Summer Art Intensive Blog

Between Leading and Listening

September 28, 2017

By Sarah Philips

When I first signed up for a Teaching Assistant position at the summer, I never could have expected the wild ride that my July was about to become. Over the course of the Cooper Union Summer Art Intensive, I grew to empathize with and understand my own teachers to a degree that I never had before. I realized the amount of emotion, time, and energy they expend in order to help their students. As a TA, I was in a strange position, both teacher and student while being truly neither. Working one-on-one with Rob, my drawing instructor, required a vastly different mindset than when I was working directly with my students. I found that not only did the students often come to me for serious questions about Cooper and impending college applications, but we were able to share a certain humor, unadulterated by the compounded stresses of life and work after high school. Being closer in age and experience, they were less intimidated by me and more open to being playful.

In my short stint as a TA, in my view to teach is to straddle a line between leading and listening, serious and experimental. The students have to feel like they have the power to ask questions and receive real answers. As a teacher, taking a student seriously is the first step for a student to take themselves seriously. This is what Rob and I strove to do in our drawing class. We gave our students the space to think for themselves. If we saw them struggling with a concept or technique, we would step in and lend them a hand, but otherwise they produced their art on their own. Our free form and somewhat vague prompts were devised to push students to interact with their materials and subjects in ways they probably hadn’t been encouraged to before. I believe this approach yields much more self-conscious and driven work.

Classes that focus on the purely representational aspects of drawing are useful, but miss the point of drawing as an exercise in thought. Drawing is a fantastic way to develop ideas visually and to communicate these ideas to other people or to your future self. The process of drawing is as important as the finished (or unfinished!) piece. To be aware of your inclinations, influences, observations, and anything else that might unconsciously push your work one way or another, and be able to take them apart and analyze them is a hard skill to learn and an even harder one to teach. It requires a degree of comfort, or at least familiarity, with uncertainty and anxiety. It’s arguably harder to work without constraints rather than within them; the key is to understand how you work and to develop your own constraints based on what you want to see.

High school is a time notable for its bureaucratic nonsense, college applications, parent signed forms, authoritative teachers, and stringent social groups that each jostle for the attention and energy of the student in question. These things strip power from the student and cause them to doubt themselves and distrust authority, while in turn conditioning them to expect these kinds of dynamics later in life. While I can’t yet do anything to fight this self-feeding cycle on a large scale, my goal in this program was to at least give my students a space where they could talk to me person to person, both serious and playful, and work things out for themselves. In this way, I hope I encouraged at least some of them to begin to break away from their precious conceptions about drawing, life and high school. Theirs is a tough trail to blaze, all we can do is try to give them the tools to do so.


Contemporary Art Issues from Both Sides of the Classroom

April 20, 2017

 

By Masha Vlasova

In high school I loved to draw. I was excited to attend the Cooper Union’s Summer Art Program primarily because of the numerous hours of drawing instruction a week. I knew nothing about contemporary art and thought I didn’t like it. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was drawn to Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series. I didn’t quite know why I liked them, perhaps because they were “realistic.” Needless to say, when I found out that in addition to drawing at CUSAI, we were expected to attend something called “Contemporary Art Issues,” and that it involved writing and discussion about said “issues,” I was intimidated.

From day one we were expected to share our observations, feelings, and interests in writing and discussion in response to museum trips and studio visits with contemporary practitioners. Our instructors and TAs dragged us all over the five boroughs. One memory that stuck with me was attending a Bowery Poetry Club reading. Later in class we responded to this experience with our own poetry. It was unusual (and for that reason exciting) to be put in dialogue with an established living poet’s work. Just as it was new and exhilarating to visit an artist’s studio and ask them questions about their craft and see their process “behind the scenes.” No one never told us that art we were looking at was “good” or “bad.” Instead the instructors insisted we define this for ourselves. At the time, I probably wasn’t able to articulate how and why this course was important for my development. I just knew that I was being exposed to something entirely different and new.

Thankfully not all lessons need to be translated into language in order to be internalized.

At the Cooper Union and later at Yale School of Art to my own surprise I didn’t focus on painting or drawing but rather turned to video, performance, and text.  I still visit Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series every time I go to the Met. I’ve come to appreciate these works as mediations of time, concerned with light and the particular political moment of their creations. When I was a student, Contemporary Arts Issues planted a seed that was later nurtured by my many teachers, mentors, and colleagues in college and graduate school. I seek to plant that very seed when I teach this course.

No Contemporary Arts Issues class is like another. Designing the course is a research project in its own right. I look into programming at well-known museums, as well as small artist-run and alternative exhibition spaces. As I make lists of shows and artists, read biographies and press releases, different themes begin to emerge. Last summer we broadly focused on memory: cultural, historical, global, and personal. In class, prior to seeing Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) at the Met Roof Garden we discussed this theme broadly. What constitutes cultural memory? What constitutes appropriation? A Remake? A Copy? Later at the museums, I asked students to consider a different set of questions. How does the sculpture make our bodies feel? How does it relate to our bodies in space? To the space itself? What does it ask of us physically? Looking at art in a museum, gallery, or a specific site is essential to a well-rounded art education. Context grounds broad themes and metaphors in an immediate experience.

