High School Camp concluded last Saturday. But before we say farewell to Camp this summer, we present a profile of faculty and student experience in a similar style to the Elementary Camp and Middle School Camp profiles of previous weeks. The following piece, written by departing SFAC staff member Jacob Peterson, is based on interviews with students and faculty members who were here studying and teaching during high school session.
Sitka Fine Arts Camp is the kind of place where students can try all kinds of things, embracing a variety of disciplines regardless of skill level. For many campers, summer at SFAC is their first exposure to professional artists. What better way to ignite a lifelong interest in the arts than by working with artists whose lives are marked, defined by their practice of their craft.
One thing I’ve realized from talking with many SFAC faculty members over the course of the SFAC summer is that there are a few recurring objectives: building community, developing life skills, encouraging collaboration and sociability—and without exception, sharing the transformative power of the arts with kids from all over the state of Alaska, elsewhere in the United States, and even countries outside of the United States. This year, we had a total student enrollment of 784, with 45 Alaskan Communities, 20 states, and 3 countries (US, China, Norway) represented at Camp. These are exciting numbers and represent an unprecedented diversity of student experience.
Amy Butcher, a member of the writing faculty during High School Camp, spoke with me one day after her poetry class in Fraser about her teaching philosophy, student progress, and the democratic nature of courses at SFAC.
“So it’s mostly about immersion, and exploration, and creation of this safe place where we can try and fail, or try and succeed,” she states.
“What I love about the classes here is that you’re having kids come in at different levels, with different backgrounds, different interests. And so, especially with the sharing of their work at the end of each class period—which might not happen the first day, it might not happen the second day—but the idea is that by the fifth day, there’s a kid reading their poem or their short story or their essay, and across the room someone perks up. And you can see it happen—they perk up and you can tell—they’re like ‘I like that writing.’ Or ‘I relate to that writer.’ Or ‘that moment is a lot like a moment that I’ve had in my life.’ I think especially with the writing the kids are creating, they’re exploring and expressing what’s been difficult for them.”
High School Camp lasts just two weeks, but progress, Amy Butcher states, is marked:
“I see progress in terms of being comfortable taking risks and experimenting, and also sharing with each other. We do public readings in town, and that’s always the most incredible thing to see a kid jump up on stage and read aloud their writing.”
I spoke with Aurora Williams, a student in Ryan McAdams’s conducting class, one day last week during “rec time” in the hallway of Rasmuson. Fitting the theme of our conversation, the hall was filled, as it often is during Camp, with the sound of rehearsing musicians.
Aurora uses one word to describe Ryan McAdams’s conducting class: “Spontaneous.” She states, “His class is a mixture of everything you would need to be a conductor.” She also captures the advantage of an interdisciplinary arts camp, stating, “The conducting class is more relatable to the dance classes that I’ve been taking than to any music classes. Because it’s all about how to make movement transcribe into music. You use the same skills in dancing that you do in conducting to communicate through motion.”
Asked about collaboration, Aurora states, “there are so many different kinds of art that are thrown together…and everyone is so supportive of everything—there’s no wrong. So, really weird things that can’t happen anywhere else happen here. And they’re often spectacular.”
Last week, I also visited the ceramics building to talk with students as they worked. Zoe Guild and Bethany Bibb were working at one of the tables. The table was coated with a smooth, almost imperceptible layer of clay. Though they each had projects they were working on, the split attention didn’t stop either from being incredibly articulate.
“What keeps you coming back to Camp,” I asked.
Zoe responds, “Camp has its own atmosphere. Camp is a completely different world. You totally experience time differently. Every day feels like it goes on forever, yet every week seems to go by so quickly. … Camp is a place where people are truly themselves.”
Bethany adds, “It’s cool because you don’t really get to focus on one specific thing for any amount of time at home. Because there are other things—you have to do schoolwork, you have to clean your room. But here it’s just focused mainly on what you enjoy. But here, also, it’s really cool to see teachers who have succeeded in the arts that you want to do, and that’s really amazing to see.”
I spoke with Gustavo Martinez, who teaches sculpture, a bit later that day. He says this about his students: “I just enjoy talking to them. And I feel that I’m learning with them too. It’s not just like I’m passing on information, they’re also passing along information to me. So just at the level of ideas—that’s just the start. The community—how nice and polite students are—it’s great. They care about each other. That’s really important. It’s not like they’re in school. It’s like they’re a small family gathered around the dinner table making art….”
Mark Cole, potter and teacher, elaborated on the notion of community building the day I visited Ceramics: “I think that people identify with objects, especially in ceramics, because they can use them. They have this recurring theme of meaning that reminds them, over and over again, of the thing that they did back then with their hands. But the fact that so many people can identify with that sort of opens it up as a gateway—art-making is a gateway to building communities because people can relate to things through material, through ideas, through the process, through the things that they get across. We have a lot of students who are just making really cool objects, and are putting themselves into it, and when somebody else puts themselves into something…then you think about yourself and how you can do that too. So you bring your own uniqueness, but also your own uniqueness is part of how you relate to everyone. … The way that you are as an individual relates to how you get along with others, how you perceive others, how you welcome others. So art-making is a perfect gateway.”
On a rainy afternoon that second week of Camp, I spoke with Jonas Banta, a fourth year SFAC student, outside of Sweetland. I realized during that conversation that seemingly silly things happen at Camp. At one point in our conversation, two campers burst out of a large box to our left, surprising fellow campers headed to dinner, a box that had gone unnoticed by both Jonas and me. Reflecting, I realized this was a perfect, though perhaps trite, metaphor for the kind of development that takes place at Camp. People literally burst out of the boxes society constructs for them at SFAC. I’m reminded of Zoe’s statement that “Camp is a place where people are truly themselves.”
Jonas and I continued talking, and he outlined his passion for film photography, what he views as an increasingly lost art: “It’s really hard for a seventeen-year-old to go and try and have their own darkroom to print everything. And so, those are the kind of opportunities that you really wouldn’t get anywhere else, not even at high schools anymore.” SFAC perpetuates a kind of art that increasingly does not exist elsewhere.
We talked about the classes Jonas was taking this year, Poetry with Amy Butcher, in particular, a class that I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on during my work hours as an SFAC staffer.
Jonas states, “I’ve been so thankful for the opportunity that it’s given me, showing me that it’s okay to write an angsty teenage poem because you’re an angsty teenager. And it’s okay to write a poem about whatever you want because it’s a place where you can be expressive and comfortable and emotive without having to worry about the consequences.”
Ryan McAdams, conductor, has this to say about community building through teaching choir, among other disciplines: “The thing about music making that is different from every other experience is that because it’s abstract, you can’t ever articulate what it is you’re trying to express. You just express it. And when two people are right next to each other, and they breathe together, and they just mean that same inexpressible thing at the same time, they recognize that they’re both the same kind of human being. And that’s tough when you’re young. Everyone thinks that their experience is very solitary; everyone thinks that everyone else is different from them, when they’re young. As they get older, they realize that everyone’s struggling and succeeding with the same things. But when you’re making music, and when those things happen, when you suddenly realize that the person next to you is meaning the same thing as you from the bottom of themselves, then you can never look at them again and say, ‘this person is separate from me.’”