Wait, you go to art school? Taking on stereotypes, four art students and one musical theater student describe their experiences at schools for the arts.

For a group project at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Elinor Hilton, ’16, helped create this lineup for Alice and Olivia product development. (Illustration courtesy of Hilton)

When sculpture major Bella Mathisen, ’19, tells people she attends Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she said their reactions range from congratulations to curiosity to confusion.

“Some of my more extended family was like, ‘What are you gonna do with your life?’” she said.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) student Grace Naify, ’19, who is majoring in fashion design and minoring in business of beauty and fragrance, agreed.

“(Some people) are just like, ‘What the hell?’” she said. “They don’t really know how to act because it’s just so different. There’s nothing relatable.”

Without much exposure to art schools, many assume that such students only draw or paint, according to Naify. Instead, art schools offer a wide range of opportunities, from dramatic writing to filmmaking to animation, she said.

“People assume that you’re just sitting around drawing and that it’s really fun, which it is,” Naify said. “But a lot of people during the college application period are like, ‘Oh, if I can’t do this, I’ll just drop out and go to art school.'

“It should not be a last resort because it’s a lot of work.”

Fellow SCAD student Elinor Hilton, ’16, who is majoring in fashion marketing and management, said this is the “most frustrating stereotype.”

“Go to any SCAD (student’s) website, look at their work and try to tell me that it’s easy,” she said. “It’s not. It is normal for students to constantly pull all-nighters and be stressed.”

For a design final, Elinor Hilton, '16, created this dress using T.J. Maxx bags and spoons. (Photo courtesy of Hilton)

Hilton added that people outside of SCAD would be surprised by the workload.

“For instance, last quarter my group and I had to ideate a pop-up shop for Under Armour in five weeks,” she said. “This included location research, customer psychographics and demographics, rent of the space, zoning laws, how much to pay employees, assortment plan, foot traffic, budget (and) renderings of the pop-up. We basically had to do all the research as if we were really making the pop-up.

“It’s a lot of work — we aren’t just drawing flowers,” she said, laughing.

In fact, art school is harder than traditional college in some aspects, according to Naify.

“The way you’re being tested is a very personal thing — it’s something that you physically created,” she said.

Naify said this is exacerbated by the grading method, critiques, in which students present their art to the class and receive feedback.

“That pressure is so much more intense when it comes to your performance as a student because if you really screw up on a project, everyone’s going to see that on critique day,” she said. “Your stuff is going to go in front of the whole class and the professor, and they’re going to pick it apart and tell you everything that’s wrong with it.

“But it goes both ways. When you really nail something, it feels really good, and that motivates you to keep that standard up because everyone is going to be impressed by what you did.”

Painting and drawing by Grace Naify, '19.

The same is true for musical theater major Monique Lonergan, ’19, who attends the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

“(With) acting, you are your art form,” she said. “You are your instrument. You have to go home with yourself — you can’t just put yourself away in a case and forget about it for a little bit. When you take criticism, it hits a lot deeper than if you just got a bad grade on a quiz. It’s you, and it’s what you love, and it’s something that you want to work so badly.

“(With) acting, you are your art form. You are your instrument. You have to go home with yourself — you can’t just put yourself away in a case and forget about it for a little bit. When you take criticism, it hits a lot deeper than if you just got a bad grade on a quiz.” —Monique Lonergan

“The successes feel amazing, and the not-successes hurt a lot more than they should. And it’s hard to find a middle ground, where you’re just like, ‘OK, I feel neutral about this class.’ The way I assess my progress, I either feel like, ‘Yes! I’m killing this! This is going so well,’ or like, ‘Oh, my God. What am I doing? I don’t belong here.’”

But contrary to stereotypes in popular media, Lonergan said this doesn’t lead to a toxic or competitive atmosphere.

“When people get callbacks or are going on auditions, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, good luck! Have so much fun. Break some legs!’ Everyone’s just rooting for your rise,” she said.

“A lot of people think that we’re crazy for investing in such an unstable career and that it’s really cutthroat and intense, and people will stab you in the back. But it’s really not like that at all. Of course, there are disagreements — it’s not a utopia.

“But it feels more like I’m in a family and less like I’m trying to compete against these people. It’s a much more supportive environment than people would think.”

Due to the personal nature of the work, students are on a first-name basis with their professors, according to Lonergan.

Monique Lonergan, '19, (far right) rehearses choreography for "Cheek to Cheek" by Frank Sinatra. (Video courtesy of Lonergan)

Naify said SCAD also has a supportive atmosphere, despite her expecting it to be “super competitive and cutthroat.”

“In classes, if you forget your materials, your neighbor next to you will let you borrow some paper or use their pens,” she said.

Hilton agreed.