I love to work with students that are at the beginning of their arts career, when there is much potential for discovery. Often I see students coming in with an intended art major or a notion of what art is. It’s always exciting to see students expand their perspectives, as they begin to see what can be possible. Seeing students transform from being intimidated by new perspectives and possibilities to feeling empowered and excited by them is what makes teaching this course so rewarding.


2017 Artists in Residence Announced

March 30, 2017

Tammy Kiku Logan, Julia Norton, Kate Starbuck Elliot and Florine Demosthene (l to r)

The Summer Art Intensive is thrilled to announce its 2017 Artists in Residence. Tammy Kiku Logan is an artist and educator working in Brooklyn, N.Y. Kate Starbuck Elliot is a native New Yorker currently living and working in Brooklyn. Simulated oases, adventure game shows, and gymnastics are amongst the varied references in Julia Norton’s (b.1985, New York City) ongoing exploration of environment, body, and form. Florine Demosthene is an artist, designer, educator and global citizen.

For more about these artists, see our Artists in Residence page.


Time Constraints: The Challenge of Teaching Design in Four Weeks

March 07, 2017

This blog post wouldn’t exist without a deadline. I don’t think most things in life—and especially not in the arts—would exist without some sort of time constraint. As a full-time type designer, I understand this well. Every type designer I know understands that typefaces are never finished, they are just released. Meaning that, if I don’t have a deadline, either self-imposed or by a client, I could literally draw, test, and refine a typeface for the rest of my life, and die with a huge smile on my face.

However, the reality is that deadlines are a part of life, and they can be immensely helpful to the design process. I enjoy the challenge of a tight deadline. It forces me to act on instinct and find inventive solutions to complex problems. Time is a design constraint, and embracing this constraint can be a powerful tool for learning and personal growth.

Never has this been more apparent to me than last summer, when I faced one of the biggest design challenges of my career: teaching Graphic Design at Cooper Union’s Summer Art Intensive, a rigorous four-week program that prepares high school students to apply to top art schools.

While designing my syllabus for the program, I made a list of things that were essential to a designer’s education. Then, I narrowed it down to what could be most helpful to pre-college students. The list was still long, and condensing such expansive topics as Design Principles, Lettering & Typography, Color Theory, and Design History into three hour chunks would be too overwhelming and not enjoyable for any of us.

Like many designers, I often turn to Charles Eames for advice. Eames, an influential American designer, once said the solution to solving a design problem rests in “the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible” and, crucially, the designer’s “willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.”

Eames’ quote described my teaching challenge perfectly. My students were a group of highly motivated and enthusiastic high schoolers who were choosing to spend their summer in school. And, on top of design, they would also be taking classes in creative writing and drawing. With that in mind, I designed the syllabus with a simple premise: each class would present a challenge that used time as a design constraint.

Using this approach, I was able to introduce my students to the principles of design, and give them a strong foundation that would help them approach problem-solving like a designer.

During the first half of the program, we focused on tools and ideas. We covered 2D Design basics and Graphic Design history by visually deconstructing famous works of graphic design. To help them situate their work into a broader context, I took them for a special visit to the archives at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at Cooper Union. During this visit, the curator, Alexander Tochilovsky, discussed how we can gain a deeper understanding of graphic design history by studying design objects.

We also covered Typography through lettering exercises that enabled them to see the details that make a typeface unique, as well as how those details determine the color, texture, and optimal use of a typeface. I also introduced them to Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, and showed them how to use these tools efficiently.

I was afraid that some of the lessons would be too technical, but those fears quickly went away during class critiques. When the students themselves started pointing out the weaknesses in their designs, I’d helped them bridge the gap of identifying a problem and figuring out how to solve it. After a lot of trial and error, they were starting to see.

During the final half, we put these tools and ideas into action by focusing on the execution of short and long-term projects. I encouraged my students to work on these projects using both digital and analog tools. Getting them used to tight deadlines and short class critiques earlier in the program enabled them to move past their first drafts. By iterating and learning from each other, they were starting to see for themselves that design is the kind of challenge that is never finished, just released.

Their final project was to create a poster that clearly communicated their views on a topic they were passionate about. They created powerful images that explored the subjects as well as themselves, bringing to life a diverse array of themes including animal rights, film history, and feminism, to name a few. Throughout the project, we had many one-on-one conversations about their process, choices, and doubts. This culminated with the visit of a guest critic, where they had the opportunity to present their work, explain their process, and defend their choices in a safe and controlled environment.

At the end of the summer program, we had an exhibit that showed each student’s final project, as well as two group posters showcasing their best assignments from a class exercise. I was very impressed by the amount of work produced and the improvement that my students were able to achieve in just four weeks. It definitely helps having a good TA with you in the trenches—thank you Kelsey!

As the students printed their final project for the exhibit, I realized that I had met my deadline, and the summer program was rapidly coming to an end. All that was left to do was hang the exhibit and hope that I get lucky enough to do this again sometime.

Juan Villanueva is a Type Designer at Monotype, an instructor for the Pre-college Program at the Cooper Union, and adjunct faculty at The City College of New York, and a graduate of the 2013-2014 Type@Cooper Extended Program.


  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.