Crafting an Artistic Community

Apr 30, 2021

CLArion 2020–2021

Crafting an Artistic Community: An Interview with Fine Arts Academy Director Kathy Neff

If you haven’t heard of the Fine Arts Academy at UMD, it’s an honor to introduce you to a program that has opened its metaphorical arms again and again to the community.

The Fine Arts Academy, established in 2005, grew out of the Music Academy, a community music program administered by UMD’s Department of Music. Now a professional unit within the College of Liberal Arts, the Fine Arts Academy offers high-quality arts instruction to students ranging from children to adults and encompasses all skill levels. Its mission is to deepen the lives of its students and enrich the communities it serves through programs centered in arts education and engagement.

Kathy Neff, the director of the Fine Arts Academy since its inception, was first hired as a teaching specialist for the Music Academy in 1994. A few years later, she joined the Music Department faculty as an adjunct instructor to pursue her passion for teaching.

I recently conversed with Neff about the Fine Arts Academy. 

How has COVID-19 affected the Fine Arts Academy’s work?

With COVID-related safety measures in place, we have created distance-learning programs that still give the feeling of an engaged learning experience while maintaining safe environments for our families and teachers. However, much about learning to do an art form is experiential. You feel the clay in your hands as it spins on a wheel; you hear and respond to an exquisite phrase played by a member of your quintet. When we are not able to collaborate or learn in communal spaces, it can be challenging to fully absorb all that the artistic moment has to offer. It’s not like teachers can reach out and correct a hand position or posture when they can’t see the whole student.

Likewise, without the opportunity to rehearse with their friends and enjoy the joys of concerts, competitions, and tours, some students are experiencing great losses. We had to put our Digital Art Workshop on hold this year, but I am maintaining relationships with our partners at Lincoln Park Middle School in order to continue to work with them when the time is right.

Please tell me more about the Digital Art Workshop. 

In the Digital Art Workshop, the brainchild of Associate Professor Joellyn Rock (Art and Design), Rock teaches a course integrating digital art tools and techniques into pedagogy for the next generation of art teachers. During their course, art education majors mentor and guide middle school youth while designing storyboards, and their themed collages are later turned into animated shorts. Students also have a terrific opportunity to work with Lisa Fitzpatrick and Dan Fitzpatrick in the MADD Lab, putting stories to life with green screen technology, creative tools, and the imaginative synergy of college students working with area youth.

After six weeks of guidance and teamwork, we celebrate with a public showcase in the Tweed Museum of Art. Family, friends, and students come together for a premiere screening of student work, demonstrations of animation techniques, and a celebration of creative accomplishments.

Are there any showcases that stand out in your memory?

The 2018 Digital Art Workshop was spectacular in that our showcase ended up on the same night as a Tweed exhibition opening. We held our celebration, demos, and showcase in classrooms but came down to the Tweed to see an out of this world exhibition of contemporary Native American artists. The kids were in awe of Jonathan Thunder’s room size animation, as well as the Intersection exhibition featuring close to twenty additional Native American artists.

What was so special about attending that opening with the kids is that the Museum was packed full of people, many of them Native Americans. A few of the workshop kids were also Native American, and we were all there to celebrate the work of these incredible artists.

The Academy has had a longstanding partnership with Lincoln Park Middle School through the Community School Collaborative, so to see the kids at UMD with their parents, as well as their school art teacher, Chrissy Valento who is a UMD alumna, after they celebrated their own exhibition of work was something I'll never forget. It was an evening of joy, artistry, family connections, and pride; it really encapsulated the essence of community.

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