Trusting the Process at the Center for Visual Arts

Center for Visual Arts nears 50 years of evolution.

For almost half a century, the Johns Hopkins Center for Visual Arts (CVA) has offered students a kind of learning not typically found in labs, archives, or lecture halls. 

“Our job is to teach students about art and how contemporary art is such a vital voice in society,” says Margaret Murphy, the center’s director for the past five years. “That’s where a lot of issues are being brought up, because artists can do that in a way that’s different than language. It’s a visual language.” 

The Center for Visual Arts has seen its share of growth over the years. From its home today in the historic Art Moderne-style Centre Theatre building on North Avenue, a few blocks south of campus, almost a dozen instructors offer a full slate of courses for 200 students each semester, 85 of whom are visual art minors. The CVA used to reside within the Office of Student Life. It is now a full entity of the School of Arts and Sciences. 

Murphy’s next five-year plan? “We want a major, and students want it. So that’s the next step. I think it’s doable.” 

Transformation of the Center for Visual Arts

There’s a moment that Drummond Fielding ’12 remembers today with the same wonder he felt originally. It’s when he gathered with his Life Drawing class in a back room at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A curator passed around a vellum-wrapped Degas Conté crayon drawing before placing it on an easel for the students to copy. Fielding looked at his peers—so varied in their interests and backgrounds—and could hardly believe he was lucky enough to have stumbled into such a rarefied adventure. “I just felt so privileged, that I was in on this secret, that I could just sign up and take this class and have these mind-blowing experiences,” says Fielding, now a theoretical astrophysicist. 

Art classes have a way of cracking open the unexpected, the enduring. 

Zorawar Sidhu ’07 arrived at Hopkins planning to major in biology and enrolled in history of art classes to fulfill his electives, but noticed he was absorbing information passively. Painting and drawing classes shifted that for him. 

“I experienced a different type of learning where the process of making a drawing or painting required close observation, using my hands to translate what I saw, and being able to visually evaluate what I had made,” he says. “When I returned to my other classes, I discovered that I had become a more observant person.” 

Sidhu went on to major in history of art, and is now a successful printmaker in New York. 

There’s magic just in paying attention to an object for a long time, adds storyboard artist Kevin Kaliher ’90. “At the end of it, maybe you’ve come to some new realization about the object you’re looking at, or yourself. It’s time well spent. After you spend an hour drawing a paper bag, you’re no longer the same person.” 

Putting down roots

The center’s robust present germinated in a humbler past. It started as the Homewood Art Workshops in a 600-square-foot classroom in the old Merryman Hall. After retiring as president of Maryland Institute College of Art in spring 1974, painter Eugene “Bud” Leake asked Hopkins’ then-president Steven Muller if the university ever offered art classes. Muller offered Leake the chance to start one that fall. It was a non-credit drawing and painting course, but there was a model. And there was a junior named Craig Hankin who found something he didn’t know he’d been looking for. He would spend most of the next 44 years connected to the CVA. 

Leake hired Hankin ’76 in 1980 to share teaching duties. Leake turned over the directorship to him when he retired in 1986. Photography, sculpture, and 2D design soon joined the roster. In 2001 the center moved the workshops to the new Mattin Center. The center was dedicated to visual and performing arts and student organizations. 

Starting a minor

About 10 years later, international studies major Rachel Riegelhaupt kept a promise she’d made to herself while unsure about applying to Hopkins because of the art program’s small size. She launched a petition for a minor in visual art. “Though visual art is not my intended career path, it is a part of my life that I hold close to my heart,” Riegelhaupt ’15 wrote to the president and board of trustees. The minor was launched in 2013 and enrollment spiked, jumping again the following year when the name changed to the CVA. Hankin retired in 2018, and Murphy stepped in from Marymount Manhattan College. 

“The role of an arts program at a place that has built its reputation in the sciences and engineering is both to complement those other disciplines when possible, but also to offer students an alternative. And to be able to do a different sort of research and to learn a different type of problem solving,” Hankin says. 

The Center for Visual Arts’ strong foundation

In classrooms and studios humming from morning to night, students study both digital and analog photography, including light-sensitive processes like cyanotype and lumen prints. They study graphic design and fiber arts—a non-traditional art form, yet one steeped in tradition, theory, and practice. Through a collaboration with neighbor Baltimore Jewelry Center, also located in the building, they study jewelry and small metals. They study painting and drawing, printmaking, book arts, and the art of architecture. 

“The classes challenge me and push me out of my box,” says senior Alice Robertson. She’s majoring in history of art and minoring in museums and society as well as visual art. She was surprised to be assigned a 3D installation project in her fiber arts class. “I had never thought to approach fiber arts that way,” she says. Photoshop was a new experience in her digital photography class. She expects it to be indispensable in the museum work she plans for her future. 

Robertson says art classes make her think in new ways. Many of her peers model a more analytical angle than what she’s used to. “It forces you to think in more strategic ways, and being surrounded by people of all majors, you see them approaching projects differently,” she says. 

Teaching how artists work

The goal is always, Murphy says, to teach students how artists work. Classes start with the basics: how to use tools and materials, how to observe. Students explore the role of art in society hand-in-hand with exploring how to decide what to paint, for example, and what makes a painting art. They visit neighboring artists in their studios, and sometimes CVA instructors collaborate with other Krieger School faculty. An art historian joined Murphy in critiquing student artist statements, and a film scholar worked with Murphy on a Painting 1 assignment influenced by the opening credit sequence of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 

“I like to place art not just in history and what you understand about Western art, but what is happening now in the art world. There are so many more voices than just the Western canon, and it’s so important for students to hear and see those other voices because it represents them,” Murphy says. 

“We’re visual artists, but we’re influenced by film. We’re influenced by writing. We’re influenced by sculpture. We’re influenced by photography. Everything is interconnected.” 

Solving Problems

As an undergrad, astrophysicist Fielding found the arts so essential to his development that he spent two years lobbying the physics department to include the introductory drawing class on a list of recommended courses for majors. 

“Quantum mechanics is super nonintuitive and yet you need to have mental pictures to progress,” he says. “There’s something very intimate about making art and doing physics; they feed each other, and I can’t really do one without the other. Art really catapulted my ability to think hard about very abstract thoughts and use my visual thinking to improve my skills in theoretical physics and abstract math.” 

Today, as a Simons Foundation research fellow and Cornell professor, Fielding uses what he learned about color and composition to develop infographics and illustrations to help his audiences understand his theories. 

No research university should be without a vibrant, rigorous arts program, Murphy says. It’s part of developing the brain-hand connection essential to science. It teaches the mind to see things in different ways, and to solve new problems. 

Think on your feet

Murphy is very intentional about giving students problems to solve. “It’s not about making a nice painting. It’s about giving them challenges where they have to think on their feet,” she says. She prods burgeoning artists to consider what to paint, how to arrange it in space, and how to create depth. All of which involves choices about scale, color, and color’s “temperature.” They have to decide what they want their painting to say. That way, they can select a focal point and juxtapose that with the background. 

One assignment is to paint a still life of a lemon and a violet cloth—complementary colors—in a single class period. At first, Murphy says, students panic, but by the end they’ve learned to use observation to be decisive. If something looks dark, you paint it dark. They’ve learned to make those decisions by staying in the moment. “That is applicable in other areas of life,” she says. 

And mistakes are OK, because they’re not really mistakes. Murphy says students usually don’t believe it at first, but mistakes are built in and predictable. “Trust the process.” ■