USD students tap into local art talent for unique project

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Without having to raise a brush or shape clay, students at The University of South Dakota are leaving a significant impression on the local art scene.

Dozens of local artists, from painters and sculptors to musicians and writers, have been celebrated in the classroom at USD and on the walls of the Vermillion Area Arts Center thanks to students in Carol Geu’s Arts and Identity Capstone course for the Interdisciplinary Education and Action (IdEA) Program. Dozens of artists have been profiled and are currently on display at the Vermillion Area Arts Center, which is located at 202 Washington St. By the end of the spring semester, more than 40 additional artists will be added to the Arts Center’s walls.

"It’s a very comprehensive projected," noted Geu, who teaches Art History, Distance Education and Study Abroad in the department of art at USD. "Rather than just profiling random artists, students are conducting complete interviews, taking photographs and documenting everything into a journal, which is ultimately turned in at the end of the project."

The idea to construct biographies of the local artists stemmed from a meeting Geu shared with Amy Fill of the Vermillion Area Arts Council. One of Fill’s goals was to begin an artist archive chronicling the works and biographies of local artists. She would’ve accepted a one-person project. Someone willing to take the time and effort to sit down with the artists and compile an individual archive, but Geu saw it as a unique opportunity for both students and area artists. Rather than completing the course with the hope of a good grade or a compliment from their professor as a reward, the students’ work has evolved into a professional exhibit where they can be viewed by visitors to the Vermillion Area Arts Center. 

"Carol and I collaborated on a list, narrowed it down to people in the community," described Fill, who has been with the Vermillion Area Arts Council for two years. "It turned out better than I expected. It’s a lot of fun to see the students and the artists engaged, producing something for the entire community to enjoy."

The personal biographies from the fall semester include articles and photographs of artists who specialize in painting, sculpting, drawing and sketching. And despite Geu and Fill being on board with the project from the start, did they find it difficult to convince artists and students to collaborate on what would become a timely endeavor? No problem, according to local artist Mike Hill, who said the concept “makes perfect sense.”

"It’s a way of documenting one of our resources," said Hill, an artist from Volin, S.D., who works primarily with ceramics. "It was fun. The student I worked with did a good job."

Though the project took longer than he anticipated, Matt Heller – the student who worked with Hill to produce his biography, enjoyed getting to know his subject on a personal and a professional level. Heller also celebrated the opportunity of creating a unique project for a local organization.

"The whole process took a lot more out of me than I had anticipated," admitted Heller, who is from Armour, S.D. "I thought I would cover the basics like, 'where are you from?' and 'how did you get your start?' but it ended up going deeper than that."

Because the course was an Arts and Identity Capstone class for the IdEA Program, not all of the students participating in the archive project were art majors. In fact, students in the class realized that the project honed a variety of classroom skills unrelated to art, including conducting interviews to writing grants.

"As a business student, I didn’t know anything about art," explained Brian Kaiser, a USD student from Sioux Falls, S.D. "And I thought it would be a difficult project to complete without an art background, but that ended up not being the case."

Many artists embraced the idea of meeting with the students not fully realizing what the completed project would look like or how it would be perceived in the community.  In the end, Fill says everyone was pleasantly surprised.

"The artists were really excited about it," she said. "I think they were honored, flattered that it became bigger than just one person doing it themselves.  It brought everyone together."

During the fall semester, 22 USD students profiled 22 area artists. Because of the positive feedback created by the initial project, more students from The U – 44 of them to be exact – are profiling area artists who specialize in music, writing, even a boat maker. They will be recognized at an open house ceremony at the Vermillion Area Arts Center on Wednesday, April 30.

"I think for everyone involved, it worked very well," stated Geu, who accompanied a group of students to Italy this winter for a Renaissance Art History study tour. "The students and perhaps even the artists saw it as something they didn’t want to do in the beginning, but soon it became worth their time."

A photo of artist Mike Hill (left) and USD student Matt Heller is available for download at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/Vermillion_artists.jpg. For more information about this unique Capstone course and the partnership between the University and the Vermillion Area Arts Center, please contact Geu at (605) 677-5636 or via e-mail at carol.geu@usd.edu.