Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 12, 2010

Learning sculpture through silence

In 1969, a group of sculpture students were led into a padlocked room, handed a giant Styrofoam cube wrapped in brown paper and set loose. The rules were punctuality and silence; the instructions did not exist.

“There was no restriction on what tools could be used,” said Garth Evans, one of the faculty who designed and taught the course. Evans visited Knox this past week to speak about the course and present the Al Young Art Awards. Students had complete freedom of design, Evans said, as long as they created their art from no materials other than what the faculty gave them.

Known as the A-Course, the project was part of a three-year undergraduate course at the St. Martin’s School of Art in London. Students were given a material — a bag of plaster, 50 yards of brown paper, a roll of twine — and set loose. They were expected to work in complete silence during set hours, after which they were required to leave the studio. They did not know how long they had to work on their sculptures; at no point during the project was the art ever discussed.

“We anticipated a lot of resistance,” said Evans. “We [were] interfering in extreme ways with normal behavior. We expected resistance, we prepared for it. We had answers, but none of the questions were asked.”

The project was so successful, in fact, that it continued for an entire year rather than the scheduled six weeks. Indeed, the first controversy about the project came not from the students or the faculty but from the general public. In 1972, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) heard of the project and asked the original students to come back and reenact their first days in the course in order to produce a documentary of the experience.

“It was a very accurate reenactment,” said Evans. “It was astonishing…how vividly we remembered.”

Despite that accuracy, the group was displeased with the final documentary.

“[The producer] contextualized what we were doing in a way we were not happy with. It trivialized what we were doing. It made it seem a little silly,” said Evans.

After the documentary had been completed, one of the students involved asked the BBC for the film that hadn’t been used in the final movie. The group cobbled it together to make their own version of what had occurred.

That film, which was shown at Knox this past Friday, showed a sculpture course unlike any other. It portrayed the first project the students had undertaken, in which their only material was a Styrofoam cube wrapped in brown paper. Over the course of a week, various students carved, chopped and tore their cubes to bits. One student engraved the sides in a way that made the block appear to be marble. Another burned his so thoroughly that everyone was forced to leave the room until the fumes cleared. Some chose to escape the confines of a cube—one student gathered up the scraps of Styrofoam from everyone’s cube, spread his paper on top of it, hung his coat up on the wall and then lied down to take a nap.

Any student who talked was reprimanded; one person who attempted to put matchsticks in his cube was stopped because they were considered additional material. Throughout the week there was a sense of exploration, of tentative curiosity that grew in strength as it was discovered there really were no limits on creativity. Although faculty was present at all times, they did not critique — they simply watched. According to Evans, it was “absolutely fundamental” for them to be there.

“There was a very concerted effort of the faculty to not respond to what was going on,” said Evans. “To pay attention but not to respond, not even through facial expression or body language. We were not going to judge; we were going to create a framework where we were free.”

It was that philosophy which led the faculty to create the course in the first place. Conversations between professors revealed that “we taught sculpture through words. Would it be possible to not do this?”

After a week with the Styrofoam cubes, the work area was cleared overnight without warning, the students were handed a new material and the process started all over again. Despite the lack of explanation, students took the projects seriously.

“I don’t think they knew what it was about. I think they were trying to figure it out and deciding to go on with it,” said Evans. “It was surprising and rewarding and astonishing, in a way…they seemed to give us the benefit of the doubt.”

After the conclusion of the course, the students rented a studio and met there regularly.

“There were amazing things done there,” said Evans, who remains close friends with one of the students to this day. Despite this, they have still not discussed the project. The idea that they wouldn’t, he said, evolved from the experience itself.

The 40th Annual Albert C. Young Student Exhibition and Competition

Young awards in painting

First: Kelly Kriegshauser (sophomore)

Second: Kathryn Haynes (sophomore)

Third: Nicole Andersen (senior) and Nick Kalmus (senior)

Matthew Dale Gunther Awards in drawing

First: Whitney Meredith (senior)

Second: Julia Sievert (sophomore)

Albert G. Young Awards in drawing

First: Amanda Hubeny (senior)

Second: Heather Kopec (senior)

Anna E. Young Awards in relief prints or new and alternative media

First: Alexander Robertson (junior)

Second: Saori Moriizumi (senior)

Elda Crighton Campbell Prizes in intaglio prints

First: Kaylin Maanum (senior)

Second: Kaylin Maanum

Albert G. Young Awards in photography

First: John Williams (sophomore)

Second: Nina Litoff (sophomore) and Katherine Williams (senior)

Beverly Bender Award in sculpture

First: Spencer McNeil (senior)

Second: Emma Cauthorn (freshman) and Kathy Olsen (senior)

Anna E. Young Awards in ceramics

First: Julia Sievert (sophomore)

Second: Sarah Kurian (senior)

Third: Nicole Thompson (senior) and Valerie Gumpertz (senior)

Dick Blick Graphic Design Award

First: Nick Kalmus (senior)

Second: Kaylin Maanum (senior)

Third: Kaylin Maanum

Best of Show prize (work selected by art faculty): Kathy Olsen (senior)

Beverly Bender Scholar Award: Evan Holmes (senior)

Issac O. Peterson Studio Program Award ($100 in art supplies to a junior): Katie O’Connor and Chris Shikami

Katy Sutcliffe

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