Into Columbia’s senior studios.
By Brooke McCormick
Scattered throughout the Barnard and Columbia campuses are unexpected oases of creative expression. For some, these spaces are an artistic foil to Butler or Milstein. On the sun-drenched eighth floor of Barnard’s 600 dorm and throughout the maze-like Watson Hall, the seniors of the Visual Arts Department have an opportunity to create their senior thesis project in a studio of their own, shared with at most one other student. As the semester draws to a close, a portion of our classmates fastidiously print linocuts, sculpt experimental reliefs, and create vibrant oil paintings in between academic classes and second majors or minors.
The studios provided for the senior thesis process are a perk of a major that is sometimes overlooked. The thesis is, in essence, designed to help “develop an independent studio practice,” according to Emily Henretta, a thesis professor at Columbia. The project is the culmination of a major which differs slightly between schools: Barnard’s Visual Arts concentration skews toward conceptual and self-directed work, while Columbia’s program offers its students a more traditional studio curriculum. In contrast with an art school, the department leans toward the interdisciplinary-minded student; the young artists bring a broad academic background to their work.
For Barnard and Columbia Visual Arts seniors Delia Tager, Tiari Kuualoha Maile Faagata, and Lilly Cao, the studios have been a welcome retreat after three semesters online, when artmaking was confined to the trappings of childhood bedrooms or school-issued dorm room desks.
It was “liberating” to be granted such independence after a year of painting with toxic oil paints in a dorm room, according to Cao. Their studio in Watson has eye-catching oil paintings hanging on most walls, as well as a satisfying, richly decorated inspiration board. They paint abstract human forms, embedded with particular cartographies speaking to bodily control and the domination of land through the medium of cartography. In this way, Cao has been able to connect her artistic practice to her scholarly interests in the History and Theory of Architecture, her other major. A soft blue air mattress also lies on one half of the room, a necessary piece of comfort within a demanding art schedule that, they tell me wryly, does not “subscribe to that myth of the genius artist, who, like, throw[s] paint on the canvas.” Instead, Cao’s method is “spiritual” and “rigorously planned”—she comes to her studio, puts her favorite music or audiobook on, and completes routine brushwork and tracing.
Delia Tager, who is working on a thesis that primarily honors a large, elegant tree branch she found after a storm in Morningside Heights, described the studios as a haven. She noted with certainty that the space allowed her to complete a project on a grand scale, one that’s a departure from more traditional mediums. The studio’s privacy offered her space to work peacefully on the project, without fear of her artistic process being disrupted, or her delicate materials being damaged. For Tager, the studios can be an energizing space, too, where students can leave their doors open to allow peers in adjacent rooms to drop by throughout the day. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to campus—a “not very creatively fulfilling place,” in her words.
The opportunity to create art in a personal studio allows students to find energy in a personalized space. Tiari Kuualoha Maile Faagata, whose work engages in a range of media but explores overarching themes of Hawaiian identity, mythology, religion, and storytelling, usually listens to music freely as she works, and stores costumes from her dance group in the room. She even uses the space to practice dance routines for her multiple extracurricular performance groups.
As much as these private studios are a cherished part of the major, students are not relieved of the burden of paying for expensive materials. While they may receive the space to engage in their work, there is little other financial assistance provided by the department. If you’ve ever spent time in Janoff’s or Blick, you’d know that art supplies are prohibitively expensive, especially oil paints and canvases. The $80 course fee for the bulk of Visual Arts classes doesn’t even cover the charcoal you might need for a drawing class, or the special materials you’d need for one in printmaking.
Despite these funding drawbacks, students generally relish the opportunity provided by the department to make art in a school with access to both a range of academic opportunities and a world-class art scene just a subway ride away. The studios are a special place for Columbia artists to, as Tager puts it, “work outside what I thought was possible.” Indeed, once you walk into one of these spaces, the scent of turpentine percolating in the air, students chatting or doing meditative work all around you, you’re hit with the sense of true creative freedom.