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Sage Art Center & The Cattle Farm Mystery

October 31, 2013

By: Marz Saffore

When I asked Benjamin Goulet what he compares Sage Art Center to, he shook his head, hesitated, and took his time in answering. Very carefully, he responded, “A herd of cattle. And they’re roaming around in their hills and fields, and then there’s a fence around the very outside edge. Then, there’s a benevolent group of farmers and dogs, nah that’s for sheep, just farmers that will occasionally guide them to the food, but otherwise let them find the food on their own.” Satisfied with his metaphor, he chuckled and said, “And I’m not going to explain it. That’s how I will describe it.” Goulet is a senior Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major and a Studio Art minor at the University of Rochester. Although most of the community at this research institution points out the differences between the arts and the sciences, when I asked him about his interests in both biology and art, he said “I’m interested in scientific research. I think research and making things, let’s say photographs or art making, have a lot in common.” Research and experimentation is often associated with lab settings, however, Sage Art Center provides students with an encouraging space for innovation. What is Sage Art Center? Well, it all begins with a question. As an Honors Studio Art major and an undergraduate studio assistant at the Art Center, I will guide you through our exploration of Sage. Hopefully your overwhelming bewilderment towards Sage entices you to delve deeper and truly discover it for what it really is. First, it is critical to note that Sage Art Center, commonly referred to as Sage, does not refer solely to the physical building itself. When an art student here at the University of Rochester mentions Sage, he/she means Sage as a whole, which includes its structure, professors, students, courses, atmosphere, etc. Sage is unlike any other environment found on campus (as will be made evident as this story unfolds), and to those of us lucky enough to experience its opportunities and adventures, we value and appreciate it for everything it is. Now that, that distinction is out of the way, let’s carry on. Sage is the home of the Studio Art Program of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Rochester. It has six faculty members, four adjunct professors, and three staff members. Together, they teach and aid students in creating visual art that relates to personal topics of interest. With access to a dark room, wood shop, metal shop, digital lab, and audio suite amongst other things, students use the building as a production studio for their work as well as an exhibition space. It is during two hour and forty minute classes, that meet twice weekly, that students receive hands on teachings on how to make their artistic dreams a reality. Professors at Sage encourage the act of asking questions. It’s the pursuit of these questions that yields the most eye opening and intriguing art. Located on the northern side of campus, Sage exists in a world of its own, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of campus. Goulet calls Sage a “self contained unit.” (He also likens it to the mystery item boxes in Mario games. He really likes analogies). It sits at the bottom of a hill commonly used for sledding during Rochester’s harsh Winters. Quite literally, Sage is the rush of excitement gained after flying down a huge slope. Although isolated from the other academic buildings on campus, it is by no means hidden. In fact, the outer walls of the building are glass, allowing those who pass by to return to their neighboring dorm rooms to peer in and get a glimpse of the excitement for themselves. However, even through its transparency, Sage still remains a mystery to most. Maybe it’s the origins of Sage Art Center that solicits a sense of secrecy to the campus at large. While interviewing Art and Art History Department Assistant, Derek Crowe (who graduated from the Biomedical Engineering program here at the University of Rochester), I heard a story of the beginnings of Sage Art Center that is quite groundbreaking. Crowe referred to a committee of fourteen individuals who met every leap year in underground abandoned dining halls across campus to discuss fire safety issues. The committee moved above-ground for their 1976 meeting where they created the acronym SAGE, which stood for Some Artists Getting Excited, to hide their still-secret intentions of preventing fires. Before their next meeting in 1980, the school bought into their acronym, gave them the old dining hall at the base of the hill, and started funding their art program… It’s quite possible that even after Crowe’s in depth explanation, the general public may still have questions about Sage, so let’s keep digging. One important takeaway from Crowe’s story is the fact that Sage was originally built as a dining hall back in 1962. The University of Rochester was the nation’s first college to unite both men and women in one residence hall in the sixties. In fact, the school built two co-ed residence halls, Anderson Tower and Wilder Tower, in honor of two of its founding fathers. Sage Dining Hall (named after one of the first Trustees) was also built at this time to provide a space where students could meet and exchange ideas. Although one will often smell brewing coffee or reheated pasta near the faculty office or senior studios in Sage Art Center today, the building was re-purposed for the studio art program in the eighties. However, much of the same infrastructure of the building remains the same. Coincidentally, the building is still used as a social hub for the exchange of ideas amongst students today. The building is a square; the inner square (where the kitchen used to stand) was turned into specialized work spaces such as a dark room and a wood shop, and the outer square is designated for classrooms. Although each section of the outer square is the home to one of Sage’s many studio classes, such as Printmaking and Drawing, there