Students discover the best professional artists are givers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Artists from all over the US annually flock to the northern Arizona desert to teach and recharge their batteries. Their destination is the Orme School Fine Arts Festival and Workshop, and the reasons are as varied and valid as the art forms themselves.

Each year, the Orme School, a private college-preparatory boarding school near Mayer, Ariz., starts off the spring semester with an intensive week of art workshops. Regular classes begin after the workshops.

"We started 13 years ago with a good idea," explained Dot Lewis, workshop coordinator and artist, "and we ended up with an unprecedented success where the students and guest artists enrich their interests and professions."

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Eighteen artists from New York to California gathered this year in late January. There was a smattering of newcomers, but the group was comprised mostly of faithful returnees from over the years.

"I first called upon my artist friends,"

Mrs. Lewis reminisced, "and was fortunate to drag Harry Sternberg and Paolo Soleri to the school."

Currently running her own gallery out of Idyllwild, Calif., Mrs. Lewis had been the Orme School art director years before she started the workshops. "After the first year, it took off. The artists wanted to come back and other artists heard about the education and the opportunity to get away from it all."

Mrs. Lewis picked three major ingredients for her success forumla.

"First, it's the quality of the artists we attract." She claims the artists who participate have been able to provide an important element of professionalism, "The best professional artists are givers," she said. "They certainly don't come here for the money with the modest stipend barely meeting expenses."

Mrs. Lewis said the motivation for coming to the festival might be tied up in the way each artist started out himself having little contact with the real world and almost no opportunity to work with, or watch, a professional. "They're giving something they never had."

"Then, it's the tone of the place, which is something very difficult to put a finger on." She looked around as the students grabbed a cookie and a beverage in time to race back to the workshops during the morning break.

"These kids live here, the teachers live here, and when we come, it's like joining the family. The closeness, the excitement, and the red carpet treatment for the artists is something not found in any other educational or even professional environment. And the tone lasts for the entire week."

A pause, then she contnues, "Finally, it has to be the location of Orme School," Mrs. Lewis waved her arms at the expansive scene stretching out from the dining hall and library. "Where else can an artist find such vital activity in such a serene, fresh environment?"

Mrs. Lewis said she was given a free reign to organize the workshops 13 years ago, and drawing from her own experience, she knew what worked and what didn't work. She said she was careful not to abuse the trust the administration had put in her.

The workshops this year included a selection from ceramics, creative writing, drama, environmental and light phenomena art, fabrics, fibers and found objects in art, filmmaking, iron working, jewelry construction, music, painting, photography, printmaking, song writing, metal sculpture, stained glass, and dance.

"Of course," Mrs. Lewis admits, "there are so many other factors involved in the way this workshop clicks each year, I just can't put it into words."

Jim Ciletti, the creative writing leader from Ridgefield, Wash., agreed with her.

"Why do I keep coming back? . . . It's to recharge my batteries, to get in touch with my fellow artists, to let everything come back into my soul which I have chased out after a year of work in the real world."

Mr. Chiletti has been going to the Orme School event since the first workshop , although he missed two years somewhere along the line. "I think the week of intensive work with a small group of students is one success factor," he explained. "I have 10 students for six days and I push them to their limits.

"I have a captive audience that isn't going to be interrupted by a math class or any other outside study. They're mine and I'm theirs. I give them a college-level dose of creative writing, stretch their imaginations, light their fuse, and get them launched."

Ciletti is happy with just a week, too. He said the students would start copying his style but, "With just a week, they take the inspiration and some skills and go out on their own tangent."

Tom Fresh, an all-media artist heading up a workshop in environment and light phenomena in art, said it's impossible to really teach in any other format. "The mixed-up class schedules during a regular semester of school allow for only shallow hints at the subject matter and the students just can't produce."

Mr. Fresh conducts a portion of his workshop in what he calls "dream circles, " where "the kids take their dream ideas and mold them into shape. And it works ," he said, "because the students are allowed to really get into it through extensive contact and dream time."

The workshops culminate in an evening of presentations from the dance, theater arts, and music groups, with a professional and student exhibit offered in the Phillips Library.

"I search for the best artists year-round to capture just the right works for the exhibit," Mrs. Lewis explained. Then pointed out several of her favorites this year as she prepared to hang paintings and organize the displays.

"The show is another part of the education. Students sometimes have wild ideas about artists, and allowing the professionals and their products to come to them, to come into their home in a way, the students learn that artists are real and vital people with fine ideas and dreams. It's wonderful to experience the interaction. Especially when it generates such enormous interest and energy from each student."

"I'll be doing this as long as I continue to fill a need," Dot Lewis said. "I suppose I can imagine what it would be like not putting this together every year, since I have plenty to keep me busy back home. But, I'll do it for as long as the school wants me to, and for as long as I see this magic each year where the pr ofessionals and students become one."

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