A studio of one’s own

The Aunspaugh Fellowship allows studio art graduates to linger at the University and polish their skills.

By Erin Lyddane (Studio Art, Media Studies '02)
The Last 50 Years in Latin America.

The Last 50 Years in Latin America.
Photo by Nellie Appleby, Aunspaugh fifth-year fellow.

There was a time when studio art graduates began to hang around Fayerweather long after their fellow classmates had left the University’s Grounds. Hot summer days and nights spent in the studio often led to work that continued through the ensuing semesters. Without a penny of financial aid, these graduates stayed, continued to make art and built their portfolios in order to pursue dreams of entering graduate school. Their informal camaraderie led to what is today known as the Aunspaugh Fellowship.

This fifth-year program is largely due to the efforts of Bill Bennett, associate professor and studio art chair, who identified with students staying in Charlottesville. After being asked to stay for a fifth year at Bucknell University, he understood the importance of having more time and developing a studio practice before entering an MFA program. “I was not ready to go to graduate school,” said Bennett. “[The fellowship] helps our best students get to the next level. A lot of the best students were sticking around anyway.” The fellowship now fully funds a couple of artists each year, while partially funding several others.

The name honors Vivian L. Aunspaugh, a Virginia-born artist who studied with Albert Mucha in Paris and in Rome, New York and Chicago; she won a gold medal at the Expo Universelle in Paris in 1900. In 1901, she founded the Aunspaugh School of Art in Dallas, the first in the Southwest to use live models, nude and undraped. Her bequest to U.Va. provided art scholarships after her death in 1960.

Much as Bennett did at Bucknell, the young artists find the fifth year to be a transitional year, which was the intent all along. “At the end of my fourth year, I felt my best art was not yet concrete; it was still an idea,” said painter and fellowship recipient Jeannette Ortt (Studio Art, Slavic Languages and Literatures ’02). “I was just beginning to think like an artist and wanted more time to work.” These are common sentiments among the fifth-years. All are passionate and brimming with ideas; they just need more time.

The Aunspaugh post-baccalaureate program helps the art department’s best students strengthen their portfolios. Years ago, students worked with one faculty adviser. Now, funded fellows and assistants not only have advisers but also participate in a weekly seminar class on Fridays and enjoy their own studio.

This year, with someone in nearly every concentration — photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and digital art — students have responsibilities similar to those of graduate students at other schools, mixing chemicals and assisting in labs. They also raise the bar for the artwork created department-wide. “It is amazing the caliber of work that comes out of this program,” said fifth-year fellow and sculptor Liz Piscotta (Studio Art ’02).

Each year, the fifth-years continue to demand more from the community, and their persistence often is rewarded with a response from the art department — the newly implemented Friday seminar class, for example.

In fact, the faculty concluded that the fifth year was important enough to eliminate one undergraduate class in order to dedicate a faculty member to the seminar. Associate Professor Dean Dass leads the group that also includes the department’s fourth-year distinguished majors. The seminar provides a forum for students to critique artwork, discuss graduate school and grapple with the art world at large.

Assisting professors and seminar class aside, studio practice is the heart of the fellowship. Studios fill half of the Fayerweather Annex, where several classes meet. And after a liberal arts education, it can be a difficult transition to adjust to a studio practice. Setting a schedule has been difficult, said Piscotta. “It takes time to develop one of your own.” However, the benefits of having a studio are tremendous, especially with the close proximity to the rest of the art department. And because of the tightly knit community of professors and students, there is strong support of the fellows and their work throughout Fayerweather.

Many students take time off before working toward an MFA, but with nearly 50 percent of fifth-year students enrolling immediately in graduate school — UCLA and Yale among them — the fellowship is a proven success. Either way, the strength of the program lies in the sense of community fostered by the art department and the commitment of the faculty and staff to helping young artists.

Today, students still hang around, scholarship or not; even students who graduated several years ago find themselves returning to Fayerweather Hall. “Now the program is competitive,” said Dass. “The word is out; our students want it, and previous students come back.”

Many will return in November, in fact, for an Aunspaugh retrospective, featuring a symposium, artists’ talks, receptions and workshops. Anchoring the program will be Jonathan Durham (Studio Art, Psychology ’97), a former fifth-year fellow who’ll be a visiting artist teaching sculpture and drawing during the 2003-04 academic year.