The art school at the State University of New York in Fredonia is an undiscovered gem.
The campus adjoins a tree-shaded small town in the rolling farmland of southwestern New York State. Jeanette and I spent the morning painting watercolors on a nearby Amish farm, accompanied by the sounds of a creaky windmill and a horse-drawn manure-spreader.
Fredonia has a fully restored 1891 opera house where the college’s animation majors can screen their capstone film projects. The school recently expanded its illustration program to include animation, under the leadership of the new illustration/animation chair Jill Johnston-Price.
Because of her expertise, most of the illustration majors develop a love and awareness for the moving image, all of them beginning the traditional way with a pencil and a light table or with stop motion before moving into digital tools.
Dr. Alberto Rey, who heads up the drawing and painting major, was born in Cuba. A gifted watercolor painter and fly fisher, he brings his painting students outdoors to work directly from life. A row of French easels is available for anyone to borrow for their landscape painting exercises.
“We try to get the students out of the sterile environment,” he said. “When they go outside, they have to learn to compose. Otherwise they get too structured and too dependent on photography.”
The focus of the curriculum is on fundamental hands-on skills. Drawing and painting students get the chance to hand-sculpt a figure in clay to deepen their understanding of the form of the figure.
There’s a room set up for intaglio printing and stone lithography, as well as a whole workshop for welding.
One of the assignments involved drawing a life-size self portrait nude in charcoal, which meant scaling up a drawing in the traditional way and very carefully modeling the tones. All the painting students learn how to make their own stretcher bars in the woodshop and stretch and prepare their own canvases.
But Dr. Rey believes that the thinking is equally vital. “It’s important that the students develop intellectually and conceptually,” he said, and part of the work of the painting majors involves writing their own artist statements.
One of the strengths of the art school at Fredonia, apart from its reasonable tuition costs, is the fact that it is part of a larger university, rated twelfth overall in the US News ranking for public institutions in the north. The college is strong in early education, music, performance, and public health. We met one art student who is combining her love of art with nursing and anthropology, with the goal of working in the field of art therapy. Another double-major that we met wants to go into teaching art to schoolchildren.
“It’s exciting conceptually for an instructor to work with the students,” said Dr. Rey. “The students are all different.” As different and unique as clay pots, I thought to myself as I surveyed a display of hand-thrown ceramics laid out on a counter overlooking a stand of maples in their full autumn finery. Such passion for teaching helps direct and fire the destiny of each of these young artists as surely as the potter shapes the clay.