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Midwest Artist Academy leaves magical impression on participants

| Denise Olson (story); Glen Mabie (video)

B.J. Hollars (photo by Brian Hollars)

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

Two years ago, local author and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire associate professor B.J. Hollars had a question:

What would happen if 50 teens with diverse artistic interests and talents came together for a weeklong experience on a college campus, received professional collegiate-level instruction and were left to then create a collaborative performance showcasing their work?

Apparently, magic is what happens.

At least that was the outcome at the inaugural Midwest Artist Academy hosted at UW-Eau Claire July 11-18, a residential camp for students in each of the major artistic disciplines of music, visual art, dance, creative writing and theater.

Hollars, a creative writing instructor at UW-Eau Claire and founder of the Midwest Artist Academy, says the inaugural session not only went well, but the cohort of young artists blew his expectations “out of the water” in every possible way.

“You spend a couple years trying to dream something and plan something, but you never quite know how it’s going to turn out in the end,” Hollars says. “I had no doubt the final show would be a stunning success. Regardless of the performance, however, what makes me proudest is knowing that these students left this place knowing the value of working together in a common artistic cause. That electricity will power them forward in the pursuit of their art.”

The reviews are in, and it appears that Hollars and the Midwest Artist Academy team of instructors have a hugely successful camp on their hands. As thoughts already spring ahead to 2022, young artists have their eyes on this transformational opportunity to learn and grow as creatives in the idyllic community setting the academy offers.

It’s like 'Camp Rock' for all types of art

For recent Eau Claire Memorial High School graduate Fabian Nunez, the decision to enroll in the inaugural Midwest Artist Academy was an easy one. New to acting with just a few shows under his belt, Nunez saw the new resident arts camp as the best way to hone his acting skills and incorporate his love of music as well, all while taking in his first-ever resident summer camp experience.

“This is my first formal instruction in theater, and it’s been great to meet new people, learn new skills and just try to improve every day,” Nunez says of the focused lessons with UW-Eau Claire faculty and student interns. “My background is mostly in music, but acting has come naturally. It’s something that I just need to put my focus into, getting in character or even improv; it’s a lot of fun.”

Nunez had another factor influencing his enrollment in the Midwest Artist Academy — a good friend who enrolled in the music courses of the camp. He says that collaborating with the students in all the other art forms has been powerful.

“Writing music, music journalism, really any kind of collaboration like this is exciting — this camp is a preparation for work in arts of all kinds,” he says. “It’s a bunch of young artists, these connections are cool and hopefully they last into our adulthood.”

A focus on collaboration and freedom of expression

Students playing music outside Haas Fine Arts

Music campers collaborated with students in other elements to create music to complement the various features of the final showcase event which traveled across campus via the footbridge.

In planning a full week of residential camp, Hollars and the instructors knew that in addition to the daily hours of high-quality instruction, campers would look forward to noninstructional activities to both get to know one another and to explore their personal ways to build and express their art forms.

A sentiment that echoed through all the campers interviewed and observed by the Midwest Artist Academy staff is that the most treasured times of the week were the free-flowing, impromptu sessions of simply sharing their art in groups each day and evening.

For Kate Golat, an Altoona High School senior, just exchanging ideas and passion for the arts with a peer group in an open format has been life-changing.

“I’ve been talking with people about it all day, just how inspired and impressed I am with every single person here,” she says of her fellow campers. “I’ve been able to walk up to any single one of them and spark such interesting conversations about how they got here and what they want to do with their life.

“We had a casual talent show the other night and I was blown away; some of them made me cry,” Golat says. “Because everyone here is my age, it’s been such a revelation to see that I’m surrounded by so much talent and so much passion. It feels like I kind of belong. It’s really great.”

That very sense of belonging and support for one another was the dream at the heart of Hollars’ purpose in establishing the Midwest Artist Academy, and even he has been surprised at how deeply the first cohort of campers has embraced those themes.

“No matter who performed, every student received a standing ovation every time. The staff didn’t institute this wonderful practice, the students did,” Hollars says. “Their commitment to the collective was inspiring. Every night during our staff meeting, the instructors and I would simply marvel at all that we learned from them throughout the day.”   

The big finish — shining together as one

Art students in art studio classroom

Longtime Eau Claire Area School District art teacher Kathy Rulien-Baries instructed visual arts campers in interesting new media like resin designs to create lanterns for the showcase and pendants for all the campers to take home. (Photo: Shane Opatz)

The purpose of the collaborative showcase event, according to Hollars, was to show the students new ways of seeing their own art form through the lenses of the others, and sophomore visual art camper Cassidy Gray from New Lenox, Illinois, grew new appreciation for that concept over the course of her week.

“I’m here for visual arts but I’m also interested in theater and writing,” Gray says, “I had never really considered how they all could work together, but now I can see that visual art and writing is everywhere, like billboards and books, and you see dance and hear music in movies and theater — everything plays together, and I think that’s really cool.”  

“Our showcase, which the students titled ‘e[ART]h’ was the culmination of our week,” Hollars says. “This student-led performance was composed of collaborations between five artistic disciplines to provide a narrative exploration of the five Chinese elements: metal, fire, water, wood and earth. This traveling experience started on the Haas Fine Arts Center side of the campus footbridge, incorporated the span of the bridge itself and then employed the campus fountain, an outdoor classroom and other outdoor spaces to tell a larger story.”

Creative writing camp instructor and published author Maggie Pahos watched with awe as the groups of students struggled and grew through this shared process of developing the showcase.

“It's incredible what these young artists made happen in the 148 hours between the start of the academy and the showcase,” Pahos says. “They went from being total strangers on Sunday to making nothing short of magic — a legitimate, thought-provoking, gorgeous, multidimensional artistic showcase on Saturday. That is so remarkable and impressive to me.”

When asked how she might describe the Midwest Artist Academy to interested high school students, junior Kaylie Grotjahn of Eau Claire had a summary remark that Hollars and his staff could not have scripted better if they tried.

“I know that many people my age don’t really like expressing themselves completely; maybe they don’t like all of themselves or they’d like to change things about themselves,” Grotjahn says. “I just want them to know that this place is perfect, there is no such thing as a box here. It’s free reign to be who you are.”

To check out more of the week’s events and activities at the Midwest Artist Academy, you can follow the Midwest Artist Academy Facebook page, where you will also find information next spring for 2022 applications.