Cleveland Institute of Art takes learning to the streets

One of Chris Whittey’s favorite quotes is by Italian poet and essayist Eugenio Montale, from his book The Second Life of Art:
“One could say, that music, painting, and poetry begin to be understood when they are presented but they do not truly live if they lack the capacity to continue to exercise their powers beyond that moment.”
To Whittey, who serves as Cleveland Institute of Art’s, senior vice president of faculty affairs and chief academic officer, Montale’s thought reflects just what CIA wants its students to learn in their studies.
“If art is made in the studio and it never leaves that life, it never circulates,” Whittey explains. “If it does not circulate, art is not professional but can only ever be a hobby — living half its life. One could say that the world literally separates these two approaches. It may only be one person, but it needs to be shared and it needs to circulate.”
That is the attitude CIA takes with its Engaged Practice (EP) coursework. The EP classes, which have been in place for several years but became a graduation requirement in 2016 — take students off campus and into the field to engage in real-world projects through their art.
The EP program is just one part of the school’s Cores and Connections philosophy of pairing students with more than 200 outside partnerships for experiential programs and projects around Northeast Ohio.

CIA student working on a dialysis portraitConnecting to the community
In Drawn to Care, for instance, students visit dialysis centers and draw portrait of the patients. The idea is to explore how the portraits affect both the patient and artist. “When you have the portraits done, it can validate your existence as a human being,” says Whittey. “It’s good for the patients; it’s good for the students.”
Whittey is also working with East Cleveland's mayor, Brandon King, and CIA students to beautify the struggling city. “We’re working with them to figure out what we can do with vacant land,” Whittey says, adding that many homes in the city have been demolished. “These things take a long time to mature and we have so far been building relationships.”
Another course involves pairing students in CIA’s industrial design department, under the guidance of biomimicry professor Douglas Paige, with natural resources experts at the Cleveland Metroparks. The goal is to expand the students’ studios to the outdoors while developing artwork around ecological issues.
Case in point: in 2015 the students designed a buoy system for the reclaimed Scranton Flats area that protect the wetlands along the Cuyahoga River from the large freighters traveling through the shipping channel. “The buoys stand up to the ships’ bow thrusters and other debris,” explains Whittey.

River project
Yet another ongoing course is ProjectFIND, in which students work with the homeless community partners such as Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s 2100 Lakeside men’s shelter, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the HomelessFrontline Service and the Cosgrove Center, to address the issues of the homeless population and find artistic solutions through placemaking efforts.
ProjectFIND began in 2015 as a year-long EP class that created pocket-sized resource maps, which detail shelters and amenities for homeless individuals and families. Anastasia Soboleva, a CIA alum, participated in the project during her senior year in 2016 when the program had evolved far beyond the maps.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Soboleva recalls. “As a painter and a drawer, I spend most of my time in the studio and galleries. I was very curious about the arts when you reach out into the community.”

A way to break through
What Soboleva found when she worked with the women at the Norma Herr Women’s Center on Payne Avenue evolved into Project Envision.

First, Soboleva and her classmates held weekly art workshops to help the participants to express themselves through art. “The first time I visited the shelter it was shocking to see what the shelter looked like — there was no art of the walls,” she recalls. “I wanted to find out from the women staying at the shelter what the space needed.”

Artist Anastasia Soboleva - Project Envision part of the projectFIND course at CIA
After nearly two months of discussions and painting, everyone involved was creating art. “The women went on to describe their feelings, their goals on how to get out,” Soboleva recalls. “The art projects found a way to break through and have them open up to me.”
Project Envision resulted in a three-part painting done by Soboleva, but conceived through the women at the shelter. She says the words that the women wanted to come through the drawing were struggle, hope, courage, resilience, strength and community.
Participants also created portraits. All the works were displayed at CIA’s Student and Alumni Gallery in May 2016, while Soboleva’s painting will be displayed permanently at Norma Herr.
Soboleva, who is originally from Chisinau, Moldova and now lives in Cleveland Heights where she also has a studio, has continued with ProjectFIND, even a year after graduating from CIA. Most recently, she has been involved with the Open Doors Project — a series of installations of free standing doors.

Open Doors CLE event in Willard Park, Downtown Cleveland, May 27 2017
The doors, donated by people in stable housing and decorated by the homeless community, are meant to create relationships between the two groups and raise awareness. The installations were displayed at Slavic Village’s Rooms to Let on May 20 and 21 and an event held in Willard Park on May 27.
Even though she wasn’t required to participate in the EP course when she attended CIA, Soboleva has found it an invaluable decision. “These types of classes are the only source to get experience as working artists while in school,” she says. “How to implement it, realize it and see how it affects the community.”

“We’re all creating a new path here."
Whittey says CIA is now considering implementing an “emotional intelligence” component to its curriculum. “The next logical step is about non-art, non-design attributes, or soft skills,” he explains, referring to coursework that teaches resilience, perseverance and empathy.
While Whittey says executing the emotional intelligence factor is still a few years away, he has been working with companies like Swagelok and Watterson and Associates to develop the curriculum. “We’re looking at how to building emotional intelligence skills in the school,” he says. No other school that I know of is doing this.”
Whittey sees the emotional intelligence component yet another way to provide a well-rounded arts education. “Just imagine if I could say to prospective parents, “this is what your child looks like now and this is what they will be when they go out in the world and know what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Whittey says.

“We’re all creating a new path here, and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

The Cleveland Institute of Art is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.