Created to create: art and music at SAU

IMG_9571_edit11This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the Journal.

Walking into the Smith Music Center on SAU’s Spring Arbor campus provides listeners with a variety of unexpected aural delights. Practice rooms line the main hallway, and from them drift the sounds of students focusing on their craft. Trumpet, flute, piano, guitar, voice and many more jostle for dominance, one over the other, and instead rise together to join a greater chorus in praise and worship of the one who gifted and inspired their use. The band and choir rooms are both accessible from the main hall, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch the choir or orchestra, led by recent arrivals Dr. Richard Hintze and Dr. Mark Douglass, respectively, rehearsing a piece for an upcoming performance.

At a diagonal and slightly downhill from the Smith Music Center rests the Ogle Art Center, with the just-dedicated E.P. Hart Circle nestled between them. Visitors to the Ogle Art Center are similarly treated to sensory stimuli, though of a different variety. The smell of newly opened acrylic paints, of fresh-cut wood, of glue and ink and pastel dust all drift along unseen currents, mingling and scattering throughout the halls, permeating everything and everyone there as if to sanctify. From deeper within the building comes the voice of Jonathan Rinck, lecturer in art, as he instructs a class in the finer points of art history.

These two buildings and the departments housed within each may seem dissimilar in their purposes and programs — generally speaking, the art department prepares students for work in graphic design and photography while the music department prepares students for careers in music performance, music education and the worship arts. The students and faculty who daily roam and occupy these two buildings actually share something deeper: the passion and discipline to create and share the unique and beautiful. Or perhaps to subcreate and share.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,“ professor, theologian and author J.R.R. Tolkien surmised that humanity’s desire to create art, sing praise and tell stories is the result of our Imago Dei, of having been formed in the image of the Creator. From Christ in God, according to Tolkien, emanates the light of the Creator, which is refracted through us into a thousand hues of subcreative energy. To be creative and speak truth through the arts is a wholly redemptive endeavor. In this sense, students of these two departments are prepared for more than career and vocational success, they’re prepared to embrace that Imago Dei and walk in the truth of who they are as God’s creations.

“I think we’re all born with the ability to be creative,” says David Youngman ’05. He’s tall and thin, and he gesticulates while talking with a considered intentionality. “At some point, high school maybe, we are encouraged to start taking things seriously, and then creativity goes unnourished.” We’re sitting in his studio in downtown Hillsdale, Michigan. Mic stands, guitars, recording equipment, computers and books surround us, giving the place a comfortable, lived-in quality. Here, Youngman composes and records his music, communicates with record labels and other musicians, repairs the odd guitar and gives lessons to a handful of students. He also serves as adjunct faculty at SAU, instructing music students in guitar. “I’ve got a vision for this place,” says Youngman. “I’m setting it up in such a way that if I have a creative idea of any kind I can just go over to a workstation and get it out, no waiting.” His brain seems constantly abuzz with dozens of ideas worth exploring.

david-youngman-11

As a student at SAU, Youngman initially intended to go into music education. “I was taking education classes and I realized that working as a full-time teacher wouldn’t leave me with any time to create music.” So he dropped his music education major and switched over to performance. “So many people were telling me that I should have something to fall back on if performance didn’t work out,” says Youngman. But he found and was provided with a variety of opportunities and inroads into the world of professional musicians, including jazz trumpet lessons in Ann Arbor, Michigan — he later dropped the focus on trumpet — and summer tours to festivals across Michigan with his jazzgrass (a fusion of jazz and bluegrass) trio. Youngman’s professors kept pushing and encouraging him to pursue avenues for his talent and to connect with working professional musicians.

In the years since graduating, Youngman has achieved his goal of becoming a professional musician, all while balancing being a husband and father. In 2008 he released his first solo album, “Solo Guitar,” followed by “Alive” in 2011 and Trust in 2014. In 2013 he released a collaborative album with saxophonist Derek Brown called “The Duo Project.” In addition to having an already prolific recording career, Youngman has placed in or won several guitar competitions in recent years. “I first decided to enter and see if I could win some awards,” he says. “Having those awards listed at the end of your name or in your email signature gives a lot of legitimacy,” which can, in turn, open even more opportunities. “A lot of the winners go on to have really successful careers. So I signed up without knowing how I would compare to everyone else.”

