Beyond Brushstrokes

Calvin's painting program imbues a rich palette of skills against backdrop of faith

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85
Spring 2012

Mandy Cano Villalobos, painting professor

Mandy Cano Villalobos, painting professor

Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God. —Rembrandt

According to Rembrandt, at least then, it seems obvious and spiritually sound that painting is and should be a part of the curriculum at Calvin.

Perhaps the Dutch master’s opinion is a bit biased—and dated, however? Given the current economic climate and financial pressures on students and recent graduates, who majors in painting anymore and why?

“Back when I was an undergrad, we had this hope of being able to be an artist and somehow change the world,” said Calvin painting professor Mandy Cano Villalobos (pictured above), a 2000 graduate of Asbury College (Wilmore, Ky.). “That’s a more antiquated notion now. …Students really get that painting is not about painting; it’s about bridging disciplines in a lot of different ways.

“Painting is not so much expressing your soul as it is about something going outside of yourself,” she said. “You are looking for the significance in other disciplines—other subjects; you are looking to other disciplines to make paintings from them. It’s about something so normal you don’t describe it in words: That’s why it’s a painting.”

Art has home at Calvin

Because of its cross-disciplinary nature and the ability it has to speak to significant issues, art, and painting in particular, has a home at a place like Calvin, according to Villalobos. “If you’re an artist— God had given you this gift—what do you do with it?” she said. “That’s a question that we can ask at Calvin.”

And students do.

Calvin junior Patrick Hekman has struggled to find an answer to this question. He switched his major several times before settling into the bachelor of fine arts program. “For me, art is not a set of skills I learned in order to acquire a career,” he said. “The skill I am learning through art is how to think: How do I internally understand the way I think and then how can I transform it into something physical that I can share with the rest of the world?

“That is why my art education is so valuable, because that is a skill you need for every career. You need to be able to communicate what you are thinking with other people either through writing or conversation or through your work,” he said. And your thinking, your ideas need to come from other departments and disciplines, Hekman said.

“When I graduated from high school, I told my grandpa that I was going to go to art school in Chicago. He said I could do that and he would support me, but then he said this, ‘You can go to art school in Chicago and learn to make art, or you can go to Calvin and learn what to make art about.’ I came to Calvin because of my grandpa, and it was the best decision I could have made. “One of the most beautiful parts of art is its complexity and its connection with other majors; that’s what the liberal arts offers,” he said.

Hannah Abma, who just graduated this past December, wonders about her future as an artist. “A lot of the reason I went into art was that it was something I really enjoyed,” she said. “I think I went with the feeling that this is what we’re supposed to be doing at college. Being out of college for only about a month, I already miss the community; college is the ideal community to explore and share creative ideas.

“It’s a little scary now because it’s a very focused niche, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. It’s hard to make it independently in the art world, especially if you don’t live in a place like New York,” said Abma, who is back home in Calgary, Alta.

A talented group of alumni submitted their work to Calvin’s recent Alumni Painting Exhibition, and they are an encouragement to current students and recent graduates like Abma. In fact, that was part of the impetus for the show, according to Joel Zwart, Calvin’s director of exhibitions.

“Having a show like this is a way to say, ‘Hey, look what our alumni are doing,’” said Zwart. “It’s a great benefit to our students because it validates what they are doing. If they’re wondering, ‘Are there graduates who are still doing art?’ here are many examples. It’s also a teaching tool for current students.”

Nineteen artists were featured in the show, which included recognition for Best of Show and a People’s Choice Award.

Contributor Helen Reitsma Campbell ’80 remembers the first time she stepped into the painting studio at Calvin: “I saw all of this work in progress; it affected me greatly. I didn’t realize how much it was in my own thoughts and heart to do, but suddenly I knew that this was me.”

Campbell, who has lived most of her life in North Dakota, focuses on plein air painting as a means to break away from technology. “We have access to the amazing abilities of a camera, and this is like setting it all aside. I want to fine tune our ability to see; hopefully, that’s what artists can do.”

Recent grad Sean VandenBrink ’11 is trying to influence culture—at least his part of it—in a neighborhood in Detroit. “Detroit is a blank canvas right now,” he said. “Detroit is trying to reinvent itself; there are a lot of people telling their stories through paint and other medium.”

VandenBrink has purchased an old fieldstone house that he is transforming into shared studio space and living space. “There seems to be a market for an art scene in this neighborhood,” he said. “There is opportunity for creativity here. By living and working together, I can incorporate some of the values I learned at Calvin.”

There was a time when Jonathan Eiten ’92 realized that painting was not going to pay the bills, and he laid it aside. Now, though, Eiten, of Gorham, Maine, is a professional part-time artist; he supplements with other work. His work is influenced by 17th century Dutch artists.

Eiten submitted his work to the show to be an inspiration to other Calvin artists, but also to learn from them. “You are always a student of what you’re doing,” he said. “Being among other painters who graduated from Calvin is an encouragement to me and hopefully to others.”

And Cheryl Wassenaar ’93, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., found that her background at Calvin helped her make decisions about her art. “Creativity is part of God’s design for us; it’s the way that He made us,” she said. “We have the choice to participate in that; it influences the way you position yourself in relation to the broader art world.”

Wassenaar’s pieces in the show are part of her collection in exploring found objects. She works primarily with found commercial signage, repurposing the discarded wood into visual metaphors of communication. She challenges herself to make something useful out of what has been dismissed.

For Wayne Adams ’96, of Brooklyn, N.Y., Calvin provided an opportunity to significantly assess art as a vocation. “There aren’t many places in the world, certainly the Western world, that foster a real commitment to an intelligent and critical engagement of your faith to your vocational practice, and that includes the visual arts as a vocation in that context.

“I think that preparing students to evaluate, critique, explore and express in new ways their culture is something that is extremely important, and there are not a lot of places that do that and have students wrestle with their faith at the same time,” he said. “In the broader art world, schools that teach art don’t wrestle with religion at all, or if they do, they are just beginning that conversation. Calvin’s been doing that for a while, and it’s important for Calvin to be a part of that conversation.”

Entering a dialogue

Villalobos enjoys challenging students to contribute to the discussion. “When you think of art, really you think of painting,” she said. “You’re working with thousands of years of tradition; that’s a lot of weight. At Calvin there is rigorousness to the artistic pursuit and rigorousness to the spiritual pursuit. When you paint, you enter into a dialogue: You have to have something to say. That’s where your faith identity comes in. There are ideas that you’re dealing with that necessitate painting.”

That is certainly the case for VandenBrink: “I keep asking myself ‘Why?’ ‘Why am I painting this?’ ‘What makes it necessary to paint?’ I think that there are so many things to paint once you open your eyes. It’s a way to tell a story—your story.”