Campus Highlight: School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC): Restructuring the Myth of the Young Artist: Isolated, Self-Destructive Genius to Community-Engaged, Self-Sustaining Individual

Of the many challenges that befall first-year students in their transition to college, a few tend to be more intensified in scope and unique to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) campus, including greater reports of depression, smoking cigarettes, and drinking beer, wine and liquor (as compared to national [CIRP] and art school data). In addition, the students inhabit an urban, vertical campus, living in dorms with no food service and little or no access to nutritious and inexpensive food, all of which become an easy avenue to legitimating the myth of the tortured young artist. Living off cigarettes and vending machines, working overnight in the bright city in order to be passionately dedicated to creating brilliance…was not the path SAIC had in mind for its bright and talented young students.

SAIC’s “Feasts,” a food and community project housed within a first-year Residential College Program (RCP), illustrates the kind of programmatic innovation that gets at the heart of supporting and encouraging a holistic liberal education for all students by linking learning, well-being and civic development.

The RCP at SAIC is a first-year living/learning community offering seventy students the opportunity to attend class and live together on two floors of a residence hall. Terri Kapsalis, the director of the RCP, characterizes one of the main purposes of the RCP as “…redirecting the myth of the isolated, self-destructive, sleep-deprived genius artist to another and very prevalent type of artist, one that is community-minded, socially conscious and engaged. These [Feasts] participate in a burgeoning commitment to food and service in international contemporary art practice.” As a schoolwide collaboration between faculty, students, staff, teaching assistants, and resident advisers, the RCP explores two key questions: 1) How can [we] as artists, designers, and writers support and sustain ourselves and our practices? and 2) What are the varieties of ways that [we] can critically engage with the world?

From these questions came the RCP’s student-created and student-designed program of monthly “Feasts,” which, through collaborations with professional chef/artist Tara Lane, all six sections of the Research Studio designed and created a dinner and eating environment for the rest of the Residential College. Lane observes, “There is something that happens when you cook next to someone you really don’t know. Most of the students are extremely good at just creating anything with their hands. [They were] building off of existing talents and discovering new ideas along the way. It was fascinating to watch everyone gather inspiration.”

Students involved described positive reactions to the Feasts and the RCP. One student, Kelly Pope, articulates why she would repeat the experience if she could: “I think the Feasts were really exceptional in linking the RCP students. Most everyone takes their Core Studio class in their first year, but unless they’re in conversation with another student in a different class, one doesn’t really get much exposure to how their classes differ… it provided an interactive way of experiencing the things discussed in a class other than your own.” Pope also commented on appreciating the focus of the RCP on health and wellness, something Kapsalis and Lane both noticed as well. What they didn’t expect to see was the transformation, over the course of the Feast day, of the students from “wound-up and unfocused” to “calm, relaxed, and focused on serving their peers.”

In addition, civic engagement initiatives were woven into the food-community focused program, with some students volunteering to create benches and fences for an urban farm, while others created worm bins and began a garden to provide food for fall ’09 Feasts. Students were also introduced to local organizations dedicated to social, cultural, economic, and environmental food issues that have inspired continued connection and collaboration. Kapsalis notes, “The Feasts helped set a tone of social responsibility through feeding oneself and others that ran throughout the year as eating together, urban agriculture, and generosity became key components of RCP.”

The success of the Feasts can be largely attributed to the collaborative nature of the RCP, with the involvement of many key campus constituencies and to the independence of the students and the room given for their innovation to have a great stake in the success of the projects and events. Plans are already underway to continue and sustain the Feasts project for the upcoming academic year, with additional thought being given to those who might be invited to the table this time, including potential community partners. The Feasts will also become a forum for collegial discussion on potential future civic engagement initiatives.