Youngman took second place in the nationwide Canadian Guitar Festival, his first competition. The next year he took second place in Canada again, second in the Indiana State Fingerstyle Competition and third at the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship held in Kansas. In 2015, Youngman swept the Indiana and International competitions, claiming top honors. “And I said, ‘OK, that’s enough,’” he laughs. When asked what drives him to succeed, he says it’s perfectionism, a common refrain for many creative types. “It can’t be a compromise if it’s going to be truly effective, if it’s going to effect people.” But Youngman also recognizes the role God plays in his music — his latest album is a collection of hymns arranged for guitar. “That whole album is based on the truth that God speaks, and trusting in the Lord has kind of been the theme of my life since that project. I want to use my music to express this truth to people.” Without that drive, and without God, Youngman understands he wouldn’t be where he is today.

Creativity requires vulnerability. American literary great Ernest Hemingway famously said of writing that there’s nothing to it. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Of course he didn’t mean that literally, but rather that the subcreative act of writing, at least good writing, necessitates the pouring out of one’s soul, of making oneself vulnerable before the truth of the work. And before Christ in God, if you account for Tolkien. This truth applies to all of the arts. “When I’m that vulnerable, it’s like I’m truly living, like I’m open to myself and God,” says Youngman. Senior visual art education linguistics major Cloe Hadley further refines that thought when she talks about first discovering her love for art. “It brought me face-to-face with my Creator, to a place where I was completely vulnerable,” she says. “When I’m creating, there’s just a lack of stuff between me and God. It’s all about me completely coming down to the surface of myself and getting real with God.”

cloe-3

Hadley is soft-spoken, deliberate and thoughtful with what she says, and her piercing blue eyes and calm demeanor convey wisdom normally attributed to people thrice her age. Even though she is gifted with an immense natural talent and spiritual awareness, Hadley also recognizes the role her education at SAU has played in her growth as an artist and individual. “My program has definitely challenged me in every way possible,” she says. “I’m walking out of this program completely confident about what I’m doing, and I know that my professors have my back in everything I do!” Perhaps the most notable instance of this is with Hadley’s submission to Art Prize, the annual arts festival held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “My professors came out to support me, and having them there was such an amazing feeling. Professor Rinck even talked to me about possibly getting submitted to the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts!”

Yet Hadley seems rather unconcerned with prizes and accolades. The pieces she submitted to Art Prize draw from innocuous bits of litter and refuse, presenting them from new angles and perspectives in an effort to encourage awareness of pollution. Her passion for nature and Creation came about when she and her husband were living and doing mission work at the Grand Canyon. “I found myself completely awestruck that God could make something so huge. I learned a lot about God there, about how this beautiful and mysterious world is something to be cherished and cleaned.” After returning from the Grand Canyon, Hadley focused her work on relating the love of God through a message of good stewardship.

“They’ll know we’re Christians by our love, right?” Hadley says. “We model God’s love, and that love surpasses the human and goes into how we treat the world around us. I believe in God’s love for Creation and the goodness of who God is. It’s my mission to then go and convey that to the world and inspire them to respond by helping keep God’s creation beautiful.” That requires love, and Hadley is more than motivated to make herself present to that love and serve as a conduit for it through her work as an artist, and soon teacher: she’s finishing her semester of student teaching at local Northwest High School.

In her experiences student teaching, Hadley’s found a new opportunity to channel her passions. She still wants to compete with her personal art, but she also wants to bring her future students and their work to those competitions. “I want to inspire students to see that art matters. They need opportunities for expression, a quiet time when they can just reflect on what they’re learning and experiencing.” Though she never says it outright, Hadley obviously wants art to be a spiritual experience for her students, as it is for her. Vulnerability before God, be it before an altar or an easel, is by definition an invitation, a prayer of sorts, and partaking in the act of subcreation is then a form of worship. Hadley recognizes this in both her personal and professional work, making them both an unconventional ministry to the world.

