Spring 2009 | by Rebecca S. Cotton
"Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Well, it is Saturday night. And it is New York City. But this is actually a part of Bethel University tucked away on the seventh floor of a 16-story building between the busy thoroughfares of Avenue of the Americas and Broadway. In the center of this city of more than eight million people is a loft on West 28th Street, home to the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies, or NYCAMS (pronounced nye-cams), owned and operated by Bethel (nycams.bethel.edu).
On this Saturday evening in early December, NYCAMS is abuzz with activity. Some of the 21 fall semester art students are working on projects. Others are talking and laughing with friends and family members who are in town for an end-of-semester art show. Young artists come and go, laugh and chatter, critique and share. “This is a typical weekend,” says John Silvis, director of NYCAMS and an assistant professor of art.
But what’s atypical is the success of NYCAMS, which offers students from Christian colleges and universities all across the country a semester of immersion into art, the artist community, and the faith community. Through four courses of study—Contemporary Art History in New York; A History of Christianity and the Visual Arts; Directed Open Studio; and an Internship in the Arts—students explore both their art and their faith.
Several years ago, John Silvis was attending church in New York City. James Romaine, assistant professor of art, was at the same church service. “Hi, do you remember me?” Romaine said as he tapped Silvis on the shoulder.
They were childhood friends, raised by parents who were in ministry doing church plants. Silvis’ parents were working in Vienna, while Romaine’s parents were in Turkey. Their families had many occasions to be together. The boys played together. That “chance” meeting in New York City was the first time in many years they had seen one another.
As they reacquainted, they discovered both were working in the arts, and began talking about starting a program like NYCAMS where college students could develop as Christian artists and gain real-world experience in the epicenter of the U.S. art scene. Later, Silvis was asked to teach a semester at Bethel University, his alma mater, where he received a B.A. in studio art in 1992. While on Bethel’s St. Paul campus, Silvis began exploring the idea he and Romaine had been discussing.
First, he raised the idea with Deb Harless, Bethel’s acting provost and former dean, and Wayne Roosa, chair of the department of art—then with Vincent Peters, associate dean of off-campus programs. Finally, they presented it to then Provost Jay Barnes.
“The creativity of the faculty in the art department showed itself in the development of NYCAMS,” Barnes says. “They envisioned a top-tier learning experience that coupled studio art, art history, and incredible internship opportunities that would educate not only the next generation of Bethel artists, but also be a catalyst for Christ-following art students at other Christian universities.”
With Bethel’s backing, Silvis and Bruce Kunkel, vice president for campus services, began looking for the right spot to accommodate NYCAMS in New York City. “This is an art cultural center,” Silvis says of the Big Apple. “There’s a high percentage of artists here. They dialogue art. Nowhere else in the U.S. is there more art sold, collected, talked about, and critiqued than right here.”
Within NYC, Silvis wanted a student-friendly location. He knew it was important that the building have the security of a doorman and 24-hour access. Equally important was a building that welcomed students with later bedtimes than most.
Final decision? The Chelsea neighborhood, which is neither quiet nor slow. The entrance to the NYCAMS building is virtually obscured by the ongoing businesses of importers, exporters, and wholesalers of jewelry, flowers, toys, and trinkets. Up and down the street, workers are loading andunloading trucks all day and night. Within blocks of NYCAMS are more than 300 commercial art galleries. And throughout the city are some 40 world-class art museums.
“This program gives students tangible access to experiences that are not possible anywhere else in the world,” says Silvis. “Nowhere else is there the same concentration of critical dialogue about art. They make, think, and discuss art here.”
The first students arrived in January 2005, and NYCAMS has been going strong ever since. To date, more than 142 students from 20 different schools have participated for a semester in the program.
The 9,000-square foot NYCAMS loft includes a classroom for instruction, a gallery for art shows and exhibits, a darkroom, a digital lab, and a kitchen where students can prepare meals—in lieu of a school cafeteria. In addition, each student has an open studio workspace that varies in size, shape, and style—as unique as the art students themselves who paint, draw, arrange, and even sew. They work with everything from yarn, fabrics, and wood to watercolors, paper, computers, and what some might call another’s trash, expressing their art form in pieces that most call abstracts.
On this particular Saturday evening, Karis Medina, a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., is working on what looks like a wooden crate. It’s actually a portable gallery with two exhibition sides, Medina says. With this piece, Medina is exploring the way objects are assigned value. She is considering proposals for exhibitions and hopes to inspire guest curators for her mobile gallery. Medina’s parents, Damaris and Dan Medina, in from Lakeland, Fla., for NYCAMS’ end-of-semester art show, look on.
“It’s fun to see her grow and change,” says Mrs. Medina. “She’s been growing as an artist since high school. At one time, she was primarily a photographer. She’s gone from photography, shooting in all black and white, to a sculptor and installation artist.” Installation art manipulates and alters a physical space, allowing the viewer a more interactive experience with the piece.
Each semester, NYCAMS opens its 2,000 square feet of gallery space for an exhibit of the students’ work. In the fall ’08 exhibit, each student produced two to three pieces—one was a human spine made from the age-old toy Lincoln Logs.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, students head to their internships with working artists. Silvis and his colleagues have identified 85 artists, including jewelers, painters, sculptors, and graphic designers with whom students can do their semester internship.
“Working in the art world is a distinct aspect to the program,” says Silvis. “There’s a very practical emphasis. We want to show students what life could look like for them.” One student interned with a jewelry designer. In the process, she designed a fabric handbag that caught the attention of a neighbor to the jewelry design studio—a costume designer for the popular ABC sitcom “Ugly Betty.” The handbag was used in an episode of the show and the student had the opportunity to visit the set and meet some of the cast and crew.
NYCAMS students are also encouraged to become involved in a church community. “This semester has been really great for me. The church I’ve been going to fits in with Calvin’s philosophy of merging art and faith,” Medina says. “Being active in a church really makes you feel at home in the city.”
Helping NYCAMS artists is Silvis’ old friend James Romaine, an assistant professor of art with a Ph.D. in art history from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. At NYCAMS he teaches art history and recently organized the conference Educating Artists of Faith for the 21st Century. Through three sessions, 30 guest administrators and faculty from numerous higher education institutions learned about the history of NYCAMS, discussed some of the challenges and strategies of art departments and university administrations working together, and explored what’s in store for future teachers of art students. Along with Romaine and Silvis are two other faculty members at NYCAMS, Julie Allen and Brent Dickinson.
NYCAMS’ advisory board is made up of working artists, curators, and gallery directors, including Silvis, whose specialty is photography, and Bethel’s art department and NYCAMS chairman, Wayne Roosa. The board is continually exploring ways to expand the program to include more opportunities for other forms of the creative arts. In a previous interim, 12 opera students came to NYCAMS to participate in an intensive voice training seminar with New York professionals, led by RubyAnn Poulson, Bethel associate professor of music. Beginning this semester, a journalism and creative writing track has been added.
Nineteen students from six schools will participate in the NYCAMS spring semester—seven from Bethel.
“In a way almost impossible to match in any other location, NYCAMS helps students develop their art portfolio, life experience, and faith journey,” says Barnes. “It is a great educational investment with the type of potential gains we hope to see in the best of a Bethel education.”