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Midwest Artist Academy earns statewide recognition for arts education

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Dr. Chiayu Hsu (masked) will return to instruction this year in the discipline of music and composition with the Midwest Artist Academy. Several other instructors also will return to the MAA for 2022, where high school students of dance, writing, visual arts and theater will spend a week learning and creating at UW-Eau Claire.

With only one season of residential camp under its belt, the Midwest Artist Academy hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has earned statewide recognition for outstanding contribution to arts education.

The Wisconsin Art Education Association (WAEA) announced in May that the annual James A. Schwalbach Award for 2022 goes to the Midwest Artist Academy for the “unique and inclusive arts-driven educational opportunities they provide to secondary students across the Midwest.”

Schwalbach, after whom the award is named, earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in art and art education from UW-Madison and joined the faculty there in 1945. He also founded the Wisconsin Rural Art Program in 1945 and helped establish the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association, now called the Association of Wisconsin Artists. Schwalbach was the creator and narrator of the “Let’s Draw” radio series of the Wisconsin School of the Air from 1936-1973.

“We’re very fortunate to be recognized in this way,” says B.J. Hollars, founder of the Midwest Artist Academy (MAA) and associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire. “For me, it’s also really important for the local community to be aware of what we have in our own backyard here for aspiring young artists.”  

The central mission of the MAA is to foster artistic success by creating a supportive and collaborative environment where young artists build trust, friendship and collegiality.

The 2021 inaugural session of the MAA that attracted 50 students came on the heels of a K-12 academic year in which most, if not all, arts learning took place virtually for many school districts. For returning academy visual arts instructor Kathryn Rulien-Bareis, the in-person immersive camp experience was more successful than organizers could have hoped.

“Bringing students together and learning in this format was an inspiring, life-changing experience for students as well as instructors and visiting artists,” Rulien-Bareis said of the weeklong interdisciplinary and collaborative programming.

Building on season one success

B.J. Hollars (photo by Brian Hollars)

B.J. Hollars, associate professor of English and founder of the Midwest Artist Academy

As the MAA prepares to welcome the second cohort of 50 young artists to campus July 10-17, Hollars says that the continuity of last year’s success will be helped by the return of four of the five core faculty instructors and a few returning campers who have come back either to dive deeper into their prior core discipline or enroll in one of the other elements this time around.

“We have about 15%-20% returning campers, and it’s exciting to see some of them — students who really excelled in their discipline last year — make the choice to apply for a different focus this year,” Hollars says. “With no bias toward returners, those applications showed them to be equally qualified in an entirely different field as well. There is just a lot of overall talent; it’s exciting.”

In a recent Zoom call for incoming campers and staff, Hollars says it was evident that the input from those previous students and returning staff will help to make little tweaks to schedule and programming that will make year two even better.

“The returning students had some useful insight about how things flow throughout the days, things that didn’t work so well in a certain process, and I could see them stepping up into leadership roles in just that first discussion,” Hollars says. “That was great to see.”

The five disciplines and instructors for 2022 are:

  • Creative writing with Maggie Pahos, a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon.
  • Theater with Arthur Grothe, artistic director and associate professor of theatre arts at UW-Eau Claire.
  • Dance with Tara Lynn Steele, New York-based professional dancer and choreographer.
  • Music and composition with Dr. Chiayu Hsu, associate professor of music and composition at UW-Eau Claire.
  • Visual art with Kathryn Rulien-Bareis, retired Eau Claire Area School District art educator and past director of the middle school level division of the National Art Education Association.

Hollars says that the general format and schedule for the MAA will remain the same as last year, with morning sessions for 10 students with their main instructors, afternoon guest artists for all students together, as well as collaboration time working on the final showcase to take place on the last evening, July 16.

“We found that the overall plan last year worked out incredibly well, but we’ve made a few changes,” Hollars says. “One exciting addition will be a one-hour talent show at River Prairie on July 13, so we will be on the outdoor stage before a later event and show the community the talent of all these young artists.”

Both that Wednesday event and the Saturday night showcase on campus will be free and open to the public.

“Of course, we have no idea yet what that final showcase will look like — the students create that start to finish, but we know it will be a wonderful way to present the artistic work built on throughout the week,” Hollars says.

A second big change in the programming Hollars points out is the drop from two visiting artists each afternoon to just one.

“It got to be a challenge to press through two visiting artist sessions each day, so we’ve moved to a longer session with one guest each day,” he says.

The slate of talented guests for 2022 includes:

  • Pamela Schuller, comedian, speaker and disability advocate.
  • Michael Perry, author, humorist, playwright and musician.
  • CV Peterson, visual artist.
  • Andy Immerman, DJ, audio engineer, visual artist.
  • Serena Wagner, graphic designer, illustrator.
  • Sara Elstran, musical artist.
  • Erik Elstran, filmmaker.

Blugold student interns are key

Along with returning faculty instructors and a few repeat campers, the MAA is welcoming back UW-Eau Claire students in assistant roles with each of the five disciplines.

kids outside at Midwest Artist Academy 2021

Returning college assistant Avery Benson (center) is shown here with her 2021 cohort of creative writing students at the Midwest Artist Academy.

It’s not only the additional “hands on deck” in facilitating a busy weeklong schedule that these students offer, Hollars says, but it’s the very embodiment of what it looks like to study the arts in college that serves as a major inspiration to high school students pondering their own potential paths in higher education.

“We have a nice mix of returning mentors and a few new ones as well — that’s the beauty of hosting this experience on a university campus,” he says. “As student mentors graduate and move on, while it’s sad to lose their talent and energy, there are always more Blugolds to fill those shoes and contribute to the growth of our young artists.”

One of those returning mentors this year is Blugold Avery Benson, a May 2022 graduate in creative writing from Mount Horeb. Benson says the decision to pursue her passion for writing was a life-changing choice, and she deeply values the chance to help other young students see how their own passions for the arts can play into their futures, in or outside of college.

“I firmly believe that art in any form can touch and affect people in ways that can't fully be spoken but is deeply felt,” Benson says. “This power of art inspires people to make change for themselves and others, to grow, to heal and so much more.”

While Benson says that she generally sticks with short stories and poetry for her personal artistic outputs, seeing the collaborations among theater, vocal music, music composition, dance and visual artists is extremely rewarding.

“MAA embodies the best in all these types of artistic expression, but at its center it is about encouraging students to embrace themselves fully and be inspired to see their passion as both valuable and purposeful,” she says. “I am fascinated by the idea of influencing students in a way that allows them to see how their passions can become their profession and open doors to endless opportunities.”

An anchor for the creative community

While the focus of the MAA is supporting and fostering growth for young artists, Hollars emphasizes that the Eau Claire area community stands to gain valuable future assets as well through the work of the MAA team and student campers.

“What I hope to make clear to the university, area organizations and businesses is that the Midwest Artist Academy has the potential to be a valuable recruitment opportunity. And that’s not just for UW-Eau Claire but for the community at large to bring together some of the most talented young artists around in efforts to grow our creative economy,” Hollars says.

“The more we invest in these young people now, the more it will pay off for regional arts in the future. Throughout the camp session, our connection to and interaction with area artists and venues like Pablo Center at the Confluence, River Prairie and others will demonstrate to these kids that Eau Claire is a place for serious artists to thrive.”