State of the Arts

In Features, Winter/Spring 2017 by Aleisa Dornbierer-Schat

DORDT STUDENTS AND ALUMNI EXPLORE WHAT IT MEANS TO PURSUE FINE ARTS AS A CALLING

The lights come up in Dordt’s black box theatre. Two actors bustle about an elegant living room, putting things in order, not talking. The sound of rustling programs only gently disrupts the fictional world on stage. It’s a room at heightened attention.

Just as for centuries people have gathered—inside, outside, in balconies, on the grass—the audience is here to watch a play.

“There’s a kind of magic in live theatre that’s different than going to a movie theater to see a film projected onto a screen,” says Ellen DeYoung (’12), a graduate of Dordt’s theatre program and now a touring coordinator for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, one of the top children’s theatres in the country.

“So much of our lives happen through screens now,” DeYoung says. “Everyone has a smart phone, we binge on Netflix, we’ve got our earbuds in. In many ways, human connections are different than they used to be. But get someone into a theatre filled with strangers, sharing the experience of watching a story brought to life right in front of them—that’s an experience of connectedness that’s pretty rare and quite powerful.”

The actors in the black box are performing in Dordt’s fall studio production, And Then There Were None, a student-directed play adapted from an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The boundary between audience and set is indistinct. A portion of the crowd sits in chairs from the 1930s, nearly drawn into the staged living room, disrupting the play’s imaginary “fourth wall.” Even the actor’s routine movements—dusting, moving a lamp—invite the audience to become part of the action of the play.

From their seats, spectators can hear the actors’ footsteps, see their chests rise and fall, observe subtle changes in posture and expression. The audience, too, is part of the performance—the actors respond to its sudden hush or laughter, its attentive silence.

“Theatre is wonderful in that way,” says Erica Liddle (’18), stage manager of Dordt’s most recent mainstage production, Silent Sky, and a theatre and English double major at Dordt. “To be at a play is to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It’s never the same play twice—you’re creating something new every night. And the audience is part of that.”

“That’s what actors thrive on. The energy that people bring into the room,” says Logan Radde (’16), who’s acted in several mainstage productions and directed And Then There Were None as his senior capstone project. “The audience is always part of the show. You show up at the theatre, you’re part of it.”

“That’s central to what makes theatre so powerful as an art form,” says Dordt Theatre Professor Dr. Teresa Ter Haar. “But all art has the power to move us. It can prompt us to ask questions. It can trouble us. It can make us laugh, or cry,” says Ter Haar.

In Dordt’s fine arts programs, students learn to see the arts as a meaningful way of participating in God’s redemptive work in the world. That’s because art, even the most playful or humorous, has the power to change us, and to point us toward who we are called to be as God’s people, says Ter Haar.

ARTISTS, HERE AND THERE

Across Dordt’s campus, many students and professors devote a large part of their day to creating things that, strictly speaking, are not useful. Students layer oil paints on canvases, compose songs at the piano, or sit perched on a catwalk, installing colored lights. To learn to do these things well, they spend time in study and practice: working through scales on a violin, logging hours with their nose in an art history book, or meeting for improv games in the theatre.

This work is at once playful and deeply serious. And it continues beyond campus, too, when graduates of Dordt’s fine arts programs wend their way to places like the Twin Cities, one of the Midwest’s most vibrant cultural centers. Home to a thriving arts scene, the Cities have become the post-graduation destination for a growing number of Dordt alumni artists. Some of those graduates are making a life for themselves in the fine arts, while others have found their livelihood at the intersection of art and application, working in fields like the graphic arts or design, creating websites, interactive museum exhibits, even floral landscapes.

At Dordt, and out in the world, these artists are figuring out what it means to pursue artmaking not just as a profession, but a calling, and to do that, many of them agree, takes bravery.

“When I dropped my communication major my junior year, it was scary,” says Tricia Van Ee (’02), who has performed in operas and classical concerts as a soloist in the Twin Cities. “I knew that music wasn’t going to be a very straightforward job path, and that I would need to be open to where that path led me—even if it wasn’t exactly what I had planned.”

Jenna Wilgenburg (’19), a sophomore art student at Dordt, felt the same trepidation. “Whenever I tell someone I’m an art major, their first question is usually skeptical: ‘What are you going to do with that?’

When I decided on my major, I was really excited about it. But honestly, I was also scared. Ultimately, I think you have to follow your passion and gifts, and trust that God will use them in some way.”

ART AND ATTENTION

But how does God use an abstract sculpture or sci-fi novel? What does an opera or symphony have to do with the kingdom of God? Dordt students are busy working that out in their classrooms, on stage, and in the art studio, exploring the materials of their craft, and situating that exploration into a wider—and cross-cultural—history of art’s theory and practice.

Art Professor Matt Drissell says the value of art, and its power, has much to do with the way we move through the world as creatures, with bodies.

“God has created us to be these profoundly multidimensional beings. We’re not just brains that go around analyzing things,” he says. “We don’t experience the world in just one way; we experience it with the full range of our senses. The visual is an important dimension of that.”

Drissell is a visual artist who works in a variety of media, and he spends much of his time in the studio with students, instructing them in their work, often painting and drawing alongside them.

