There’s art in blending your passion and paycheck. University of Wisconsin Oshkosh artists are making a living as they make our world beautiful.
Art—visual, performing, literature, name the style or type—exists everywhere. Art is visible in every community, no matter the size or location, the makeup of its Main Street or who its leaders and teachers are.
But even in a world where art is so prominent, so available, so noticeable and shareable, UW Oshkosh student Irineo Medina isn’t exactly sure what he’ll do with his art degree once he graduates.
For a college student studying art, that’s not uncommon. The world of art—whatever the definition of art is—is a hard place to navigate and is generally a career choice that comes with speculation and questions. Those questions revolve around whether art is important or why it’s needed or where liberal-art-degree-holding artists fit into society, their communities and the workforce.
Medina, 22, of Sheboygan, is a junior pursuing a BFA with a fine arts emphasis, learning under some of the best in UW Oshkosh’s art department.
He’s a painter and a printmaker who has a soft spot in his heart for street art. He’s a young dad with a “troubled background,” as he calls it, acknowledging a serious run-in with the law and struggles during his early years at UW Oshkosh. Now, he’s an artist filled with ambition and talent who has a promising future.
“When my son was born, that helped me flip my switch; he’s my motivation. I’m the only one in my whole family to ever go to a four-year college. I know the value of that,” said Medina, who is highly regarded by his art professors, is in good academic standing and has even made his way to the UW Oshkosh honor roll.
In summer 2012, Medina was one of three UW Oshkosh students to team up with the “Wooster Collective: The Sheboygan Project,” a street art collective that explored the possibilities of transforming the local cityscape into a canvas for public art with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Now, Medina is spending his time creating works in the UW Oshkosh studio space and is even showing his pieces locally.
“The ongoing argument is: ‘It’s easy to be an art major,’” Medina said. “That’s an insult. Art is my heart. I don’t want to go out and do a job for the money. I want to do what I love.”
Medina said academics always came pretty easy to him. As a K–12 student, he was likely perceived as a “doodler,” often drawing during classes as a way to pass the time. Medina never thought much of his doodling; high school came and he started to consider choosing something that revolved around art as a career path.
Like most creative types, Medina is chasing a dream and a passion, not a paycheck; he has no desire to be a top-level executive. Of course, paychecks and recognition are necessary and nice, but for Medina and many others who consider themselves artists, it is first and foremost about a passion.
When people ask Medina what he’ll someday do with his art degree, he answers: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. But I know wherever I end up, I’ll end up happy. I’m going to keep pursuing my dream. I like that response.”
The necessity of art
In the fall 2013 semester, as part of UW Oshkosh’s University Honors Program, Tony, Obie and Drama Desk Award winner Stew, who is best known for his award-winning musical Passing Strange, spoke on campus—“Art: Luxury or Necessity?” The public talk and performance attracted hundreds who likely grapple with the questions at hand—do we need art? Is it necessary?
Stew, who is an artist, singer, songwriter and playwright and the recent recipient of a UW Oshkosh honorary doctorate, said art is necessary; he finds it important to share a message about how art is created—through passion.
“Not following your passion is as risky as following it. There is no safe move,” Stew said to the audience, mostly filled with UWO students. “If you woke up one day in a world without art, you’d start making your own. You’d have to.”
Gail Panske ‘82, UW Oshkosh art professor, shares a similar philosophy.
“Art helps us make sense of the world,” she said.
While on campus, Stew spoke of his career path, experiences and his views on art, even providing examples of what is and isn’t art, a centuries long debate. He said art is a tool needed for survival, something that inspires creativity.
“It is implied that art is extra, something we do after the serious work is done,” Stew said. “Art is a tool we use to survive…. Art makes you realize you aren’t crazy and you aren’t alone…. Art brings people together. It sounds corny, but it’s actually really true.”