“It’s absolutely worship,” says Dr. Bruce Brown, chair for the music department. “You’re giving your talent back to God!” Dr. Brown exudes a friendly warmth, perhaps due to the ready and welcoming smile he wears. “It’s just a bedrock of our belief system, really. God has given us all very different gifts quite deliberately.” He’s been teaching at SAU since 1984, and has been the department chair since 1995. Consequently, he’s seen a lot of students pass through the music department; he was one of the professors who instructed and encouraged David Youngman. As if privy to his former student’s remarks regarding perfectionism, Brown considers the strength of ego necessary for performance. “What would even give someone the audacity to be involved in performing music or doing artwork?” Brown has long been the composer in residence for the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, and his compositions have been performed in places around the nation and world; he’s familiar with the allure of fame and pride. “We always have to guard against that encroachment of ego in our spirit. I have to do it. Everyone does, or should. Everybody’s gift, their strength really, is their weakness in reverse.” When we no longer use our gifts, talents and strengths in honor or recognition of God, we fall prey to the impulses of ego, our gifts become a mockery of their original form and purpose, and truth becomes elusive.

Sophomore general music major Nathan Sam-Glenn recognized some of that impulse in himself prior to coming to SAU. Practicing piano in his room after school, he used to imagine his bullies being amazed by his talent, apologizing for their torment of him. “I’m so much less prideful about that now!” Sam-Glenn is possessed with charm and jovial energy, and he likely knows no strangers. “SAU has been such a wonderful community for me to grow. It fosters real spiritual growth. It’s been a space where I can ask hard questions of my friends and professors and get really reasonable, logical, theological and biblical responses.” SAU’s ability to nourish the spiritually underfed has long been known to students, faculty, staff and alumni, as is its ability to facilitate true spiritual transformation. Certainly it’s been something experienced by Sam-Glenn.

IMG_9593_edit2 copy

“I felt called to ministry,” Sam-Glenn admits, “and at first I thought that meant being a preacher, standing in front of everyone and speaking.” So when he first enrolled at SAU it was as a pastoral ministry major. To those who knew him, it may have seemed an odd choice. Before being accepted to SAU, Sam- Glenn was invited to play the piano at an admissions event. Everyone in attendance was amazed at his talent, and it was enough for him to get his foot in the door, apply and be admitted. It was almost serendipitous. “I was accepted to Berklee College of Music, but SAU was far more feasible. I would have had to study overseas at one of Berklee’s international campuses, and SAU is so much closer to home.” But despite his obvious gift, Sam-Glenn chose to pursue his call — though he took band and choir classes alongside his theology and Old Testament courses. “A lot of people say ‘your ability to play piano is a gift from God,’ and I haven’t always felt that way.” But if you were to hear him play, composing intricate melodies on the fly or seamlessly weaving together bits of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, you might have trouble believing that.

For Sam-Glenn, the switch from pastoral ministry to general music came after the realization that ministry can take many different forms. It also came after a full academic year of spiritual nourishment and transformation. “In my studies, if I can cultivate myself in the way that God is pushing me to do, I believe my ministry, whatever it looks like, will be very broad and colorful.” He cites Dr. Richard Cornell, associate professor of biblical studies, as one of his primary transformative influences. “He really opened himself up to mentoring me, to letting me ask those tough questions and walking with me when I really struggled in the program. He’s just an awesome person, and I wish he was my pastor.” Sam-Glenn hopes to someday provide others with the kind of guidance Dr. Cornell has given him, and he now knows that his musical talents can be vehicle to that. “Whatever I’ll be doing with my music will also be a form of ministry. Music is really going to speak through my life, and I’m always going to speak the message of Christ.”

While not every music student will have his opportunities, Sam-Glenn still encourages those looking for a good music program to consider SAU. The value in SAU’s music program is tied directly to the professors. “They are amazingly, ridiculously talented!” Sam-Glenn exclaims. When he first auditioned for Assistant Professor of Music Audrejean Heydenburg, Sam-Glenn was amazed to hear her play his complex and self-arranged audition piece by ear. “We are so blessed to have her here.” For Sam-Glenn, the talent of every faculty member is worthy of equal praise. “But it’s their ability to mentor me in my craft that really matters. I have the passion and drive, but they teach me discipline. Passion is fleeting but discipline is consistent. Discipline carries you through.” It’s that same discipline he hopes will help him grow in love and kindness at SAU.