“Today, so much of our experience of the world is abstracted or digitized. We’re not engaging with the materials around us,” he says. “But when you go into the studio, you deal with paint. You deal with glue. You deal with gravity. You’re colliding with a cultural legacy that goes all the way back to people painting figures on cave walls. You’re getting at what it means to be human and to engage intellectually and creatively with the physical world around you.”

Andrew DeYoung (’05), a novelist and children’s book publisher who lives in Minneapolis, understands this kind of engagement in terms of attention.

“As a writer, you’re often paying attention to a single thing—whether it’s the way the light falls on a snowbank, or a bird near the window, or two people leaning in to talk to one another on a train. And you’re trying to call the reader’s attention to that particular thing,” he says. “It’s a type of attention that’s really rare these days, with our attention being so divided.”

Getting lost in a story—or a painting, or piece of music—cultivates a form of attention we bring back with us into our ordinary lives, DeYoung says. Van Ee says art can direct that attention inward, too.

“We’re not still very often,” she says. “But to really get something out of a performance of classical music—to really hear it—you have to be quiet. You have to commit to finding a stillness in yourself and accept what comes.”

Music, like all art, brings us to this state of attention by appealing directly to our senses. We hear it with our ears, but we also feel its vibration in our bodies; even our heartbeats speed up or slow down to match its tempo. In a similar way, an abstract painting can evoke a visceral, emotional response simply through its use of line and color.

In engaging us in this way, art appeals to us as creatures who don’t simply think, but as creatures with imaginations who love, desire, and feel.

“That’s really a cliché, I know—the power of imagination. But it’s the start of some really good and important qualities,” says DeYoung, whose first novel for young adults will hit bookstores in April. “Imagination allows you to feel empathy for people who are not very much like you—to imagine them with just as rich an interior life as yours, living through experiences that might be very different than yours. Curiosity, wonder, awe, empathy—these qualities all have their beginning in imagination.”

Art doesn’t move us with facts or arguments, Drissell says. The language of art is image, metaphor, texture, pattern. And that’s the source of its power. Art can move us toward an appreciation of the beauty of the created world and of our own creativity as God’s image-bearers. But it can also challenge or upset us. It can start conversations. It can draw us to a deeper understanding of the world’s brokenness and suffering. And by inviting us to respond imaginatively to what’s offered, art can move us to action and teach us, however tentatively, to hope.

ART THAT CHALLENGES

When Wilgenburg decided on her final project in Drissell’s Painting I class, she wanted to start a conversation. She began with three square panels, arranged in a row. Each features part of a woman’s figure, graceful but imperfect, floating in negative space: a curving collarbone, the expanse of a back, legs bent at the knee. To display the piece, she set up a projector, and used it to project a variety of images over the panels. One of them was a Victoria’s Secret ad featuring a line of similar-looking models, long limbed and nearly bare, behind bold white text: “The Perfect ‘Body.’”

“With this piece, I wanted to challenge people to think about how God created us, carefully knitting each of us together. And I wanted viewers to consider the ways our culture judges the value of what God has created,” Wilgenburg says. “Making art as a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean painting scenes from the Bible or exploring obviously Christian themes. Art can challenge us to open our eyes to new things and to challenges in the world that go beyond our own experiences.”

Jason Kornelis (’11) says theatre, too, can raise challenging questions. He’s now an actor in the Twin Cities, but during his senior year at Dordt, he directed Bat Boy, an “edgy and out there musical.” The show is about a character—half boy, half bat—discovered in a cave and trying to integrate into a small, deep South community that is “very distrustful of outsiders.” Kornelis describes the production as part social commentary, part “very strange homage to B horror movies.”

“You can challenge people through all kinds of storytelling, but theatre kind of forces you to have a conversation,” he says. “It’s happening right there in front of you, live and in real time. At the same time, it’s happening to the people sitting right next to you.” That kind of dynamic can start a dialogue, and stretch people to consider ideas or experiences that are unfamiliar to them, he says.

Dordt’s Theatre Department has actively fostered this kind of dialogue, hosting “talk backs” following some of its productions. When a performance includes content or themes that some might find upsetting or difficult, the department creates a structured space for dialogue between the audience, actors, and production team.

“I hope that we instill a deep, critical awareness of audience in our students,” says Ter Haar. “Part of our responsibility, and privilege, as an academic institution is that when we engage with challenging pieces, we have an opportunity to surround them with context and support.” The department often brings in a

panel of experts to guide an audience through complex, even taboo, topics like sex trafficking, capital punishment, or incest.

By engaging challenging topics, even in ways that aren’t overtly “Christian,” a play can speak prophetically, she says. But art doesn’t have to unsettle us—or only unsettle us—to be good. Creating art, or encountering it, can bring great pleasure or joy. It can make us laugh—often at ourselves. And it can bring us to a state of attention, curiosity, or wonder.

“It takes a kind of chutzpah, an audacity, to create beautiful things in a culture that values efficiency, productivity, and profit,” says Dr. Benjamin Kornelis, Dordt music professor and choral director. “The arts can foster a kind of imagination about what isn’t, but what could be.” That’s a quality that’s impossible to quantify, but it’s crucially important. Kornelis says, “I often tell students that being part of the choir, or participating in the arts, may be the most important thing they do while they’re here.”