Foundation Studies: Now and Forever

November 20th, 2013 by IMAGE Magazine
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Students in a CCAD drawing studio during the 1950s. Images courtesy of CCAD's Packard Library

Students in a CCAD drawing studio during the 1950s (left). Images courtesy of CCAD’s Packard Library

By Dave Ghose

When Chris Yates talks about changing CCAD’s signature Foundation Studies program, he likes to make an analogy to his grandfather’s awl. Yates inherited the tool, but he doesn’t use it. The long, pointed spike is an antique, something you hang on a wall. It’s not practical in today’s world.

As CCAD’s Foundation Studies director, Yates leads the program that equips students with the basic tools they’ll need to succeed as sculptors, painters, industrial designers, and other creative professionals. Those tools, however, must keep up with a changing artistic marketplace and an evolving student population.

As a result, CCAD will debut an updated Foundation Studies program in fall 2014 — adding new elements to the school’s first-year experience while eliminating less useful material (the antique awls of the curriculum, if you will). “We have to think about what tools are really important, and that’s what we’ve done,” Yates says.

Piggybacking on a first round of changes that began about seven years ago, the 2014 update will give students more choices and allow them to jump further into their majors during their freshman year. The makeover is significant, with every first-year course changing. “I truly believe it’s going to serve our students very well,” says Yates, the primary architect of the revisions.

What’s Changing

Curricular areas have been repackaged and, in some cases, deemphasized or eliminated (no more oil painting, for instance). In their first semester, students will take a combined painting, color theory, and design course called Visual Literacy: Color and Design. As they previously did, freshmen will also take a first-semester drawing class (Witness and Response: Drawing Methods) — but a new group project–based course called Collaboration Studio: Actions and Outcomes will be added. A separate, painting-based color theory class is no longer part of the mandatory first-year curriculum.

For a long time, all freshmen at CCAD took the same foundation courses. The first wave of changes broke from that custom, allowing students to take introductory work in their majors during their second semesters. Earlier-onset specialization will continue with the fall 2014 revisions.

While all freshmen will still take the same classes during the first semester, they will have more options during the next one. They will continue to take bridge courses in illustration, visual communications, advertising and graphic design, and other majors, but they will also be able to choose from three drawing and three color and design classes instead of taking one-size-fits-all courses. The new options gear the curriculum toward specific majors — with, for instance, a class that teaches drawing methods most useful to designers.

How? Why?

The changes weren’t made lightly. CCAD leaders consulted with students and faculty members and audited the entire curriculum to determine the essential grounding all students need. Yates also emphasizes that CCAD isn’t throwing everything out. “The crux of it is still there,” Yates says.

Still, changes are simply necessary to prepare students for a creative economy that requires more digital, entrepreneurial, and collaborative skills. “It’s not just about making things,” says CCAD Provost Kevin Conlon. “It’s thinking about what comes next. It’s thinking about big ideas. It’s thinking about their own creativity and how you leverage that in an economy that is as crazy as this one is these days. You have to give students the tools to be successful.”

The Foundation of Foundations

“Making things” has long been the bedrock of CCAD. Under the leadership of former CCAD President Joseph Canzani, the school made the instruction of basic skills a top priority. The challenging, wide-ranging Foundation Studies program became CCAD’s calling card, even extending into all four years of study at one point, says Yates, a 1987 CCAD graduate in Fine Arts.

CCAD alumni compare the Foundation Studies program to a boot camp — a grueling ordeal that tested their work ethic, discipline, and commitment. If they completed the program — and many didn’t — they were rewarded with a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of painting, sculpture, design, and color than most other art school graduates had. “I found myself continually pulling from it as an undergraduate, as a grad student, and as an educator today,” says William Potter (CCAD 1995), a painter and associate professor at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis.

After Josh Jordan (CCAD 1995) wowed his professors at Yale University’s graduate program with his knowledge of color theory, one of them — a disciple of color paragon Josef Albers — asked Jordan to fill in for him one summer. The professor rarely, if ever, asked anyone else to teach his color theory course. “I would never have been qualified to do that had I not experienced the foundations program at CCAD,” says Jordan, who now teaches at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Still, CCAD’s Foundation Studies program wasn’t perfect. The intense, project-based curriculum often drummed out creative but less mechanically gifted students, and the heavy workload and emphasis on the fundamentals left less room for other important elements. When Yates entered grad school after CCAD, he found he could make almost anything, but had little exposure to contemporary ideas. “That was a shock to get to grad school and realize, ‘Holy crap, I don’t know anything,’ ” he says.

Looking Forward

The new system will strike a better balance, CCAD leaders say. Today’s students demand relevance; they want to know how each skill will help them attain their goals. This new system will do that by cutting out less important material and allowing freshmen to get into their majors sooner and find out if their intended areas of study match their expectations. “If they are going to spend three hours a week for 16 weeks doing something, it’s got to add up to a usable skill in their future career,” says Julie Taggart, dean of the School of Studio Arts.

Some alumni fear that overspecialization could limit student exposure to a wide variety of skills and people. They lament specific changes — the loss of a separate color and painting class, for instance — but their primary concerns are more general: Will Foundation Studies remain a bonding experience for freshmen? Will the competitive, rigorous environment be watered down? “Art is a discipline, and that was something that was instilled in me at 18,” says Lara Nguyen (CCAD 1998), a painter and a professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. “And that carried me through my graduate experience. It carried me through my job searches. And it carried me through my studio practice.”

CCAD leaders promise to maintain those traditions. Though all classes won’t be universal, the new first-semester project course — which all freshmen must take — should foster camaraderie and competition. And Foundation Studies professors will still be just as demanding as they were during the Canzani era. They’ll just teach a curriculum more suitable to contemporary students.

“We’re going to make it hard,” Conlon says. “We want students to come away with an experience that prepares them. But we also want to make sure they understand the value of what they’re getting from day one so they don’t scratch their heads halfway through the term and say, ‘What am I going to use this for?’ ”

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Published in print twice a year, CCAD’s IMAGE magazine shares stories about our creative community, whether here in Columbus or around the world—what we’re doing, thinking, and planning next. The IMAGE blog brings those stories online for transmission at the click of a mouse.

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