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Beyond the Four Walls: Thoughts on the Importance of the Fine Arts at Brewster

 Beyond the Four Walls: Thoughts on the Importance of the Fine Arts at Brewster
Nancy Hughes

When fine arts teacher Alicia Childers ‘01 says that art instruction at Brewster is not “a monolith within the four walls of the art building,” she isn’t alluding to the fact that her studio space will in time be traveling over to the Rogers Building. (Although the excitement about that move is definitely mounting!) Rather, what she means is that the time students spend learning about and creating art influences “how students see the world and how they choose to react to their surroundings.” Making art helps students understand themselves and the world beyond the studio’s walls more clearly and deeply. As such, it is not a stretch to suggest that the fine arts have a unique capacity to amplify so much of the learning that happens throughout the Brewster experience. New faculty member Amy Becker concurs: “I see visual arts as an integral part of a student's education. It provides opportunity for students to learn topics such as science, psychology, history, and SEL in a more hands-on and self-expressive way.” 

What does that look like? Talking about a recent class unit on photography, Becker explains, “to understand the fundamentals of photo composition, we have to learn about the psychology behind it—why the human brain likes compositions to have repeated patterns, symmetry, the rule of thirds, and leading lines. All of these elements are found in nature, and help us find order in chaos; when we see these elements, it naturally helps us to relax.” 

What else can it look like? Well, how about developing resilience, time-management skills, and creativity—all while exploring a social problem confronting people today? That’s what students in Alicia’s studio art classes have been doing over the last month. Committed to the humanist idea that artists have a responsibility to respond to the larger world, Alicia invited her students to explore an area of social injustice they are concerned about or interested in and eager to understand more fully. She then charged her students with creating a piece of art that calls attention to the injustice and inspires reflection and discussion. Alicia explains: “These longer and bigger projects allow students more opportunity to test out ideas, more chances to fail and start again, building resilience. Kids also have to figure out how to get the work done; class time isn’t enough. But most importantly, students need to grapple with their subject—what it means to them and how to convey their feelings about it to others.” 

From environmental degradation to human trafficking, the issues students chose reveal their thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and the diversity of their selected medium and artistic approach speaks to the freedom within Brewster’s fine arts classroom. For example, Maddy O’Blenis ’22 examined the inaccessibility of high-priced prescription drugs in a multi-media piece that brings together black and white photographic images and broken mirror pieces within a large plexi-glass box, whose top is covered—on the outside—with a cascade of pills. Another student, Jenny Scott ‘21, using spray paint and ink, created a massive double sided canvas (6’x 8’) to represent the two sides of the abortion debate. Visually compelling and sophisticated, these works are the manifestation of a student-centered process that demands kids use their heads, hearts, and hands.

Artwork by Maddy O'Blenis '22

Theater Director and Chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department, Guinevere Hilton credits Brewster’s fine arts teachers not only with creating warm, welcoming, and generative classroom environments, but also for their commitment to finding a variety of audiences for their students’ work. As an example, Guinevere points to Steve Burgess’s initiative to showcase Katherine Martin’s remarkable talent in photography by helping her put together a solo exhibition in the Academic Building. Everyone who passes the lower halls of the Ac is able to interact with this striking collection of Katherine’s images and accompanying written explanations and reflections. 

Of course, this exposure to art enriches our community experience; it is also a critical part of the artists’ experience. Along with curating collections of student art in the Estabrook throughout the year, Childers, this fall, also organized a show of Brewster students’ art at the Gafney Library in Sanbornville, New Hampshire. When asked why she thinks it is important to provide Brewster students such an opportunity, she explained: “Students gain real-world experience setting up and preparing for a show—wherever it is held. Showing your work adds another dimension of experience for students. When they leave Brewster, I feel confident knowing students have learned to value all the work an artist puts into their work. It’s not just about creating the piece; it’s about how to share that with others and how to listen to feedback from the community.” Reflecting further on why students need to show their work, Childers added, “Technique and skills are important. But running parallel to that should be the students’ ability to talk about their perspectives, share their narrative, and find connections to their artistic journey wherever they go, across disciplines and mediums.”

Brewster’s fine arts teachers are passionate about helping their students on that artistic journey, and they understand how that journey supports all of what our students do here at Brewster. Endeavoring to help students better understand themselves and the world, they collaborate with all departments. It will be a thrilling day when all of the fine and performing arts faculty will be housed together in the renovated Rogers Building, modeling for us all how energetic student-centered collaboration can shape an educational community.


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