Futuristic towers sculpted from chicken wire and plastic wrap loom over Marika Dahlin's desk, where she doodles soulful creatures on a sketchpad. "I'm working on structures and form and trying to make something visibly pleasing," said Dahlin, 22, and a junior visual arts major at Biola University in California. She's not sure if the towers represent skyscrapers. But when asked if her illustrations are influenced by filmmaker Tim Burton, she smiles and says, "Yes. I really like his work."
Dahlin and 16 other students from Christian colleges around the United States are taking classes in art, design, and writing this semester at the New York Center for Art and Media Studies (NYCAMS). A Manhattan outpost of Minnesota's Bethel University, the center places junior- and senior-level college students in internships and classes.
"We show them the world they're about to enter," said Brent Everett Dickinson, an assistant professor at NYCAMS and a Brooklyn-based artist.
NYCAMS has Christian roots and it serves Christian students. A group of New York City artists at The Village Church in Manhattan a decade ago realized they'd taken solitary paths to the fine art world. Dickinson said they talked, prayed, and dreamed about starting a program to host, train, and mentor art students from Christian colleges. They wanted to help those who might have talent and training to obtain the connections, critique, and refinement of a large art hub.
John Silvis, a fine art photographer and former art consultant for Citibank, served as a visiting professor at his alma mater, Bethel University, in 2004. He proposed the school start NYCAMS. "It sounded wonderful but seemed unlikely we could pull it off," said Wayne Roosa, the art department chair at Bethel. But top administrators liked and supported the idea. Now "it fills a huge need for art students coming from small schools," said Roosa.
Silvis, Dickinson, and others launched NYCAMS in the fall of 2004 and hosted the first 11 students in 2005. Since then, they have taught about 230 students. The professors say they aim to teach students to engage contemporary art in the context of Christian thought and the idea that they are to live and work as "creators made in the image of God."
"I think all artists acknowledge the creative process and realize it is coming from a spiritual place," said Silvis. "In that way, I think being a Christian in the art world is really not that complicated."
What is complicated, he says, is to learn the disciplines of studio work, a critical view of art, and the nuances of building relationships in the art world. After his own undergraduate education at Bethel and graduate school at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Silvis had a steep learning curve when he moved to New York in 1994. He applied to work with artists he admired like William Wegman, but found no way in. Instead, Silvis worked as a guard at Dia Art Foundation in Manhattan as he developed his own work.
Although he had solid academic training and eventually won awards and had shows around the world, he didn't initially know how to approach galleries, to meet curators, or to live as a professional artist: "Even though I was ambitious, on some level I had a romanticized, naïve view of how it all worked."
With NYCAMS, students take classes, work on their own art, serve in an internship, and visit museums, galleries, and events to help them understand-from professors, peers, and professionals-how the art industry works. The students come from schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities such as Bethel, Biola, Westmont, and Messiah College. They live in apartments in Long Island City in Queens and spend most of their time at NYCAMS' studio and gallery space in the north Chelsea section of Manhattan on a street sometimes called the "flower district" for its many florists.
Austin Manley, a 20-year-old junior from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, is carefully pasting photos on the white walls of his studio space. He took the snapshots around Manhattan as part of a class project and is preparing to show them to his graphic design professor and peers. A double major in studio art and graphic design, he wears skinny jeans, a loose T-shirt, and stylish glasses.
Manley says he wants to attend graduate school for art though he isn't sure he'll be accepted to top programs. His semester at NYCAMS and internship with a studio artist in Brooklyn are showing him what it takes. "So much of the art world starts here or comes here," he says. It's also showing him what it takes to be a Christian person in a city heavily influenced by contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons. While some may think of contemporary art "as a sinful or secular industry, it doesn't have to be that way," he says. "It can also be redemptive."
That's a message Silvis, Dickinson, and other faculty members are continually reinforcing. But they are also exploring the tensions of creative freedoms and emphasize artistic thought and critique rather than moral censorship of the student's work.