“SCAD has a lot more acceptance for people, so it is more common to see people expressing themselves in whatever physical way they choose,” she said. “At Country Day, I used to get comments like it was a big deal when I would dye my hair red or purple, but at SCAD a guy can come to class with high heels and a full face of makeup, and no one’s going to bat an eye.”

Naify added that SCAD students stick out from the general Savannah, Georgia, population.

“Everyone has dyed hair and really cool tattoos because they’ve all designed them themselves,” she said. “A girl in my drawing class will do stick-and-poke tattoos for you in her room. Everyone’s dressed super crazy. There’re people who will cosplay (dress up as a fictional character) every day.”

Sketch with watercolor by Grace Naify, '19.

Art students frequently cutting and dying their hair is a true common stereotype, Mathisen said.

“I gave myself a buzz cut, and now my hair is dyed bright pink,” she said.

Another true stereotype is that most students are on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, according to Mathisen.

“As a queer woman, I haven’t been in areas (before) where I’ve been surrounded by queer people,” she said. “(RISD) has been a community I really cherish and something I don’t feel like giving up anytime soon. It’s something that I love so much that I got a job working for the school planning queer events.”

“As a queer woman, I haven’t been in areas (before) where I’ve been surrounded by queer people. (RISD) has been a community I really cherish and something I don’t feel like giving up anytime soon.” —Bella Mathisen

Like many art schools, RISD has an unbalanced gender ratio: 69 female students to 31 male students, according to Forbes.

“The female-dominated campus has been a good thing: A straight, cisgender man is a rare occurrence on the RISD campus — especially in the fine arts majors — so the positives that come with non-male spaces are prevalent,” Mathisen said. “I think sexism plays a part in who feels comfortable to speak in class and who has power in some social interactions. A (non-male-dominated) place means a safer space for a lot of people.”

Bella Mathisen, '19, created this performance-based piece about the intersection between queer and female communities. "Marginalization has pushed these groups together to form a warm, comfortable and open space, but the mitten in the middle ties your hand and you can’t leave," she said. "So while it’s wonderful and soft, it’s also forced." (Photos courtesy of Mathisen)

Because of RISD’s inclusivity, however, she said the gender imbalance is less noticeable.

“Just because there are a lot of ‘females’ doesn’t necessarily mean all these people are women-identifying. I also don’t really notice (the gender imbalance) — lots of people are nonbinary. (The culture of) our generation combined with the way artists are has created a safe space for gender expression and identity, so the sex of a person is less relevant.”

Besides the community culture, Mathisen said exhaustion is common at RISD. Art classes, called studios, are 7½ hours long and meet once a week. This year, Mathisen’s studios are drawing, design and spacial dynamics. Her other classes are Theory and History of Art and Design (year-long), and Economy and Society (semester-long), which replaced her first-semester literature class.

“(There are) a lot of all-nighters,” Mathisen said. “(There’s) just a lot of passion and a lot of people working their hardest every single minute of the day. It’s enjoyable. You’re exhausted, but you can’t stop working on it, sort of like an obsession. It’s better than having that much work and not being passionate about it.”

While Lonergan’s work is incredibly taxing physically and emotionally, she said she loves putting all her energy into her passion.

“I feel like all my classes are really helping me toward my future, and I like that every day I’m like, OK, I can take this and use this,” she said.

Lonergan’s year-long coursework is acting, voice and speech, movement, jazz, ballet, tap, a private voice lesson, ensemble singing, music theory, piano, and Theatre Process and Production. In addition, she took Theatre Literature and Structure, and Engaging with the Artistic Space last semester, which were replaced with Musical Theatre History and Women in Dystopian Fiction this semester.

For Lonergan, the focus of her classes is the main difference between attending SCDS and the Boston Conservatory.

“My artistic extracurriculars and my schoolwork were very much separate (at Country Day), but now my artistic activities are my (schoolwork),” she said.

“I won’t lie — it was a really weird adjustment at first because I had so much more free time than I ever had in high school. I (am not) trying to balance school and art, and it’s so nice. I can just put all my energy into something I’m so passionate about. I’m really grateful that I get to put all my energy into classes that I genuinely love.”

Monique Lonergan, '19, (far right) takes a photo with the freshmen in her vocal studio after their first recital. (Photo courtesy of Lonergan)

Lonergan added that these classes are incredibly different from those her former SCDS classmates are taking.

“We have this one voice and speech class about releasing emotional and physical tension,” Lonergan said. “I’m telling my friends, ‘Yeah, for my final I had to tell my life story through poetry and dialogue.’ And they’re like, ‘What the heck? What is going on?’”

Although Lonergan has certain liberal arts requirements, she said those courses, such as Social Justice in Theater, usually relate to an art form. These classes have proved an adjustment for both Lonergan and her peers.

“I was used to the academic rigor at Country Day, (but) some people have gone to art schools their whole life,” Lonergan said. “They’re like, ‘I can’t believe we have to write a paper.’ I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. It’s school.’”

