Tradition and Training at Hillsdale College
by Sam KInecht



Hillsdale College in south central Michigan is one of a handful of truly independent undergraduate institutions in the country, a place where the young artist can find (1) one of the most tradition-focused studio programs, (2) state-of-the-art facilities for painting and sculpture, (3) a liberal arts college education that consistently earns national praise, and (4) a scenic campus replete with historic architecture in a gorgeous, landscaped setting. Furthermore, since its founding a century and half ago in 1844, the school has never accepted any revenues from federal, state, or local tax funding. Its board of trustees, administration, and faculty feel better suited than any set of Washington officials to determine the brand of education it offers. With a long history of leadership, in many areas, the college points with pride in particular to its acceptance of women and black students since before the Civil War. On numerous accounts, Hillsdale College has earned high marks around the country.

This attractive, small college offers many of the undergraduate majors one would expect to find in any liberal arts college, including its department of art which finds its home in the two-year-old Sage Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. The art center complex encompasses over 50,000 square feet of working space in a beautifully appointed, two-story brick and steel building. During its honeymoon months the art gallery already has hosted exhibits of national prestige. The inaugural exhibit, occurring in November 1992, was ROMANTIC REALISM: Visions of Values, produced by Alexandra York, founder of ART. The exhibit premiered in Manhattan’s Grand Central Galleries earlier that year and involved a nationally respected group of painters and sculptors, including Hillsdale College artist-professors Tony Frudakis, who has taught in the school since 1991, and myself. For my part, I have taught at Hillsdale since 1973 and have earned national recognition for my paintings in egg tempera, watercolor or oil. Recently, we two have been joined by visiting art professor Richard Serrin, who left his home in Florence, Italy intrigued by the possibilities for dovetailing his vision of an Old Master program in oil painting with existing programs at a fine American college.

Together, we artist-professors work hard to balance our commitment to traditional studio teaching with our own vigorous careers. We have built a program in which the student experiences a solid core of anatomy-based life drawing, sculpture, and painting reinforced by an array of art history courses. We teach all the art history courses in the department with an insiders’ perspective on the making of art while maintaining high academic standards. In addition to the challenges of studio art and art history experienced in the Sage Center, the young student may round out his grounding in our Western heritage with courses in the classics, language, philosophy, and history, all of which are given in other classroom facilities on campus and none of which pander to the pressures of the “political correctness” so much in vogue nowadays.

A walk around the Sage Center typically reveals a glimpse of an art professor at work on one of his own projects. Even though each teacher maintains his own private studio, faculty members are generous in their commitment to involving students in the progress of their own creations. Strolling further once comes upon arts students grinding their own paint, sculpting and casting works of figurative sculpture, developing their own black and white or color photographs, and so on. A few more steps and one sees impressive plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Turn a corner and the scene is the computer graphics lab where an instructor has students working with the latest Macintosh hardware and software for image scanning and manipulation. The emphasis within the art major favors the fine art approach, yet the technical side is represented by computer graphics and photography.

At the core of much of the teaching in both art history and studio courses is the subject of the human figure. “The human form remains the ultimate challenge for the artist,” states Tony Frudakis,

There is nothing else that so well illustrates Coleridge’s definition of beauty as ‘unity in variety.’ The myriad of parts of bone, muscle, and sinew are amazingly synthesized by the body’s underlying order. It is not just the surface that we want the student to understand but, more importantly, what is invisible—nature’s geometry exhibited in the figure’s rhythms, proportions and movement. The training we offer is timeless, so the student can use it as a springboard for realizing a personal style in an intelligent, well-honed manner. For all our concern with craftsmanship, we want our students to realize their own dreams and goals in art, not merely copy the style of an influential teacher.

None of this study procedure is handled in a stylistic vacuum. Each art professor, in both his teaching and personal professional work, is absorbed in the human subject as a spiritual, intellectual, and moral being, for these three fundamental aspects of humans constitute the essence of the established Western cultural tradition that we seek to pass along.

This brand of teaching takes place in facilities virtually unmatched by other liberal arts colleges of comparable size. In contrast to the understated elegance of most public spaces in the Sage Center, however, the art studios themselves are large, stripped-down spaces that have a slightly industrial feeling, which encourages an industrious approach by our students. We do not want the creative process to be hindered by an overly fastidious workspace; we are free to spill paint or drop lumps of clay on the concrete floors. On the other hand the studios are well kept, ventilated, and illuminated environments. We are working toward an eventual arrangement for upper division art majors to have their own private workstalls, but that will probably involve finding additional space close to but outside the Sage Center, for our program is succeeding so well that we are already in danger of outgrowing our present facilities. Indeed, the inclusion of Richard Serrin has opened up extra courses in life drawing and oil painting, enabling me to offer courses in my specialties of portraiture and egg tempera.

Meanwhile, students are becoming more and more successful in securing commissions to do artwork for outside clients and help pay for their schooling. On occasion some have served as apprentices with the faculty on large scale projects. For example Sasha Kinens, a sophomore from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, collaborated with me in the early stages of an oil portrait of Dr. Russell Kirk, the late distinguished mentor of conservative political movements, and students Susan Clinard and Amy Bartley served as apprentices to Tony Frudakis for an over-lifesize commissioned sculpture of Socrates which now graces a park developed by the Greek community in Astoria, Queens, New York. We have, in fact, a highly talented team of student-artists; the average count of majors is around twenty, with as many or more additional students majoring in art. The usual enrollment in a studio course ranges from six to sixteen students, so each student gets close personal attention from his or her teacher.

Exposure to professional artwork is reinforced by a continuous calendar of gallery exhibits that emphasize fresh approaches to traditional expression. The gallery is beautifully designed and lit and can accommodate shows of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional artworks; for example, two exhibits already shown in the Sage Center which have enjoyed national or even international tours are: THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS: Photographs by Ansel Adams and INDELIBLE IMAGES AND SACRED ENCOUNTERS: A Perspective on R. H. Ives Gammell and Francis Thompson. In addition, the gallery regularly schedules exhibits of faculty work, the Michigan Water Color Society juried annual, and solo or group exhibits of prominent Midwestern artists. Each spring the gallery hosts a juried student exhibit involving all levels and media that offers both cash and scholarship awards. Finally, each senior art major is required to exhibit his or her best work in the gallery to fulfill graduation requirements.

All students whose talent lies in the direction of the representational approach to art will find their skills and vision nurtured by the department of art at Hillsdale. Their intellects and spirits will be challenged by cognate courses to be taken in the departments of classics, philosophy and religion, English, and history. The faculty sympathize with scores of students at other colleges and state universities whose realistic artwork has been insulted by artists and teachers alike who remain under the spell of the avante garde. The Hillsdale artist-professors respect valid alternative points of view but emphasize a well-focused program in traditional approaches instead of seeking to confound the student with faddish tendencies. We know what the cornerstone of art is, and we offer a generous hand to those who wish to build their foundation upon it.

Sam Knecht is head of the art department at Hillsdale College and an acclaimed painter of portraits and landscapes.

Copyright © ART Ideas. All rights reserved.