In Experiential Learning, Study Abroad

Students worked across disciplines and made contemporary connections

For any art student, Italy ranks as one of the top places to view influential works of western art. While visiting the historical cities of Italy, BYU students applied long-standing art traditions to contemporary thought.

Students at the coastline in Napoli. Photo courtesy of Dan Barney.

Art students and non-art students alike traveled to Italy under the direction of professors Dan Barney and Brian Christensen. The study abroad included visits to Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Florence and ended in Venice during one of the most acclaimed contemporary arts festival in the world, the la Biennale di Venezia, or Venice Arts Festival.

The majority of the study abroad was spent in Siena, Italy where students lived with host families. Students took Art Education, painting and sculpting courses.

Students were also required to learn Italian. In past art study abroad programs, students were not required to take any language classes, but Barney and Christensen felt it was a significant opportunity for the students to be immersed in the culture.

“This time we thought it would be great to have Italian classes in the morning that were taught by Italians, so everybody, even if they had no experience at all, took Italian,” Barney said. “I thought it was helpful in discussing some of the issues that we were working with and it created a different type of cultural experience than the students would have had otherwise.”

One of the important focuses of the study abroad was looking at past art traditions and processes in relation to contemporary culture. Barney’s class, Issues of Contemporary Art, maintained this focus as students worked with crafts like spinning wool.

“We would talk about how we could build concepts around our artistic practice,” Barney said. “Not just to make objects, but to talk about something that still matters and why we would still work with these traditional techniques and processes.”

“Italy retains a lot of tradition in craft process and does things in an old-school way,” Christensen said. “We were trying to bridge the gap between learning from materials and applying that learning to contemporary thought.”

One of the ways the students applied contemporary focus to their art was through their reactions to Siena’s individual neighborhoods, known as contrada. Each contrada is representative of military groups within Siena during Medieval times. Students learned about the contrada through daily tours for their one-credit-hour “neighborhood walks,” a course unique to Siena provided by BYU’s Kennedy Center.

After touring and becoming familiar with the contrada, students made site-based artworks. Christensen and his students used clay to make mini installations to put in holes and other non-obtrusive nooks in the various neighborhoods.   

Participating student, Fiona Barney, made houses for ants, tiny structures she filled with sugar which the ants carried away. Another student, Dailie Jeffs, reacted to the neighborhoods that were filled with birds, so she made clay pigeon installations.

For Christensen, having students integrate and contextualize their own processes and traditions into the traditions of the town of Siena was an important part of the experience. Art student Tanner Williams, said the study abroad changed his approach to art and was the influence behind his recently curated exhibit “I’m Sorry, We’re Sorry.

“I’ve always had a deep respect for the Renaissance and the surrounding centuries of art,” Williams said. “Although I did enjoy all of this work in real life, having such a long and easy exposure to it during the study abroad started to make me hate good, exact rendering. It stopped mattering to me how insanely perfect the proportions of a figure were, and I started looking for metaphors and concepts that were awe-inspiring due to their conceptual complexity, not just the skill of the brush or charcoal. Being in Italy made me set goals and parameters for my own art so that I’m not just a copy machine, but rather a voice of help, offering new ideas to the world.”

The Siena Art Study Abroad provided students with a unique cultural experience through an educational setting that influenced their contemporary focus of art. Christensen said he found that these type of experiences are the ones that stay with students the most over the years.

“It ends up being a life-changing experience,” Christensen said. “Students get outside of themselves and learn to meet new people which pulls them out of their shells. I think it’s important no matter what your major is. For artists in particular, it’s essential to get out and see a lot of art. I would be an advocate for study abroad hand in hand with experiences like internships. So that students learn to get out of their comfort zone and experience things on their toes.”

"Immigrant" installation by Brian Christensen. (Brian Christensen)
Installation by Tanner Williams. (Brian Christensen)
Ant structures created by Fiona Barney. (Brian Christensen)
Ceramic creations from the study abroad art students. (Brian Christensen)
Pigeon installation by Dailie Jeffs. (Brian Christensen)
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