However, she said her school’s focus on the arts is both a blessing and a curse.

“Some days, I’m just like, ‘Man, it would be really nice to just go to an art history class or something that doesn’t have anything to do with this,’” Lonergan said. “We call it the BoCo Bubble: It’s so easy to get trapped in just this environment and just doing theater.”

Often, she needs to burst the BoCo Bubble.

“I try to do something like once a week that doesn’t have anything to do with musical theater to broaden my mind and so I don’t go crazy,” she said. “In the end, going to a planetarium, going on a hike or going to an art museum are human experiences, and that will make you a better artist no matter what art form you do. It’s just good to get outside your comfort zone and try something you don’t do every day.”

After performing in the annual student choreography showcase, Monique Lonergan, '19, (center, third from left) gestures for her classmate to bow. (Photo courtesy of Lonergan)

Although Naify said she loves SCAD’s career-focused nature, she added that she would love to take foreign language courses. Since these classes are offered as electives, students can take them for only a few quarters, which doesn’t facilitate fluency, according to Naify.

“At a lot of liberal arts schools, you can study things way outside your major that have nothing in common with it. Here, if I took a class that was outside my major, it would still be an art course,” Naify said. “If you’re exploring other interests, they’re going to be other art-related interests. It’s very, very, very focused.

“(The general education classes) are technically normal classes, but the way they’re taught is very different because they know we’re a bunch of artists. It’s pretty clear that they only have them to keep the school accredited.”

In her 10-week-long English class, Naify said she wrote just one essay and added that all projects related to art, such as writing an artist bio and presenting on an artist. A class’s rigor largely depends on its professor, she said, as her friend took an essay-heavy English class. Furthermore, her “super, super basic” math course covered eighth grade-level material, according to Naify.

In contrast, Hilton said her liberal arts classes at SCAD have been just as hard as her art classes, with enthusiastic professors as well. In fact, she said anthropology was among her favorites.

Unlike Hilton and Naify, art major Sophie Naylor, ’19, didn’t consider art schools in her college applications. She attends the College of Creative Studies (CCS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) along with 384 other students, five of whom are freshman art majors.

“I am exposed to so many other topics and lifestyles besides an artistic environment,” Naylor said. “I am also interested in environmental sciences, and that program is really strong at UCSB, so I (can) easily access other departments that have nothing to do with art. If I were only looking to focus on art, then UCSB (College of) Letters and Science’s art program would be a bad idea, but CCS allows for as much focus on art as desired while also letting students branch out and explore.”

In the first-quarter art show, Sophie Naylor, '19, along with her five fellow CCS freshmen art majors, was allotted one wall to present her works. (Photo courtesy of Naylor)

Among her perks as a CCS student are separate dorms, access to both CCS and UCSB classes, priority registration for classes, unlimited printing and, by next year, a private studio in the CCS building.

“I get the best of both worlds since I have small classes but am a part of a larger school community,” Naylor said. “CCS is a more one-on-one experience. We get much more mentorship and attention individually in class. We are able to work on whatever we like and guide our own studies and art practices. The rest of UCSB (students) may experience mostly large lecture halls and teachers who don’t know your name, but at CCS you work with your teacher, not for your teacher.”

With its “homey” atmosphere and supportive community, CCS feels similar to Country Day, according to Naylor.

“Teachers and students are as close as we are at Country Day, and I am constantly surrounded by smart people,” she said. “No one ever feels competitive with one another, either, since everyone has their specialty.”

Because RISD and Boston Conservatory students can cross-register for classes at Brown University and Emerson College, respectively, Mathisen and Lonergan can take traditional liberal arts courses, which removes what is seen as the downside of art schools, according to Mathisen.

“Being passionate about every single class I’m in (wouldn’t) be possible at a liberal arts school,” Mathisen said. “There are things that I can find in every class I’m in that I can dedicate myself to (and) fully enjoy. I’ve never been much of a writer, but here it seems like every class is catered toward somebody who’s more (visually) creative, so it really fits the students.

“I cannot even imagine going to a liberal arts college. My art classes are extremely long, but I genuinely love it. It’s really great (that) each day I just focus on one thing. And working creatively 24/7 is impossible to replicate anywhere else for me.”

In an installation by Bella Mathisen, '19, for her spatial dynamics class, participants watch this stop-motion film while sitting in a bean bag chair resembling the blobs in the film. "The stop motion is about my personal network," she said. "Each blob is representative of someone specific in my network and how lucky I am to have this support. The idea is that you sit in the sculpture that resembles the small sculptures in the video, and the big one hugs you." (Video courtesy of Mathisen)

Hilton said SCAD has also been an incredibly positive academic experience for her.

“I love that I am passionate about what I do,” she said. “I’m driven, and I care about succeeding and doing well.

