Beyond the Classroom

MIADís new studio practice major prepares students to become cultural citizens

BY NAN BIALEK  |  PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT HAAS

Artist Alexander K. Wrencher uses his work to pay homage to his late mother.


 

When Alexander K. Wrencher chose to pursue a new major at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), he found the freedom to work out aspects of his relationship with his late birth mother.

Growing up in an adoptive home, Wrencher once heard himself referred to as his mother’s shadow.

“I started to think about what is a shadow, and I started following a route with that,” he says. “I really made the work when my mom passed away. I saw the work as a way to grieve and pay homage to the life she lived.”

Wrencher, a 2016 MIAD graduate, used the new studio practice major to explore those ideas across disciplines. He practices sculpture and painting techniques, intaglio, photo collage — even poetry — to zero in on his thoughts about identity.

“Sometimes I subconsciously think about other things. Sometimes shadow figures are fighting and they’re kind of embracing each other too,” he says. And sometimes, he notes, emotion makes things happen unexpectedly. That’s the beauty of it.

For Wrencher, who started out studying design, the opportunity to write his own curriculum was an important factor in his decision to major in new studio practice.

Kim Miller, professor and chair of fine arts at MIAD, says new studio practice acknowledges the “individual path of each student,” but goes far beyond that.

“When we were looking at this new major, we were asking, ‘What does the 21st-century artist need in terms an education?’” Miller says. At the core of the curriculum, she says, “is that artists really produce culture as an instrument of knowledge and meaning…and it isn’t until it comes into the public realm that meaning can be made of the art that’s created.”

Miller says the ultimate goal of new studio practice is to prepare students to participate in the world as engaged cultural citizens, with a sense of responsibility toward other members of the community. The nature of that responsibility, she says, “is discussed throughout school and the artist’s lifetime.”

While students pursue their personal body of work, they are also practicing skills that will help them navigate the world beyond the classroom.

“It takes courage to be an artist, and artists work with the unknown,” Miller says. She points to a 2015 Forbes magazine study of what employers look for — those include problem solving, creativity, critical thinking and working collaboratively. “And those are the ingredients of what a fine arts education is,” she says.

Miller says artists then deal with the unknown and work toward an outcome with no guarantees and “that translates into the workplace in all kinds of ways.”

“(Wrencher) is an example of all of these things,” she says. “He (was) a great community member in class, a really perceptive critiquer, and he’s really ready to get into subtext and define what’s really at stake here.”

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