But growth doesn’t come overnight, and despite SAU’s ability to facilitate growth, discipline is never easy. It requires we strip ourselves of bad habits, unlearn what we once thought was true. When Shelley Gibbs ’10 first came to SAU as a nontraditional student, she brought with her motivations and ideas in need of reassessment. Prior to coming to SAU she had completed a number of courses at Jackson College in her teens, and at Wayne State University in her twenties, where she took numerous art classes. “I thought I knew what I was doing,” says Gibbs. With her red-blonde hair and kitschy-vintage attire, she’s immediately noticeable. Her friendly and open attitude led her classmates to nickname her “Mama.” “I thought I was an artist. I was 30 and on top of it.” She laughs in anticipation of the punch line. “They took a look at my portfolio and said, ‘You’re amazing with color, but you can’t draw. You’re going to have to start over.’ And I was crushed! But I figured if that was their assessment of me, they must have something to teach me.” Before graduating, Gibbs would completely reassess and realign her understanding of what it means to be an artist, thanks to the guidance of her first drawing teacher, retired professor of art, Bill Bippes.

shelly-gibbs-31

“He was always there to guide me and make sure that I was doing the best I could,” says Gibbs of Bippes. “He was really hard on me. But he challenged me in a lot of ways, and that led me to believe in myself as an artist.” Within Gibbs, Bippes instilled the idea that making art is worship, and it requires our absolute best effort. Anything less is a sin. “All my art classes at JC and Wayne State took a post-modern approach. There was no wrong way to do something in art. But Bippes told me that to do whatever you want wasn’t right. Art has rules, it has meaning and it has to have substance.” These ideas of art as a substantive and meaningful act of worship spoke to Gibbs. Prior to coming to SAU, she had embraced the post-modern approach, painting and drawing with no other purpose than to “be edgy and push the envelope.” Gibbs realized she had no idea of her art’s audience or purpose. A series of life-altering challenges and hardships, occurring within a short period of time, left Gibbs completely vulnerable and broken. “God put me at SAU for a reason. Bippes sensed that brokenness in me and gave me direction with my art. I was so vulnerable at that time, and I was so open about my brokenness. I explored it through all of my projects.”

Gibbs’ transformative experiences at SAU became a core part of her approach to art, both in and out of her middle school classroom. “I quote Bippes to my students all the time,” she laughs. “I’ve modified his lessons to their level, and I really push them, like he did me.” In pushing and encouraging her students, Gibbs demonstrated to them that she cared about their success, fostering trust in her and vulnerability in their artwork. While she believes in the idea of natural talent, she also believes that taking time to stop and be in the moment opens people to creative modes of thinking and seeing. Being present, being mindful and being open are tenets of a personal creed Gibbs tries to live out daily. In part, it’s how she operates her studio and vintage store, Well, Hello There Darlin’.

Shortly after graduating from SAU, Gibbs received a call from a friend in Detroit suggesting she come out and audition for an extra role in a movie. They were looking for “weird, vintage types,” and Shelley admits that she fits that bill. She landed the role. It brought her a newfound confidence that she embraced and pursued. “It wasn’t just about being pretty and being in front of people. I lost weight, got my self-esteem back and refocused myself.” Because her experience was such a positive and affirming one, Gibbs decided to share it with other women, helping them feel beautiful and empowered. Thus, Well, Hello There Darlin’ was born. Gibbs offers the store’s resources and her skills as a photographer to women interested in doing vintage-style photo shoots (she also carries a variety of vintage merchandise). Between this and her middle school art classroom, Gibbs is giving back as much as SAU, and God, have given her.

“Artistic talent is a God-given gift,” says Brian Shaw ’90, associate professor of art and department chair. “In Exodus 31 we read about a man named Bezalel who was given the gift of artistic design from God so that he might build God’s temple.” It’s the first biblical example of God granting this kind of talent to someone, and Bezalel uses it for its explicit purpose: giving it back to God. Shaw has used his own considerable talent to give back, having illustrated children’s books for Sea World and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. He also has paintings on display around the nation. He sees that same potential for success in the students who matriculate in his department. “If their portfolios are excellent, they won’t have any trouble getting work in the commercial arts.” So while technique and skill are crucial for artistic expression of any kind, the basic principles of creative thinking are highly desired by employers. “Creative talent doesn’t always come naturally,” adds Shaw, “but I believe if you really want it, you can train and practice and become a very creative individual.” With instruction from professors like Shaw, Dr. Brown and all of their colleagues, students of SAU’s art and music programs have the chance to be more than subcreative individuals; they have the God-given talent to be demonstrably wise and successful, serving and worshiping God using their gifts to witness.

Comments are closed.