“All throughout my time at Country Day (I) struggled — I mean constantly getting C’s and failing tests. I was always surrounded by people that I felt were so much smarter and better than me.

“Coming to SCAD and getting to not only be passionate about what I do, but to be succeeding in it is amazing.”

If SCAD students aren’t driven, Naify said they’ll likely drop out.

“It is a little similar to Country Day in that way, where everyone is really motivated to be here, and if they’re not, then they’re not going to last,” she said. “I had some friends that already left.

“It is a little similar to Country Day in that way, where everyone is really motivated to be here, and if they’re not, then they’re not going to last. I had some friends that already left.” —Grace Naify

“(At) Country Day, you’re pushed every day to work super hard, and your grade and what you’re doing in school matters to you and tends to be really exciting — that’s how it is here as well. So that’s been really nice, and it really helps me stay focused.”

Bella Mathisen, '19, created this piece for her design class. (Photo courtesy of Mathisen)

SCAD’s intensity and collaborative nature surprised Hilton, she said.

“Every project I’ve done I have collaborated with people inside and outside my major,” Hilton said. “I’ve worked with photographers for photoshoots, interior designers for shop renderings, graphic design majors for logos, etc. SCAD forces students to collaborate with each other, which is great because that’s what it is like in the industry.”

While SCAD’s emphasis on career readiness helps, Hilton said she stresses about employment after graduation.

“There is a ton of anxiety and pressure to get a job before I graduate, and it is something I am struggling with right now,” she said.

“SCAD does help a ton with this, however: We have a site through our school that posts jobs that we can apply to, and lots of companies will come to SCAD for in-person interviews. I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of interviews already because of SCAD.”

SCAD has a good track record for post-graduation employment, contrary to stereotypes of “starving artists,” according to Hilton.

“(A) misconception is that everyone that goes to an art school is going to be a starving artist,” she said. “I remember a (teacher) at Country Day made that comment to me when I got accepted. It was in a joking way, but (it was) hurtful all the same.

“It just isn’t true — 98% of SCAD graduates get jobs in their field by six months after graduating. It’s ridiculous people still think that way because if we were to take away everything that art majors are involved in, you’d be staring at a blank wall. Every piece of clothing you buy — someone designed it. Every company logo you see — somebody designed it. Every piece of furniture, every blanket, every show you watch or magazine you read — that came from the arts. Without the arts there would be no form of entertainment, and I think people forget that.”

“(A) misconception is that everyone that goes to an art school is going to be a starving artist. It just isn’t true. Without the arts there would be no form of entertainment, and I think people forget that.” —Elinor Hilton
Sculpture by Grace Naify, '19.

As a freshman, Naify is more focused on employment during college.

“Most people are anxious about getting a job in college because art supplies cost so much,” Naify said. “Your art supplies aren’t provided to you. Facilities are, but it’s not like at Country Day, where you can use the watercolor paper and the paint. You have to buy all of your materials — everything you use. So that sucks. A lot of people are stressed about keeping afloat in college.

“This week’s been rough. There’s midterms. The professors tell you, ‘You can get student-grade stuff, which will be cheaper, but in the long run, that’s not worth it.’ And to me, it’s not worth it because then you’re going to be using crappy art supplies, and it shows in what you’re doing — you can just tell.

“I don’t spend less than $40-$50 every time I (buy art supplies), which is about once a week. It’s kind of nuts. But we don’t really have to pay for textbooks, so it’s the equivalent.”

Sophie Naylor, '19, used this watercolor piece to explore elements of collage and abstraction. (Photo courtesy of Naylor)

Similarly, Lonergan stresses about booking shows during the summer.

“Right now is what we call summer stock season,” she said. “The months of February to March are prime time for doing auditions for most theaters that do shows in the summer. So everyone’s stressed like, ‘Am I gonna book this summer? What if I don’t book?’ The anxiety is definitely there, but I’m just trying to trust that everything will be OK.”

Along with allowing students to audition during the school year — which many conservatories forbid — the Boston Conservatory helps by giving students a well-rounded theater education, teaching both the technical and performative sides, according to Lonergan.

“There are so many different paths you can take, and it doesn’t have to be performing — you could teach,” she said. “There are more jobs than what people who aren’t involved (may think). But it’s definitely stressful thinking about it.”

Lonergan added that another stressor is the widespread impostor syndrome.

“I feel like this applies to a lot of first-semester students at college, but basically you feel like everyone around you is super smart or talented,” she said. “It’s very real, and I definitely experienced that a little bit when I first came here because we’d all sing in front of each other, and I was like, ‘What? I don’t belong here at all.’ But I auditioned (and) got in — I obviously was meant to be here.

“But even if you don’t go to a conservatory, that’s my advice for the senior class and classes after that: Know that wherever you go, you’re meant to be there, and you got in for a reason.”

—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn