From freshman orientation in August to commencement in May, author Larry Witham was there.
He wrote about details that reflect well on the Maryland Institute College of Art – and others that might make an administrator squirm. Witham watched students win prime exhibition space, fall in love with painting and land graphic design jobs. He also wrote about a young man masturbating in front of his sculpture class and a woman suffering hypothermia after sitting in a tub of icy water as a kind of performance art.
And Witham, a former newspaper reporter who earned an art degree from San Jose State University, wrote about tragedy when a pleasant but reserved freshman named Kristopher hung himself in a dorm bathroom. His classmates responded by organizing an exhibition of their friend’s work before the memorial service.
Art Schooled: A Year among Prodigies, Rebels, & Visionaries at a World-Class Art College,  published last month by the University Press of New England, provides a sympathetic look at a group of supremely talented but often misunderstood young people training to be artists.
It’s also a lens into the inner workings of the college. Witham sat in on faculty meetings as professors considered unionizing and engaged in a grueling debate over pay. They ultimately reached an agreement with the college without forming a union. He watched graduate students size up the next field of applicants and followed attempt after futile attempt by undergrads to gain 24-hour access to campus buildings.
But through it all, Witham had access to students, faculty and administrators at the top-flight Baltimore art school known by its students as MICA. For President Fred Lazarus IV, MICA’s leader since 1978, the project was a chance to show what an art college was really like. Though he concedes other colleges might be hesitant to give an author an all-access pass to their campus, the potential rewards outweighed any concerns in Lazarus' mind.
“The fact is parents and guidance counselors don’t have a clue what happens in these colleges,” he said. “How do we try to give them a sense of what these kids are going through so they can communicate and relate to them and hopefully take them seriously? I hope this book provides that insight.”
Witham conducted about 150 interviews for the book, securing student permission before including names or quotes and honoring requests to withhold some names.
He followed a young man scrounging tuition money from a work-study gig in the campus post office. He spent time in a newly refurbished building's shiny art studios, in the nearby train station where students would sketch passengers and in English classrooms where instructors worked to engage students more interested in photography or filmmaking than Thoreau.
And Witham interviewed students in dorm rooms, where some of the country’s most creative 18-year-olds thrived and struggled, living for the first time away from girlfriends and parents and hometowns but – in many cases – at a place where their talents were finally embraced. The book, Witham hopes, is a holistic view of a year on the urban campus of more than 1,800 undergraduates and 300 graduate students.
Of course, the private institution didn’t have to allow Witham on campus. But art colleges and their students have an image problem, Lazarus said, something the 2006 movie Art School Confidential didn’t do much to alleviate.
“Art School Confidential really sort of characterized the art school of the ’60s,” Lazarus said. “This was a partying, drug-ridden era and it wasn’t considered a serious environment.”
And, at least at MICA, that’s no longer the case. “Our students really work,” the president said. “They love what they do, but they’re very serious about what they do.”
Indeed, Witham wrote about students pulling all-nighters to put the finishing touches on their work before a morning class and driving to Miami to gain exposure at a major art show.
Lazarus thinks the book is fair, even with discussion of controversial topics. “There’s certain issues that happen during any given year that you say, ‘Oh my God, what do I do and do I really want that out there?’ ” he said. But overall, Lazarus said, the book is a positive for MICA. “The incredible relationship he described between certain faculty students I thought was really special,” the president said. “I came away proud of what we do.”