2009 Changemaker: Elizabeth Erickson and Patricia Olson, Women’s Art Institute

Teachers create community for artists

Questions are at the heart of the Women’s Art Institute, even on the first day of the Summer Studio Intensive, when participants ponder the theme of the course: “Contemporary Artists-What are the questions? What are the answers?”

Held each June for the past 11 years, the students are asked to bring seven questions about themselves and their artist path. On the first day of class the 100-plus questions are posted and then distilled down by the group to seven questions that become the curriculum for the three-week artist intensive program held at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and co-sponsored by St. Catherine University.

The Women’s Art Institute (WAI) was the idea of Elizabeth Erickson, a painter, poet and art professor in fine arts at MCAD. In 1996, she approached MCAD with a program to give instruction specifically for women art students. She wanted to create a women-centered environment and a safe community for women to explore lives as artists.

Launched in 1999, Erickson, as the Institute’s director, invited Patricia Olson to join her as a co-instructor. Olson was a natural choice. Their friendship began in the 1970s as founding members of the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM), a collective of feminist women artists. Olson is a painter, designer and associate professor in the art and art history department at St. Catherine University.

“The dialogue [for the art intensive] is formed by not only the questions the students bring, but also by their wide-ranging experience about ‘What is feminism?’ All of the questions are tossed around in a very lively way,” Erickson said. The questions cover a wide range from practical and personal daily things to larger philosophical, theoretical ideas. What are studio practices? What’s my relationship to history? How do I make a supportive community? How can I be supportive to others?

Each day starts with a writing workshop to focus on one of the questions. Students share what they’ve written, “from eloquent and deep, to things people are thinking about for the first time,” Olson said.

“That’s what’s radical,” Olson said. “That’s what’s feminist about this particular way of teaching. People are engaged in a very rigorous, intellectual, critical thinking mode, and at the same time they are bringing their personal experiences to it and trying to figure out how that impacts their life.”

While they engage the questions, students produce artwork using studio space and facilities at MCAD. In addition to Erickson and Olson, 12 local and national artists, some of whom are internationally known, lecture and critique.

During its 11 years, approximately 200 students, ages 19 to 73, have attended the Institute. Erickson and Olson think it’s the only program of its kind in the U.S. WAI is fully accredited for undergraduate and graduate credit.

Students of WAI have said that it’s life changing. Said one student: “I’ve been going down a dark cave throughout my artist training and someone handed me a flashlight.”

For Erickson, these results are directly connected to their feminist approach. “People say the feminist movement is over. Or, the need for this feminist experience is over,” said Erickson. “It’s immediately clear, as they write these questions and become vulnerable to what they are really experiencing of the life of art, that it’s not over. It’s so useful in opening a door that offers them the possibility of entering and being a part of something very big.”

Be A Changemaker
The 2010 Summer Studio Intensive of the Women’s Art Institute (WAI) will be held June 7-25. The brochure and application will be posted at www.mcad.edu/wai in Spring 2010. For more information call 612-874-3765.

Donations for scholarships are critical. If you are interested in supporting WAI contact Elizabeth Erickson at elizabeth_erickson@mcad.edu