Art inspires human connection
Medina wholeheartedly agrees with Stew—art does bring people together. That sense of togetherness is a huge part of the art program at UW Oshkosh, which has already shaped Medina’s life as an artist.
“I like to refer to art school as being made up of good people. Everyone there is intrinsically motivated, and it’s inspiring to see the person next to you work hard. We’re kind of secluded up there at the edge of campus, but I don’t mind. You become this tight-knit group after a while,” Medina said. “I stay late. I work among people who are amazing. While I’m sleeping, someone is getting better. You have to live, eat, dream and sleep art. Your art is about your life, and your life is about your art.”
Medina said he’s been presented with many opportunities while pursuing his degree in art at the state’s third-largest public institution, in a community where art is emphasized, as seen through events like Oshkosh’s monthly downtown Gallery Walk and through venues like the Paine Art Center and Gardens, the public museum and the Grand Opera House.
UW Oshkosh’s campus offers its own venues for art in the Gail Floether Steinhilber Art Gallery at Reeve Memorial Union and the Allen Priebe Gallery in the Arts and Communication Center.
Professionally, Panske is primarily a printmaker. Locally, she is involved with ArtSpace Collective, a downtown Oshkosh cooperative gallery. Panske defends art and those who create it and choose it as their career path, especially on behalf of her students. While supportive of choosing the study of art, Panske said she isn’t sure she knew what being an art student meant when she chose it for herself and she isn’t sure students today know what it means, either.
“When people ask what you do with an art degree I say: ‘Well, I have an art degree, a job, a house, I pay property taxes and I’m active in my community,’” Panske said. “They probably don’t ask that of people in the professional colleges.”
“Some of the students—and parents—are looking for permission to choose art. That’s OK. I think it’s the reason a lot of art students start out as other majors,” Panske said. “You hope they pursue, that they continue to work, that they find a way to stay engaged in what made them choose to be an art major to begin with, that they find a way to follow the work they were meant to do. Most people do have work they were meant to do.”
Kerri Cushman ’89, an associate art professor at Longwood University in Virginia, is one of those people. Cushman is a paper artist with a great love for materials. She’s spent her life, she said, with an “intellectual curiosity,” something she believes every artist must have.
Cushman’s career—one that started as a teacher and then eventually took her to graduate school—has given her experiences of a lifetime, including those that come with her job at Longwood; she spent three years designing the studio space where she now teaches, she’s traveled abroad for residencies, and she’s had the opportunity to continuously work at her craft.
Cushman said she knows being an artist—spending life producing works of art—is not always a choice that will pay the bills, so to say. Panske said artists who are not making a living by selling their art have to find another way to make a living, a choice she does not think is exclusive to artists.
“I definitely think people have a narrow view of the arts,” Cushman said. “If you are in the arts, you learn how to be creative and carve out your own niche. You create the jobs you need or find a way to make it work. I think that’s the one thing the arts have really taught me—to be creative not just in my personal work, but also how to creatively find a place in the world. That’s what I tell my students, too. I think that’s the thing I do best…teaching people how to be creative.”
By training, Karla Lauden ’92, has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts, from UW Oshkosh and the University of Nebraska Lincoln, respectively. By trade, she is an art specialist in the Appleton Area School District and is in the business of teaching others to be creative.
She said the best part of teaching elementary school children art is watching an idea unfold and transition from “I can’t do this” to “I did this.” She believes the arts are more important than ever and allow students to feel successful.
“The arts impact us all on a global, social, cultural, educational and political level. Often, it is the arts that can tug at your heart and, maybe, make you reevaluate or reconsider a thought,” Lauden said.
“I believe the arts are an integral component to a thriving society. I still find that the fine arts are often put toward the bottom as a priority in society,” she said. “I can never guarantee I will drastically improve the world when I show my work, but it may resonate with one person and that can make all the difference. Usually, when people see my work, a conversation ensues or a human connection is made, and personally, I think we need more of this than ever.”