At the spacious loft-style gallery of the NYCAMS campus in midtown Manhattan one Monday, workers scurry about on creaky wooden floors, using drills, levels, and screwdrivers to install art on freshly painted white walls that rise to the 12-foot-high ceilings. This gallery space sometimes displays work by NYCAMS students and sometimes that of other artists.
The show going up this particular day will feature work by students from several top art schools in New York City, such as The Pratt Institute, the School of Visual Arts, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, all members of the College Art Association (CAA). The 10 pieces of contemporary art are not necessarily Christian in nature. In fact, one of the paintings-perhaps the best in the show for its colors and forms-features the F-word and a hand flipping its middle finger toward the viewer.
"That painting wasn't painted by one of our students," said Dickinson. But, in concept, "it could have been."
As host, NYCAMS' leaders Silvis and Dickinson judged the art and curated the show for the CAA. The affiliation, they say, helps their students see and understand the work of their peers. "We bring New York City into the gallery space," said Dickinson. "We really push our students to question a lot of boundaries that they've set or others have set for them." Beyond recognizing crassness in a painting, he wants students to understand and critique what an artist might be expressing in such a work without necessarily rejecting the work for its vulgarity alone. He wants them to think about how their own work reflects their faith, their thoughts, and their personality as well.
NYCAMS is expanding with post-baccalaureate residencies and an emerging curator program for top graduates. NYCAMS is also planning to expand its writing and design programs and to launch exchanges and residencies for artists in Beijing and Berlin, two cities Silvis considers to be leading edge in visual arts right now.
As a launchpad NYCAMS has worked for some: Jennifer Mills, an alumnae from 2006, has shown her work around the world, received a Harvey Fellowship, and is completing her Master's in Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reid Strelow, 25, thought he would be a "Sunday afternoon painter." But his time at NYCAMS in 2006 was "a real eye-opener for a guy whose summer job only months before was pumping sewers in his rural Minnesota hometown of 3,500 people."
Strelow got a job working for a high-end design firm in Manhattan and is now pursuing a Master's in Fine Arts in sculpture at Hunter College in Manhattan. "The making of objects and images is a very immediate exercise in exploring the truth to having been made in the image of God, a creative God," he said. "I understand making art to be a direct participation in this creative story."
Meanwhile, Dahlin takes a break from her illustrations and says her visits this semester to contemporary museums make her yearn to live in New York someday. "For now, so long as I'm creating good art and being a good influence, that's the biggest thing."
"The Protestant church has been much more accepting of other arts than visual arts," says Brent Dickinson, a Brooklyn-based artist and assistant professor at the New York Center for Art and Media Studies.
Dickinson came from a long line of pastors in Pine Barrens, N.J., and initially attended a Bible college in Philadelphia before switching to a painting program at Maryland Institute College of Art and getting a Master's in Fine Arts at Yale University.
Dickinson doesn't agree with notions that realism or the Renaissance paintings of biblical scenes are the pinnacle of Christian expressionism and should be the sole aim of Christian artists. "Art is the kind of physical embodiment of ideas," he says. "Some artists make work about their Christian faith. Some of our students do this. But this is not the only work one can do. Much work that aspires to be about God and the Heavenlies does not rise to that," he says. Often "it ends up being just bad art work."
He draws a distinction between NYCAMS and other programs that send Christian college students to Italy to study Renaissance art: "Our thing is really contemporary art." While the influence of Renaissance art is undeniable, contemporary art is driving the conversation and economics of present day art.
Contemporary art values have risen as much as 800 percent in a few years to $20 billion a year in sales in recent years, the most at any point in history, as wealthy collectors and hedge funds have seen art as an alternative investment and have snapped up pieces by artists like Damien Hirst and the late Andy Warhol at record prices.
"The art world is one that is pretty open and inclusive. You have to speak the talk. You have to demonstrate that you're in it and know it. The way art talks to other art is a different way of conversing," says Dickinson. "Art historians look at it as a conversation that is unfolding. I think it's important our students know the history and conversation."