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Students' Art Influenced Through Italy Study Abroad

Students connected history and traditional art processes with contemporary thought

In the recent Siena Art Study Abroad directed by professors Dan Barney and Brian Christensen, both art and non-art students immersed themselves in Italy’s culture, language and traditional approach to art. Class discussions often revolved around past art traditions and processes in relation to contemporary culture.

By studying longstanding art practices like spinning wool, students were encouraged to reacquaint themselves with ubiquitous materials that are no longer understood in current times. In his class, Issues of Contemporary Art, Barney provoked his students to “move beyond solely making objects, but to make something that still matters conceptually by exploring why we would still work with traditional techniques and processes like spinning, knitting, and weaving.”

While abroad, students learned to merge their study of Italy’s rich history and culture with their own art-making. For example, students created artwork based on contrade – districts established to supply troops and defend Siena during the Middle Ages – which they learned about through daily “neighborhood walks.”

Christensen and his students made miniature clay installations to put in non-obtrusive nooks in various neighborhoods. One participating student, Fiona Barney, made houses for ants – tiny structures she filled with sugar, which the ants carried away.

A study abroad like this one becomes a life-changing experience for students, Christensen said. Experiences where “students learn to get out of their comfort zone and experience things on their toes” are the ones that stay with students the most over the years.

For art student Tanner Williams, the Siena Art Study Abroad was indeed life-changing, and has inspired his recent work.

Williams said he has always had a deep respect for medieval and renaissance art, and his real-life exposure to it changed his view of perfection in art.

“It stopped mattering to me how insanely perfect the proportions of a figure were,” Williams said. “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.”