Andrew Kearns from Salem, Va. has spent the better part of the past year packing.
“I feel like my whole life has been packing and unpacking,” he said on his second day in Johnson Hall.
Kearns, who came to VCU to pursue a degree in graphic design, spent his senior year of high school in Rouen, France as part of an exchange program. He returned in late July, with a month left to visit with his friends he hadn’t seen in a year, visit his grandparents in Massachusetts and take a week-long vacation to Myrtle Beach before he had to move into his dorm.
Since he was out of the country during normal freshman orientation times, Kearns registered for classes earlier in the summer and then attended a shortened orientation the week before freshman move-in. He moved into his dorm the same day, two days before the rest of the freshman class came to campus.
“I can’t even put stuff away,” he said of his half-unpacked dorm room. “I just can’t deal with it. I’m going to leave it there (and) hope it disappears. It won’t, I’ll just get more stuff to deal with.”
After a year in France, coming back to America (and Richmond) is something Kearns is looking forward to.
“It’s really different when you’re an exchange student because you’re really trying to adapt to a different culture and then make friends who aren’t the same as you,” Kearns said. “But this year, it’s more about meeting people like me and meeting people who are from America and have a similar culture as me and talk the same way that I do and enjoy the same kind of things and do the American-college-freshman thing.”
Part of the “American-college-freshman thing” in VCUarts is a group of four required classes that all Art Foundations (AFO) students must take before applying into their specific major at the end of the first year, during spring portfolio review.
AFO students must successfully complete Time Studio, Space Research, Surface Research and Drawing Studio. The classes, taken two at a time over the first two semesters, are meant to encompass the basics of art and design.
In addition to those four classes, AFO students must complete two project classes, meant to give them a sampling of different majors. First-year AFO students must also complete Focused Inquiry I and II and both parts of introductory art history classes.
Kearns said most of his academic classes won’t be hard for him, but his first four art foundation classes might be difficult for him.
“I’ve always liked art but I don’t like…fine arts,” he said. “I don’t like drawing…I don’t enjoy painting. Sculpture’s okay, but really…I love the idea and I like being exposed to (fine arts), but I don’t feel very strong doing them.”
Kearns spent most of his time in high school as part of the school’s forensic team and working with theatre productions. During his junior year, he joined the yearbook staff where he could start experimenting with graphic design.
“(Graphic design) is more technical, (it’s) on the computer (and) it’s more about the creative process than actually doing it,” he said.
Like Kearns, Brooke Marsh isn’t entirely comfortable with what AFO will demand of her this year. But she’s a self-declared optimist, and despite feeling like she has less art experience than many of her incoming peers, she’s excited to be in the AFO program.
Marsh began her art education her junior year of high school. She never took an Advanced Placement art class because she didn’t take the required prerequisite before her senior year at Chopticon High School in Morganza, Md.
She never took sculpture or film photography classes, but she enrolled in Time Studio and Surface Research this semester, which she hopes will hone her video-making and 2-D art skills. “I never got to take a sculpture or a film photography class, so I don’t know anything about darkroom or anything about 3-D design,” she said. “I’m excited to learn those techniques.”
For the required portfolio submission for admission into the school, she submitted samples of her photography, still-life drawings and watercolor paintings.
“It’s intimidating…just not having the experience that all the other kids have,” Marsh said. “But if I can get into the art school, I must have some kind of talent that they’re looking for, I must have something that they want here, I feel like if I can get accepted, I obviously belong here.”
Marsh banked a lot on belonging at VCUarts—she didn’t apply anywhere else during her college search.
“I was going to apply to other schools, but I would find something about them I liked and then I would find something that I didn’t like and I knew that I would absolutely hate it when I went there so I decided just not to apply there,” she said.
Neither of Marsh’s parents attended college and she said they were both open to Marsh pursuing her photography degree wherever would best fit her needs.
“(My mom) was uneasy about the price just because it was out-of-state, but she was willing to support me and once we got the financial aid letter, it fell into place,” she said.
Marsh had about half of her tuition paid for through loans and grants from the school but still had to take out private loans.
Unlike Marsh, Kate Rancka from Midlothian, Va. didn’t immediately decide to attend VCU. A voice major, Ranacka was seriously considering Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
The daughter of two music majors – her dad studied vocal music and her mom studied music education and played the clarinet – Rancka was advised to attend a state school for her undergraduate studies, then move to a more prominent school for graduate school.
She auditioned at the Eastman School of Music and was accepted, but ultimately settled on VCU.
