Arts center enrollment defies perceptions

Typical fall-winter decrease doesn't reflect decline in annual numbers

Lawrence Arts Center education director Margaret Morris was under the impression enrollment had declined at the arts center.

Classrooms just seemed a bit emptier this fall, Morris says, and she, her colleagues and faculty members were feeling a bit disheartened about the perceived decline.

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Jared Soares/Journal-World Photo

Alan Clinton, Lawrence, left, and Win Sisk, Bonner Springs, right, use charcoal to draw model Christy Mara, Lawrence, center, during an Advanced Life Drawing class. The course is taught by Jeff Ridgway at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

So when Morris asked the center's database manager to crunch some numbers for her last week, she was pleasantly surprised to find out her impressions were false -- at least statistically speaking.

From 2002 to 2003, the number of students registered in everything from arts-based preschool to dance, drama and visual arts classes jumped from an average of 6,300 to 6,650 -- and that's up from an average of 5,700 students a year in the center's previous location at the Carnegie Building.

But, inexplicably, fall and winter sessions never draw as many students as spring and summer classes, Morris says. She's hoping that starts to change. Winter dance and drama courses already have begun, and art classes get under way this week.

Morris says although some faculty members may notice fewer students in their classes, the drop seems to represent a change in distribution.

"I think it's really that there's more things being offered because we have more abilities to offer new things," Morris says. For example, the new building and a donation of presses from late Kansas University art professor John Talleur have made possible an entirely new printmaking program. The center also has increased offerings in drama and dance. "People are really starting to branch out and take advantage of those."

Creating from chaos

One of the newest courses is led by Tim O'Brien. He teaches letterpress in the new printmaking studio and has to cap enrollment at eight students to make sure everyone gets enough access to the two presses: a cylinder press from the 1960s and a 19th-century cast-iron Washington-type press, both donated by Talleur.

O'Brien says a broad range of people have taken his course, including professionals who deal with typography on computers but might not know where terms like leading, picas and points come from.

O'Brien figures there's no better way to learn than to go to the historical source of the words.

"Letterpress printing means printing in the old-fashioned way," he says. "It's just moveable type, which means each letter is separate, cast in a lead alloy, just like the way Gutenberg printed his Bible."

Students learn straight away how to hand-set type, one letter at a time and backwards, so the text reads the right direction when it's printed. (Thus the phrase "Mind your Ps and Qs," O'Brien says, because the letters are hard to differentiate when working backward.)

Though the process is labor-intensive, it has advantages over other methods, he explains.

"The image of the letters is embossed in the paper, and so the final effect of looking at something that has been printed by letterpress is that it's kind of sculptural. It catches the light in a certain way because the letters are a little bit lower than the surface of the paper. ... You can use interesting papers, really thick papers or handmade papers that have wonderful texture or bits of thread or fiber running through them."

Students in his class, which will be Wednesday evenings this winter, often make stationery or set their favorite poems and then make several copies to give as gifts. There is a certain amount of art involved, O'Brien says.

"The creativity comes in using what you're given because there are only 40 drawers full of type in the room, and you have to create from that chaos," he says.

Practice, practice

Veteran painting and drawing instructor Jeff Ridgway's students are faced with what might be considered an even more challenging task. Though a nude model provides the subject, and drawing materials aren't in short supply, students must learn to transfer what they see into believable renderings on paper.

"Life drawing is one of the hardest things to learn because it's hard to draw the figure," Ridgway says. "You have to learn to draw pretty well before you can start learning to draw the human figure. We concentrate on learning to draw gracefully, poetically."

Because so much practice is necessary to remain sharp -- and the break between fall and winter sessions at the arts center is long -- Ridgway often organizes a model appreciation day where interested students each pitch in $10 to pay a model and then draw for three hours or so. The model makes more money than usual, and the students break their drawing hibernation.

The most recent such gathering took place last weekend.

Ridgway will teach figure drawing Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons this winter and oil painting Tuesday evenings.

He's been teaching at the arts center for 11 years and says his job is "basically to teach myself out of a job."

"When somebody first takes (life drawing), ... my function as a teacher is to help them learn something about the structure of the human body and to use their intuition to draw fast, draw quickly, to catch the movement of the model in one line and then base their drawing off of that.

"Once they catch onto the basic idea, then I become more of a facilitator ... teaching goes more toward critiques."

The arts center offers an average of 930 classes a year. Some classes for the winter session, which runs January through March, are still accepting students. For more information, call 843-2787 or visit www.lawrenceartscenter.com.

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