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Volume 18, Number 1
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Destination Inspiriation

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Two years ago, Jess Benston was working in communications at a public health organization and looking for a career change. She was also enrolled in an introductory art therapy course in the Division of Continuing Education at SVA. During one class her instructor made an announcement about SVA’s summer art therapy program in Florence.“I jumped at it,” says Benston. At the time, she had just begun thinking seriously about working in the field; she is now completing her MPS in Art Therapy.

For Benston, being immersed in a new culture in the company of like-minded people was a turning point in her work life. “I felt like people understood me in a different way, and I wanted to be able to do that for others,” she says of her decision to pursue art therapy full time. Benston’s experience is similar to that of many who have studied abroad with SVA, which has nine summer programs on offer this year, in subjects ranging from art history to digital photography. As described by participants—a diverse group of art lovers, professionals in the arts and students pursuing a degree at SVA—their time overseas is, above all, a form of inspiration, whether it’s a new appreciation for art’s past or a greater sense of purpose in the present.

Irina Lee
, a student in the MFA Design Department who is set to graduate this year, had been to Italy before, but was spurred to take part in the Masters Workshop in Venice and Rome last summer after meeting faculty member Louise Fili, an author and designer known for her logos and book jackets. Knowing that Fili’s work was greatly influenced by her Italian heritage, Lee was eager to have her as a guide and study typography in the place often considered the birthplace of the Western typographic tradition. Lee was especially impressed by the program’s Italian faculty, a group that includes historians, archaeologists and designers employed by iconic brands such as Alessi, Armani and international radio and television broadcaster RAI. “I would have loved to have had a semester with each of them,” says Lee of the faculty she studied with.

Although the Arts Abroad programs are conducted over a period of just a few weeks, the faculty make a lasting impression on participants. “Arts Abroad is about the same thing the College is about: studying with a master,” says SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes, who has overseen SVA’s various summer programs for more than two decades. He points to offerings such as Action Surf Photography in Rincón, Puerto Rico, a new program taught by legendary photographer Art Brewer. “You want to give people a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Rhodes. Clearly many people saw Action Surf as just that: shortly after it was announced, the program was full and had a waiting list.

Even for participants who have previously traveled overseas, Arts Abroad offers a unique way of experiencing a foreign locale. “They have never been a thousand years back in time,” says Deborah Hussey, the program assistant for Art History in Southern France, a program that includes guided visits to Roman ruins and medieval fortresses and the haunts of the Impressionists. Hussey recalls a visit to the studio of painter Paul Cezanne that made a lasting impact. “It’s such a visceral experience,” she says. “It’s a mixture of being in awe of a great master and realizing that this was an individual who worked every day at painting.”

For practicing artists, inspirations may come from an up-close look at a cultural landmark or specific work of art, but more often it has to do with the firsthand experience of a foreign culture and its special sensibilities. Abby Robinson, a photographer and frequent traveler who teaches in the new Digital Photography Residency in Shanghai, talks about learning new ways to shoot color in Asia thanks to the “ferocious” color combinations she saw there—juxtapositions that are often unfamiliar to Westerners. Another photographer, George Duncan (BFA 2004 Photography), traveled to Florence with SVA and was emboldened to explore beauty in his own work upon seeing everything the city has to offer. Shortly after his return, Duncan began to create Caravaggio-inspired portraits that soon were appearing regularly in The New York Times Magazine. “I felt like an empty bucket ready to be filled,” he says. As a student in the BFA Photography Department at SVA, he had already been focused on portraiture, but was unsure whether his future lay in commercial work or fine art. During the time he spent in Florence, he discovered what he wanted his art to be: “It really planted me solidly in the understanding that I wanted to do fine art.”

The impact of overseas travel isn’t limited to practicing artists or people with formal art training. Consider Meryl Serouya, an executive assistant at a New York City news distribution service who had never studied art formally before going to France with SVA. As someone who had always regretted that she hadn’t studied abroad while in college, she says that the experience for her was “the perfect coupling of art history course and group tour,” and motivated her to visit museums more often once she was back home. Another thing that Serouya appreciated was the fact that, with the Arts Abroad program, she could leave the organizing to someone else. “Planning a trip can really take a toll on you when you’re working full time,” she says.

For professionals who take part in an Arts Abroad program in their field, the inspiration may take the form of a different mindset about work. Designer Elizabeth Morrow-McKenzie (MFA 2002 Design), who took part in the Masters Workshop in Rome and Venice last year, runs her own design studio and branding consultancy in Portland, Oregon, and has a young daughter. In the years since graduating from SVA, she says she had missed looking at things from a student’s perspective, or as she says, “having that time to just focus on design without the pressures of clients, timelines and the restrictions of a brand”—in other words, the day-to-day practicalities of maintaining a healthy business.

If the most commonly cited reward for foreign study is a fresh perspective on art and culture, for professionals there can also be real-life tangible benefits to one’s business—everything from gathering material for comissionned projects to staying current with professional trends and networking. For instance, after studying in Italy, designer Morrow-McKenzie took on a project for a restaurant with an Italian esthetic, and was able to use photography she made of Venice street signs as a reference for the restaurant’s graphic identity. Meanwhile, Elinor Carucci, who will teach in the new Arts Abroad program in Arles, France, has made valuable connections at Les Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photography festival that attracts not only photographers but editors, art dealers and collectors from around the world. “You really feel the pulse of photography there,” Carucci says. “I know artists who go every year to know what’s going on and take in the special programs.”

For some travelers, the social aspects of the program are practically their own form of inspiration. As Meryl Serouya looks back on her time in the south of France, she says that the fact that the other people in her group were as eager as she was to learn more about art history meant that, unlike a trip she had previously made with friends to Italy, there was no need to negotiate the day-to-day itinerary. In Italy, she sometimes had to cajole her traveling companions to visit the art historical sites in which she was interested. “The SVA group was great,” she says, noting that many of her fellow participants have stayed in contact with one another. Some groups returning from abroad choose to set up a Facebook page or use another social networking site to keep in touch. And when photographer Ina Jang, a senior in the BFA Photography Department who took part in the Digital Photography in Florence program in 2007, looks back on her experience, she talks about the people she met among her fellow participants, one of whom she now considers her best friend.

Talking to recent participants on the Arts Abroad programs, it’s easy to understand why travel has for centuries held a special appeal for artists—and for art lovers. What new sources of inspiration this year’s participants will find, of course, remains to be seen. “Some people will arrive with ideas, and some people will discover new ones,” says Abby Robinson, instructor for the Digital Photography Residency in Shanghai. “But whatever their style of working, and whatever their interests, they’ll come away with something.”

For more information about Arts Abroad 2010, visit sva.edu/artsabroad.

To read more about the experiences of recent participants in their own words, visit SVA’s blog at sva.edu/vabriefs (click on CE).

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