Wet Painters

Grad students in Wash. U.'s art school contend with a rainout.

Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts

Every now and then, students at Washington Universitys Graduate School of Art would feel a few wet drops as they worked in their studios in the Lewis Center. Then they began to notice small puddles forming in the breezeways beneath the roof of the building, located at 725 Kingsland Avenue just off Delmar Boulevard, about a mile north of the main campus. Before long some of the first-years were stopping by the Lewis Center at all hours to carry out weather checks on their workspaces.

"There were times I had to come over here in the middle of the night because it was raining and I had to make sure my stuff was all right," recalls Bryan Eaton, a 23-year-old sculpture student from Seattle.

Finally, two weeks after classes began, came the full-blown September storm that ended this past summer's blistering heat wave — and lo and behold, it was raining in the studios in Lewis' north wing. Within days the school was forced to evacuate more than a dozen students from the building. One artist had to leave behind the beginnings of an installation.

"It is not something that we had anticipated," says art school dean Jeff Pike. "We did our very best to move as quickly as we could to get them into spaces where they would be safe and could work."

A small cadre of students remains rattled by the displacement.

"It was definitely destabilizing," says Taylor Wallace, a 28-year-old mixed-media artist from Knoxville, Tennessee. "You've just moved to a new city and you're trying to figure out where everything is — when you work in 3-D, you have to find the places that sell the stuff you need. You can't just go to Home Depot and buy shit. It took two weeks out of our lives. Two weeks is a long time in a sixteen-week semester."

Wallace and a handful of others plan to demand from Pike a public apology, a partial tuition reimbursement and a guarantee that they will not be relocated again.

"We want the community to be aware of this, because Wash. U. does have this great reputation," explains Morgan Gehris, a 23-year-old printmaking student from Chicago. "I think a lot of us came here expecting a lot more."

According to Pike, two students already were compensated for water damage to their property. As for an apology, the dean concedes to being confused by the request: "I have been in front of these students many times, and apologized to them repeatedly," he says.

Adds graduate director Patricia Olynyk: "It's kind of like demanding from Northwest Airlines an apology for an electrical storm because the flight can't go off."

Wash. U. has long prided itself on its art school, which was founded in 1879 and is said to be the oldest university fine-arts program in the nation. The last time U.S. News & World Report ranked graduate art studies, Wash. U. finished 21st in the country. Its printmaking specialty placed third, sculpture thirteenth.

Just last year the university set about further ratcheting up its reputation for graduate studies by reorganizing its arts and design resources under a new administrative aegis: the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. Named for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium and longtime Wash. U. benefactor Sam Fox, the multidisciplinary school allows students of art, architecture, urban design and planning to enroll in courses across any and all disciplines.

Under these new auspices, instead of a master of fine arts degree in painting, say, or printmaking, art grad students finish with an MFA in visual arts. What's more, the artists' master's projects are included in a gallery show at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, a sparkling new structure designed by Fumihiko Maki, a recipient of architecture's highest prize, the Pritzker.

"They graduate with a museum show on their résumé," points out Olynyk, an accomplished printmaker who has taught at three graduate schools. "It's unprecedented."

Adds Olynyk: "We also let [students] stay in their studios until June or July, well after the school year has ended. And we are looking at developing international programs and connecting with galleries overseas to make sure their work there could culminate with a show as well.

"This program is unparalleled," she sums up.

Undergraduate tuition for art students totals $34,500 per year. The annual tab for the grad-school program comes to $27,950.

The changes helped the art school nearly double its graduate enrollment this year.

It probably didn't hurt that the university laid out nearly $60 million to construct the Kemper Museum and another Maki-designed building and renovate three existing arts structures on the main campus. (For more about the buildings, see Robert Duffy's appreciation, "Maki's Mark," published October 26, 2006, and available at www. riverfronttimes.com.)

But it is the undergrads — who were formerly housed in the Lewis Center — who now benefit from the new studios on Wash. U.'s main campus. Workspaces for the 40 grad students were consolidated in the Lewis Center, a Classic Revival structure that was designed as an art school by the iconic local partnership Eames & Young and built in 1909. The building later served as a public school; it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was purchased by the university in 1998.

According to the school's dean, the roof over the Lewis Center's north side, which once housed a gymnasium, has been leaking for several years.

"We've attempted to repair it, and each time we were told it was repaired well and should be OK," Pike explains. "Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case."

Says student Taylor Wallace: "Your grad students are the ones who make your reputation in the art world, and I think the school is trying to transition into that mentality. But we're kind of 'out of sight, out of mind,' still. And that's why this issue needs to be brought up, not overlooked."

The roof is supposed to be fixed by the beginning of next semester, at which time seven artists will have to move back into Lewis from their temporary workspace in a university-owned building on nearby Vernon Avenue. Those students say they don't want the hassle of relocating again.

"They have tripled, if not quadrupled, the size of their studios [in moving to Vernon Avenue]," Olynyk notes. "They have been given absolutely stellar spaces where they can put together large-scale work, where they don't have to be under anybody's supervision and where they can run their own show for the next three months."

The art school, the grad-school director adds, can't afford to keep the students in the temporary studios.

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