New visual arts center enhances art experience for Academies students, Culver community

The arts -- and its offerings to students at Culver Academies as well as to the community at large -- are at the fore as the school prepares to unveil the Rosemary Berkel Crisp and Harry L.Crisp II (CMA ’53) Center for the Visual Arts on its campus, which will be dedicated Oct. 7.
The $4.1 million retrofit of Eppley Hall of Science provides the spaces necessary for Culver’s visual arts curriculum with new studios and dedicated classrooms for drawing, painting, sculpting, and printmaking, an expanded photography area, an auditorium/classroom, and two galleries.
"What's great about it is it allows art to be a vehicle for teaching," explains Visual Arts Coordinator and instructor Bob Nowalk. "Art has many roles, one of which is to give us some satisfaction and beauty. But when you can bring learning into that, it will be more meaningful for students and give a deeper understanding of what's valuable in our
Nowalk explains the project has really been some eight years in the making, evolving from discussion of moving the entirety of the Music and Arts building's operations into the former science building (which was replaced by the fairly recent Roberts Hall of Science). A space survey showed that music and visual arts operations were so spread out, moving both to the new space wouldn't gain much room. Visual arts, says Nowalk, fit the building better.
"It allowed us to move from what are essentially three and a half classrooms to seven or eight classrooms," he notes.
The new space will also allow the school to share what it has with the community, such as students at Culver Elementary, whose fifth graders annually visit the Academies campus for a walking tour of the arts.
"This year, they can go into the Crisp Visual Arts Center and see a wonderful exhibition of drawings, paintings, photos, and the like," Nowalk says. "This is a good quality experience for kids."
Nowalk says his department -- which includes three fulltime instructors and an intern -- plans to open the gallery for special events open to the public. That gallery will accommodate some 50 works at a time, he adds.
“In the same way the Eppley Auditorium stage offers exhibitions as a public venue,” he says, “we hope to do that with the Crisp also.”
He says the new space will allow the school to build connections
between other areas of its curriculum and the arts through what’s exhibited in the gallery, something he says a program such as Culver Elementary’s allows quite well, but which typically is difficult for high schools -- where classes become specific rather than generalized -- to accomplish.
Nowalk is also excited about the possibilities for students to learn from the school’s artist-teachers.
“They use the term, ‘Those who can’t do, teach.’ In the arts that never flies. If you can’t play an instrument, how can you teach it? The artist-teacher is an artist proficient in their area, but who chooses to teach. So in our situation, instead of just giving four teachers an office, we give each teacher a space not only to plan their teaching, but create art. So they can be a personification of what an artist is and does. Students can visit artists’ studios and have a richer understanding of what that life means.”
The Crisp Center will open new horizons in showing student work as well. Says visual arts instructor Audrey Blessman, “Although I’ve had a lot of support over the years to show my student work in the library, science/math and humanities’ buildings, I’m excited visual arts students will have their own, official critique and exhibition space. The art gallery, auditorium, preparation and archival storage rooms are going to enhance the Culver experience for the entire community.”
The school’s photography program is among those receiving a big boost. For several years, one of the most requested classes has been Basic Black and White Photography, Nowalk says. Introducing students to the darkroom was limited by a lab that served only seven students at a time. The new photography studio will include a darkroom with fourteen enlarger stations, a studio for shooting and lectures, and a 14-station Mac lab that replaces the current two-station digital lab.
Leaving the old Music and Arts building behind will allow the music program some new elbow room, though visual arts instructors are finding the move bittersweet.
“I (have been) surrounded by such amazing music colleagues and have been so blessed to have had the opportunity to work closely with them,” says Blessman. “We’ve collaborated in so many ways I didn’t expect and, of course, I’m going to miss my daily dose of the jazz band and fabulous guitar students.”
Construction to re-fit the former science building began in November, 2010, says the school’s Facilities director, Jeff Kutch, P.E.
Planning for the project focused first and foremost on the needs of the program, though in a visual arts center, “form is (also) really important -- we had to incorporate both.”
Architecturally, the approach was to maintain many of the “timeless” facets of the 1950s building, says Kutch, such as terrazzo and stone as opposed to “a lot of drywall.
“We used a lot of enduring materials,” he points out. “You go in the corridor and instead of just plain, flat ceilings, you’ll see a lot of extra detail in ornamental bulkheads, light fixtures -- a lot of attention to detail.”
With the exception of stained glass, the windows were replaced and the building has a newer style geothermal heating system combined with a variable flow refrigerant system, which allows for independent, controlled environments, an important factor in preservation and safekeeping of Culver’s art collection, as well as a proper working environment for student artists.
Kutch also points out the beauty of the rotunda in the building’s atrium, a small kitchen for food serving, and the new, 42-seat auditorium fitted for high-tech needs.
All in all, the new center is the coming together of many people’s visions for the good of students.
“Everything we have is somehow through the generosity of those who have come to love Culver and the Culver experience,” explains Nowalk. “And we want to give that back to the kids. Every donor, from the smallest to the largest, had that love for the arts in them. I hope the work we do in the building will honor that love.
“Hate doesn’t build mountains. It’s only that deep caring for a subject and for children that makes this stuff come to fruition.”
Art instructor Jack Williams adds, “The visionary leadership that collectively brought about this game-changing space on the Culver campus has been truly inspiring. I’m so deeply grateful as an instructor of visual arts to be granted the opportunity to teach in such a wonderful new visual arts building.”
Fine Arts Chair Cathy Duke -- herself a 1970 graduate of the school, notes, “The teaching areas, auditorium, and galleries will serve as a central focal point for the Arts on our campus. The community will benefit from this dedicated space and we are anxious to share these new resources and inspire all who visit.”

(This article was written in conjunction with an article by Mike Petrucelli in the latest edition of Culver Academies’ Alumni Magazine, for use of which the editor expresses his thanks to editor Doug Haberland.)