are no physical walls that separate the “classrooms.” Crowe stated, “The classrooms aren’t really separated by anything other than metaphors. Ideas and processes just sort of drift about until they are met by a student willing to accept them as truth. It’s very open but not at all new-agey.” And “not at all new-agey” is right. Sage still has its old fashioned feel to it. There is outdated light brown tile spread throughout the building, and you’d be dreaming if you thought there was any air conditioning. (Crowe posted a picture of an indoor thermometer reading 93 degrees Fahrenheit on the Sage blog this past summer). The students work on old, stained, eroded, wooden tables in most of the classes, with the exception of the digital media classes which uses the up to date digital lab. I personally think that when an art building consists of more cutting edge technology, the focus turns away from interpersonal collaborative efforts which is the exact opposite of what Sage supports. During class time, which is twice as long as a traditional class at the University, students are free to roam around the space to bounce ideas off of each other and the space itself. It’s quite possible that the most valued interactions in Sage occur between student and professor. Goulet said, “I know them (professors) each by first name. We always say hi, we always have something to talk about. I definitely think of them (Printmaking Professor, Rachael Hetzel and Photography Professor, Evelyne LeBlanc-Roberge) as mentors.” It is this collaboration that provides possible means on how to address the very questions that students come to contemplate. I also find mentors in the professors at Sage, not just in the realm of education, but in the overall game of life. It is the diverse interests and passions of the professors that make them so striking. Crowe explained it as, “We (The Department of Art and Art History) hire very qualified professors who work in a variety of media. We hire painters who make bedazzled sculptures of drones, photographers who rent out abandoned banks for the evening, artists who sink easy-chairs into their backyard, and printmakers who like to dress up as Bjork in a swan outfit to name a few.” Fortunately enough for the students and for our purposes as we continue to search for the secrets of what makes Sage, Sage, Crowe is not exaggerating with these descriptions. Our professors do extraordinary things as they search for their own answers through art. Our professors live what they teach, and that is what sets them apart from many other professors in other programs of study. It is their fascination and dedication to their personal fields of study that shows us that we too can realize our passions and devote our lives to them freely. (Our professors show us that it’s okay to be a little wacky too). I’ve come across many skeptical people who wondered why I choose to go to one of the nation’s top research universities to study art. Honestly, I used to ask myself the same thing. What Sage taught me is that the same research that my peers honor and follow in their lab based courses is the same research that successful artists do in the studio. Both a scientist and I could wonder whether one’s race has an effect on their chances of carrying on their genes in the ongoing process of evolution. The scientist may go about finding his/her answer by collecting data on the life expectancy rates, reproduction statistics, etc. on a variety of races, and I may go out into different communities photographing current life conditions that capture socioeconomic statuses, interpersonal relationships, etc. However, at the end of it all, we are both completing research stemming from one question and aiming towards the discovery of truth. Goulet said, “Both scientific research and art making both reward and require creative problem solving. You come up with a question or an idea that you don’t fully understand and your goal is to somehow increase your understanding of that idea, or start to suggest answers to questions.” Crowe, the biomedical engineer, said, “Whether or not you’re an engineer or an artist, if you are engaging in the process of whatever it is you’re doing, then you can do it.” These two powerful, affirmative statements are exactly what Sage Art Center represents. What separates Sage from other buildings on campus, or even other art programs at other schools? Although we have the ability to conduct qualitative research that addresses and answers questions of interest, we also recognize the possibility and the power of failure. Up the hill (Sage slang referring to the rest of campus), students focus on one concrete, unchanging end goal that must be achieved in the most efficient way, whatever that may be, in order to claim success. In competitive art schools, artists are drilled into producing art that is objectively superior to their peers and that will sell for the highest price. Not to say that Sage doesn’t enjoy success in whatever terms you choose to define the word, but it is to say that our professors encourage us to look at failure as an open door down a less traveled path. Oftentimes, the road less traveled is the most exciting and most rewarding, and here at Sage, we’re all about new experiences. The question was, “What is Sage Art Center?” I think a great way to summarize the research we did here is to refer back to Goulet’s comparison of Sage to the fenced in herd of cattle being watched by the farmers. In an open field, there are several ways for the cows to get to the food, and no one cow will get there exactly as another. The farmers are there to offer guidance to the cows along the way, but not to rush the process. Think of all the experiences a cow would miss out on if he/she went straight towards the food all the time. I tell you one thing, if that were the case, there sure wouldn’t be anytime to make any more cows. This feature story is dedicated to all the faculty, staff, and students who hold Sage Art Center as near and dear to their hearts as I do.

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