“(VCU) is a lot less expensive (and) I know Richmond really well,” she said. Rancka is not staying in-state just for the convenience though.
“VCU has an amazing music program anyways. VCU is not a ‘settling’ school, it’s a really good school,” she said.
Rancka began learning how to read music and play piano when she was 3 years old and was in voice lessons by the time she was 7. From then on, she was involved with community groups and theatre companies in the Richmond area.
She participated in the theatre program at her high school, Thomas Dale High School and over the summer lent her talents to a local production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” as a narrator. During high school, she spent a summer as part of the Governor’s School for the Arts, which she called the best summer of her life.
“It was the first time I was able to… just sing eight or nine hours a day and be around people who actually enjoy it and (are) not annoyed by it,” she said.
Rancka said she expects to find the same kind of environment at VCU, as well as some new experiences. For the first time in her singing career, she’ll have a male voice teacher, Kenneth Wood.
“I’m not really nervous,” she said. “I think that it will be exciting.”
Dance and Choreography
For an 18-year-old freshman from Hudson, Co. who is 1700 miles from home, Rex Kennedy is surprisingly calm.
“I feel really prepared, the only thing I’m nervous about is how I’ll be viewed by the VCU dance population… how (will) the other freshman dancers will look at me, will they think I’m crazy?” he said before classes began.
“I definitely put myself out there to push myself creatively and I have high expectations for myself and I don’t settle for things that have been done before,” he said.
With an athletic background- Kennedy played basketball and participated in track and field- he said he caught on to dance quickly.
“The physicality was easy, (dancing is) just using it in different ways,” he said.
For the first two years of his high school career, Kennedy attended a normal school where he pursued sports. After a dance studio opened near his house and a year of dancing, he transferred to the Denver School of the Arts, making a 40-minute commute every day for two years.
It paid off. And for the last two summers, Kennedy has been able to attend the prestigious American Dance Festival at Duke University.
The ADF is a six-week program that offers classes, performances and training for dancers and choreographers of different skill levels, from students to professionals.
Kennedy was able to perform in the Festival’s performances, take classes and watch other dances perform.
Through his time at the ADF, he also became familiar with VCU. James Frazier, who serves as one of the ADF Schools’ co-deans, is also the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at VCU School of the Arts. In addition to Frazier’s presence, Kennedy noticed that there seemed to be more VCU students participating in the ADF than any other school. Kennedy’s final choices came down to VCU and NYU and although cost was a consideration, his experience with VCU students at the ADF helped him make his decision.
“(The dancers at ADF) have been what I look up to because they were always creative and really individuals as well as being good technically,” he said. “I feel like it’s a good place to nurture young dancers, especially to push us to be creative and innovative.”
Kennedy is the kind of student VCUarts Dean Joe Seipel said is the norm in the school.
“There’s a sense in the school of the arts that it’s really cool to be dedicated to your studio or your theatre or music, whatever it is,” Seipel said. “There’s always a sense that the people that are the most respected around the art school campus are the ones that are the hardest workers.”
VCU Dance and Choreography is an invited member of the Council of Dance Administrators, which is a forum of the country’s 25 leading dance programs.
Tricia Wiles spent her high school career as busy as she could possibly be. She played volleyball for four years, participated in theatre, pursued vocal music outside of school and dabbled in other activities, including gymnastics.
Out of everything she did, though, her favorite thing to do was musical theatre.
“I love the aspects of dance, acting and singing and then developing the characters in one single show and I just thought it was so amazing that you could have every type of…talent thrown together in one big jumble,” she said.
Wiles spent her senior year studying musical theatre through an Independent Study course at her high school. She had to propose the class to her school’s administration and decide what would she do in it. She spent the year helping with theatre classes and occasionally leaving school during the day for private voice lessons.
“If I actually have a shot at being talented enough and experienced enough to actually make this my living, then I need to even out my talent,” she said. “I don’t want to be that actor who can sing and dance but can’t act worth anything.”Deciding not to pursue dance required Wiles to take an honest look at herself as a performance artist. She had been singing in church since she was 4 years old and had been taking private voice lessons for three years and thought pursuing a voice major might not be worthwhile for her.
Once she realized that theatre was the best fit for her, Wiles had to decide where to go.
She auditioned for six schools but thought VCU had the most established program.
“A lot of schools are just starting out and just starting their programs and one thing about VCU is that it had this foundation that ‘We’re top-notch and we know it,’” she said.
VCUarts is ranked as the No. 1 public arts school in the country with No.1 rankings in its sculpture, fiber arts, graphic design and glass programs among the country’s other public art schools.