tony Conrad. “It is, very loosely, a means of expression, whether it’s personal, political or anything that the creator deems it to be about. Studio art is certainly an important part of the liberal arts in general, but I think it is also a great place for students to respond to the world that we’re faced with. It may be a way to express oneself in a time of change and uncertainty.”

Students who choose to major in studio art are not limited to only one medium. They are encouraged to try out as many different mediums as possible to truly get a feel for what types of art they are most passionate about.

“Studio art majors need to be prepared to work,” Conrad said. “They must have a capacity to make mistakes and an ability to recover and learn from them. One thing I would recommend is for students to try as many areas as possible and try to find the ones that really make sense to them […] You can spend a lot of time looking at all the different things you can do with a studio art degree and truly discover what type of art works best for a person.”

Students who have a particular interest in art, but may not be as interested in creating and sharing work of their own may want to explore the art history major. Art history is an interdisciplinary field of study that involves looking closely at works of art in every form, and contextualizing them in the terms of multiple different aspects of human life and culture.

Assistant Professor of Art History Benjamin Tilghman explained, “As a discipline, it is one of the best examples of the liberal arts ideal. The liberal arts are based on a fundamental belief that everything human beings can possibly be interested in is interconnected. This is one of those disciplines where you can really put that into practice. Through looking at a piece of art, you can talk about literature, history, anthropology, politics, economic, music and so much more. We sometimes even work with the natural sciences to look at what kind of pigments are at work in a certain piece. There really is not a single discipline that I couldn’t very easily find a connection to through art history.”

“Art history is just a very rewarding major,” said sophomore art history major Anna Cohen. “There’s not much that is quite like it. As an art history major, I’m always looking at and contemplating the paintings and posters around campus. When I go on the internet, I see advertisements and memes and I’m analyzing them in the contexts I learn from my art history classes. Art is something that is always around us, and the skills that I pick up from my art history classes are constantly applying to what I see every day.”

The largest criticism that the studio art and art history fields receive is questioning the practicality of art degrees. Many people may be deterred from following an artistic path for fear of unemployment once they leave college.

“It’s a fair concern,” Tilghman said on the matter. “However, each of us only get one chance in our life to spend four years to explore a subject we’re truly excited about, so I challenge students to think very carefully about making the best out of that opportunity. The second is that it might not matter after you graduate that you remember what year Caravaggio was working, but what you will learn in art history is careful, visual observation. Art history students learn how to look and think about what they are looking at much more carefully and with much greater clarity. They learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. There’s no right answer about a work of art and that is just the nature of life. Art history helps you make some sense and find something useful, even when you don’t have all the right answers.”

Conrad put in his own input on practicality in a Studio Art context. “New and innovative companies are looking for young people with solid creative backgrounds, because they can hit the ground running with ideas and think innovatively,” commented Conrad. “There may not be very many studio art specific jobs out there, but the skills and mindset that you take from a life of art can be utilized in a lot of different places.”

Studio art and art history are perfect avenues for students with a creative mind and a strong will. The art program is full of faculty and students with strong ambition, commitment and passion for this lasting form of human expression.