Whoever it was that described art as a form of play clearly never set foot in Muhlenberg College’s art department.
“I think many people are surprised by the level of seriousness with which we approach the whole thing,” explains Scott Sherk, professor of art and department chair.
“For us, art is not a form of play, it is a form of sophistication. For us, it is a deadly serious endeavor. We are passionate about that. We expect our students to work hard, to push themselves, to find excitement and passion in what they do, to push themselves beyond the borders that they don’t often confront and instead of finding themselves relaxed, finding themselves quite challenged and uncomfortable with where they are going.
“Art isn’t just to decorate the world, it is the consciousness of our culture,” continues Sherk, who among other things, regularly teaches Sculpture I, II and III.
Joe Elliott, professor of art, offers a similar perspective on art at Muhlenberg and art in general.
“Among students, the biggest misconception is that art is, you might say, an easy major. I think art majors find that it is a very demanding major and the amount of work that you are required to produce is great. And, it is kind of open-ended. It is not like a typical class where you have a body of information that you have to acquire or skills that you have to go and be tested on,” says Elliott, who teaches several photography courses.
“The misconception is that art is fun or recreation or relaxing,” Elliott continues. “It can be those things, but it also can be frustrating and exhausting and very involved and hard, so it is not always fun. It is just like being a pianist or an actor or a musician or a dancer. It might be seen as wonderful once the dancer, for example, is performing, but the preparation can be exhausting. It’s not always fun -- it’s grueling.
“Art is a much more open-ended thing,” he says, noting that each student’s capability is unique. This makes instruction complex and intense.
In spite of this intensity -- or maybe because of it -- the art department at Muhlenberg is currently home to approximately 60 majors and minors, a number that has been consistently trending upward, according to both Sherk and Elliott, who have each spent the last two decades teaching art at Muhlenberg.
Students who choose to major in art can concentrate in either art history or studio art, and within studio art, a student can decide to focus on painting, sculpture, printmaking or photography. The culmination of the studio art major is a senior seminar taught in the fall, followed by a senior honors seminar in the spring for a chosen few. The senior seminars were launched about four years ago.
“Word about our program is starting to get out,” says Sherk. “Probably the most exciting thing we have done is to institute the senior art seminar, which is a semester-long directed independent study. All senior studio majors have to take it. The most motivated students, those who we have qualified, are enrolled in our honors program. We have been really excited about the kind of work that is coming out of what is really two semesters of concentrated independent study.”
About half of the seniors who apply for the honors seminar are accepted, says Sherk, with nine members of the Class of 2004 having been enrolled in the senior honors seminar this spring.
Developing the honors seminar has prompted another change in the art department, making the annual senior art show a competitive exhibition only open to those enrolled in the seminar. Elliott lists this fact among the biggest changes he has seen in the Muhlenberg art department during his 21-year tenure at the College.
“I think we have steadily improved our facilities and what we can offer technically,” he says. “We just added a print-making studio about three years ago. We added additional full-time faculty to teach drawing. We’ve expanded our faculty. We’ve expanded our facilities. But the addition of the honor seminar has played a key role in bringing the level of quality of our seniors’ work to an increasingly higher standard over time.”