Nurturing artists as whole persons on Nantucket Island

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod, a serious art school flourishes in a leisure setting. Born of one environmental-studies class, the Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts (NISDA) is today a respected and inventive center for arts education.

Through its affiliation with Massachusetts College of Art, NISDA offers year-round graduate and undergraduate credits in painting and drawing, sculpture , textile design, photography, body movement, theater, and other arts.

Kathy Kelm, the founder and director of NISDA, formerly a professor of fine art and textile design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), stresses the importance of maintaining the high educational standards for which the school has always been known, but she concedes, ''Facts alone do not make an education or zestful human being - integration, commitment, values, wholeness do.''

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The instructors at NISDA follow a structured approach, giving careful attention to mastery of technical skills, but they also call on students to stretch their minds and to think in new ways. Teaching students to look within - to trust their own vision of life - is the school's real goal.

Tony Thompson, a professor of art at Parsons School of Design in New York City, teaches painting and printmaking at NISDA during the summer. According to Thompson, ''To make a painting that has never been made before is more a state of mind than a technique.''

Believing art is for everyone, Ms. Kelm planned the school with a triple focus: children and youth art classes, undergraduate and graduate college-credit courses, and a community program.

The present children's program provides a time for the very young, ages four to seven, to experience visual, movement, and storytelling arts. Workshops for youngsters ages eight to 11 are offered in sculpture, bannermaking, mask, mime, and more.

In the college program, the Core course is the one ''in common'' course required of all students working for credit. Students integrate their particular study programs with the Nantucket Island environment.

This is the heart of the interdisciplinary-environmental approach of the school, which has a 10-year history of offering courses that stress the innovative use of landscape. During all four seasons NISDA students and faculty use the varied natural and social environment of the island as a context for experimental works of art.

In addition, each student chooses two or three parallel courses of study related to his own area of interest.

One day each week all students meet to share and develop Core projects with the entire staff and student body. Interday, as it is known, may take the form of a seminar, discussion, critique, or guest lecture. Here the focus for the week's work is established, problems presented, and the means to resolve them explored.

After a visit to NISDA, Gordon Peers, former chairman of the Division of Fine Arts at RISD, wrote to NISDA, ''It seems to me that education in the arts has become apologetic about the fact that art deals with a body of knowledge that can be taught. . . . (It is difficult) to describe the feeling of excitement that came over me [at NISDA]. . . . In an environment as rich as you have, it is not hard to combine education with experience. What you have out there is immense and rich. . . .''

It would seem Katie Oddliefson, an Oberlin student who spent the 1982 summer session at NISDA would agree. In a letter she wrote to the school on completion of her program, she states, ''For the first time I felt continuity and life in my education. . . .I could work for hours and it would seem like minutes. . . .''

Along with the children's and college courses, NISDA has an energetic community program. Throughout the year the school offers seminars and workshops to adults of high school age and older, and the Interday guest-lecture series is open to everyone. The community has enjoyed such luminaries as Buckminster Fuller, architect, designer, and educator; and Roman Vishniac, linguist, historian, philosopher, and doctor of medicine, whose work pioneered the way in time-lapse cinematography. Vishniac explored the humanitarian realm of creativity within art. In his three-day workshop, he reinforced the underlying philosophy of NISDA, which emphasizes personal growth as the ''reason for making it all be.''

''We are often unaware of our capacities, of our abilities to use our lives fully and powerfully for the good of all,'' he said.

Among other well-known Interday lecturers have been: Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations; Robert Berks, sculptor; Paulus Berensohn, ceramist; Wayne Goldman, inventor of the electric car; Norman LaLiberte, artist, writer, and bannermaker; and jazz musician Wally Richardson.

This year NISDA is offering a special artist-in-residence program, with Robert Rindler, architect, as guest artist.

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